By: Heather Seebach
**Warning: The following contains detailed scene descriptions and spoilers. I recommend seeing the film before reading this. Thank you.**
It's no secret that modern America is full of the overly sensitive and the politically correct but has it really gotten so bad that adults cannot recognize hyperbole and satire anymore? Martin Scorsese's latest, The Wolf of Wall Street adapts the same-titled memoir of former stockbroker, Jordan Belfort. It portrays his rise to riches, his hedonistic life of women and drugs, and his inevitable fall. Since its release, the film has been welcomed by audiences, critics, and The Hollywood Foreign Press Association alike; however, many people have harshly criticized the film for allegedly portraying Belfort and his cronies in a positive light, while others loathe what they perceive to be misogyny.
Before I tackle the latter, let's get this out of the way first: there is a giant difference between portraying bad behavior and condoning it. Everything from Shakespeare's plays to Breaking Bad are proof that ill-behaved people make for interesting protagonists. Belfort starts out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on Wall Street and over the course of three hours becomes a sexist, drug-abusing criminal. All the while, he builds an empire on his charm alone.
The over-the-top behavior of Belfort and friends makes it outrageously obvious that these are NOT good people. One prime example of that is during the boardroom discussion of midget-tossing. Sure, it's funny to a point, but when these men start calling the dwarf an "it" and discuss how to tranquilize "it" should eye contact throw it into a rage...well, does anyone still think these are likeable guys?
It's also terribly obvious in the scene where Jordan and his buddies cold call a guy and make fun as they deliberately fuck the poor schmuck over. Belfort mimes the motion of fucking the guy in the ass while the voice on the other line sincerely thanks Jordan. The moment he says, "My wife might divorce me but...okay!" got audible groans from the audience and made my stomach turn. We are all too familiar with these scenarios, and hearing this poor guy's impending life destruction being mocked is just disturbing. With the terrible things he says and does, Jordan is no more glorified than Henry Hill in Goodfellas, another Scorsese film that is very similar in tone. So why do certain viewers have a difficult time realizing this? I theorize it is because of the following two reasons:
1) The crimes portrayed in Wolf are more current and more relatable to the average American. The gangsters often portrayed in Scorsese films are so removed from our lives that it's practically fiction. Stock fraud and Wall Street, however, are all too recent for many Americans.
2) Wolf is missing the intense violence of Goodfellas. The lack of brutality, combined with the outrageous-and-often-undeniably-funny antics of Belfort, make it a generally more pleasant movie-going experience for some...but not me. I found numerous parts of this film profoundly disturbing, which brings us to the aforementioned misogyny allegations.
The first major complaint is that women are portrayed as little more than accessories and sex objects for the leading men. Firstly, I want to reiterate: portraying misogyny does not mean a film is misogynist. There is no denying that this film is full of countless acts of misogyny - everything from humiliation to sexual assault - but each act is portrayed realistically in the context of the characters. Remember: these men are MONSTERS. To them, women are sex objects. Greed and power warp the minds of these once-ordinary men and give them complete contempt for the law and women alike. To them, everything can and should be bought.
Secondly, not every woman is portrayed as a sexual object. Belfort's first wife Teresa is the first voice of reason and morality in the film. Between Matthew McConaughey's coked-up broker character to the Long Island loser hawking penny stocks to other losers, Belfort is surrounded by male idiots. It is his wife that first suggests, "Wouldn't you feel better selling stocks to people who can afford it?"
She is a sweet, supportive wife and gives her husband absolutely no reason to discard her - and yet he does anyway, further proving what an asshole Belfort is. Just listening to him describe how "the smell is gone" as an excuse for his adultery is disgusting. Then when Teresa catches him in the act, does she go after Naomi in some sort of fetishist catfight? Of course not! That is something a misogynist film would do! Instead, we the audience sympathize for this poor girl crying her heart out in front of a Trump Hotel, while her dirtbag husband can't even pretend to say he loves Naomi - the blonde is purely a piece of ass to him. Again, both of these women are not the ones portrayed in a negative light here. It's entirely Jordan Belfort.
That brings me to the Duchess of Bay Ridge herself, Naomi. Let's face it: this girl is gorgeous. Despite what some audience members may automatically assume based on her looks, there is nothing to indicate that this woman is stupid, vapid, slutty, or gold-digging. On her first date with Jordan, he reverts to a dumb-stuck boy, unsure how to get her to fuck him. Naomi is entirely in control here, asking Jordan up for tea and later initiating sex while he fumbles with the fireplace like a child. Then comes their 11-second romp in the sheets, leaving Naomi clearly unsatisfied. Yes, it's funny, but it also echoes the selfishness and perhaps even emasculation of Belfort.
It also echoes the second sex scene between Naomi and Jordan where he forces himself upon her and she declares that she hates him. What begins as a spousal rape scene - and a seriously fucking disturbing one, at that - turns into a moment where Naomi takes control of the situation as much as she can. Rather than let herself continue to be violated, she taunts Jordan into fucking her "like it's the last time" - because it is. Don't get me wrong - it's still rape, but if the film's implication is that Naomi refused to be further victimized, well, I think it's an interesting one. And once again, he delivers the coitus of a selfish man-child but Naomi is in control now. Yes, much like the scene in the nursery, Naomi uses her sexuality as a weapon/defense. Is that not empowering?
What follows is another very disturbing sequence of events as Jordan brutally assaults his wife, kidnaps their infant daughter, and wrecks their car with the child inside. All the while, Naomi handles herself like a strong woman and mother. She is a poor match for a coked-fueled monster like Jordan but she handles her own, even smashing the car window to try and save her daughter. Here is an except about Naomi from an article that accused Wolf of misogyny:
"Even Lapaglia, Belfort’s supposed foil and the love of his life, is portrayed as a sex-crazed gold-digger who immediately dumps Belfort after he is arrested and loses his money. We are meant to perceive the woman in a negative light, since she is abandoning Belfort in his time of need, despite the fact that Belfort continuously cheats on his wife and even abuses her and their children." [source]
I suspect this writer and myself watched entirely different movies because at NO point is it suggested that Naomi dumps him over money or his arrest. And to be frank, if you watched this movie and perceived her in a negative light for "abandoning Jordan", then you - I repeat - YOU are the misogynist.
That is, in fact, a perfect example of what this film does so well - it turns a mirror on the audience. It EXPOSES misogynists. You can pick out the assholes in your theater by who guffawed at the disturbing parts. Thankfully, most of my viewing audience only had shocked gasps or nervous titters but there are accounts like this:
That is seriously fucking disturbing! If the spousal rape or abuse did anything but make you sick to your stomach, you might a misogynist. If the sight of Jordan dry-raping that stewardess did not disgust you, you might be a misogynist. Sorry to get all Jeff Foxworthy on you there, but my point is that this movie's portrayal of disgusting, anti-women acts (not to mention anti-dwarf and anti-average Joe-trying-to-make-a-buck) are intended to invoke a reaction. They are a constant reminder that no matter how funny and charming Belfort may be, he is a pathetic, foul human being.
Another scene I'd like to mention - one that is often cited as misogynistic - is the head-shaving scene. One of the female employees of Stratton Oakmont is offered $10,000 to shave her head - and Jordan insists it's for a boob job. Pretty goddamn awful, right? In a scene that could have been played off quickly like a joke, the camera in fact lingers on the woman, even afterwards as she is embraced and consoled by a co-worker. From a boys' club perspective, those shots would never have happened. Scorsese deliberately includes her humiliated reaction to emphasize how damaging this behavior is. Once again, any viewer who watches that scene and laughs along like the stock brokers only exposes his or herself as a misogynist.
The humiliation and abuse is not limited to women, either. There are scenes where Steve Madden, the employee with the goldfish, and others are verbally abused and have objects thrown at them. The poor gay butler gets his faced smashed before being dangled off a building. These moments actually got more laughs than the scenes involving women. Perhaps because the treatment of women is so reprehensible that the male ones become something of a relief for viewers.
One last moment I want to touch on is Belfort's "goodbye" speech when he plans to cut a deal and leave the company. There occurs the only moment that felt misogynistic to me, though after finishing the film, it bothered me less. Jordan describes the female broker who came to him as a single mother in debt and is now as rich as the rest of them. The implication that Belfort "made" this woman - combined with her tearful "I LOVE you, Jordan!" - did not sit well with me. I kept expecting it to be another fantasy sequence of Jordan's, and who knows, maybe it was an exaggerated version of events inside his own head. It WAS very over-the-top with all the weeping and subsequent cheering. That is just a theory, though.
After the film was over, I came around to that scene more because I realized Jordan giving that woman a break doesn't automatically imply he is responsible for her success. She built herself up just as he did, only she did it in a far more hostile environment. Same goes for Jordan's faithful, potty-mouted secretary who, despite the secretary stereotype, did not office-fuck anyone. I also came to realize that all the women at Stratton-Oakmont were charmed into this disgusting lifestyle just like the men were. They were right there beating their chests and humming along with Jordan, and they were right there when the FBI raided the office. Equality isn't always pretty, folks!
Another major complaint I have heard is that the characters face no real consequences for their actions nor do they have remorse. This is 100% true, only this does not endorse the behavior. The film is an indictment of a broken system where greedy assholes wreck innocent lives and get away with it. The real Jordan Belfort served just under two years in prison and went on to be a published author and motivational speaker. He's a piece of shit, he got a slap on the wrist, and that's fucking life! Should Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter have rewritten history just to appease the sensitive and the politically correct?
|Jordan Belfort circa 2013|
Honestly, I think The Wolf of Wall Street could have been cut down, specifically some of the nonstop debauchery. That is partially to blame for some viewers' discomfort and believing it glorifies said behavior. There also should have been more emphasis on the victims, as well. More so than the women, I would have liked to have seen the financial victims. I definitely got a sickened feeling from that phone call scene, but more would have helped nail it down. Perhaps Scorsese and Winter felt the damages were so recent that it was unnecessary to show it? Anyone old enough to watch this knows what seedy shit these Wall Street guys are up to, but will it still be an issue in the future? Will viewers in 20 years still understand the weight of what Jordan is doing? Time will tell, I suppose.
Even if future audiences do not know the history behind Belfort and assholes like him, the misogynistic acts portrayed in Wolf are universal and timeless. To not recognize the message is a reflection upon the viewer's own issues. Like the wannabe thugs who watch Scarface and idolize the coked-up, murderous protagonist, those people have a problem, not the movie.
In the final shot of the film, we see an eager New Zealand crowd being lured by Belfort's charm. It's both a sad reminder of his freedom and indication of a frightening cycle. Average people are seduced and duped by men like Jordan Belfort every day because, let's face it, who doesn't want to get rich the quick and easy way? Morality is what separates those who want it all from those who would take it all. I suspect the latter are the creepers sitting in a theater laughing ala De Niro in Cape Fear at spousal abuse. So don't beware the movie - beware what is reflects back at you.