"Though you will not wait for me,
I’ll wait for you."
"Patient Love" by Passenger
"Patient Love" by Passenger
The Wife of Wall Street: Or, Why Literally Every Feminist Criticism of this Movie is Woefully Inadequate
The feminist criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street boils down to a couple of succinct points: the women are caricatures, and they are pushed to the margins while male characters enjoy the spotlight. I’m not here to brook any claims to the contrary. These women are caricatures. They are frequently relegated to the background while their husbands and boyfriends and paramours behave badly.
And that is really, really important given the way that Martin Scorsese has chosen to frame this story.
There’s a wider debate raging on about the morality of this movie - does it adequately condemn Wall Street brokers? Is it decrying yachts, mansions, and private jets, or reveling in them? Why do we see so much of Jordan Belfort’s conniving and so little of his victims’ suffering?
The answer is really, really simple: the film isn’t concerned with depicting the consequences of Jordan’s actions outside of his private sphere, precisely because Jordan is not concerned with the consequences of his actions outside of his private sphere. Jordan has no conscience. Jordan accumulates wealth only to destroy it. He earns a year’s salary in one trade. He flings the money, bill by hundred-dollar-bill, off of the side of his yacht. A little later on, he sinks the yacht.
Scorsese doesn’t want to grant us a sobering, sombre peek at the exploited subaltern class; he wants us to watch the upper class cannibalize itself.
This is the genius of Wolf's storytelling. It would be so easy, too easy, to treat the viewer to a bacchanal of gold teeth, Grey Goose, and tripping in the bathroom, and to follow the display with a greyscale portrait of the hardworking poor people Jordan and his ilk cheated of an honest living. We know that Jordan feels no remorse whatsoever for violencing the poor; he describes his exploitation as charity, goes on about how he used his ill-gotten gains to fund one employee’s kid’s college tuition and another’s mother’s life-saving surgery. Because the viewer is standing in for Jordan, watching the story unfold through his eyes, the film is only going to succeed in hitting Jordan where it really hurts: his possessions.
When we first meet Naomi, Jordan’s wife, he is listing her among his spoils; the line is something like, “I make $49 million a year, I have three Ferraris, two horses, a helicopter, a mansion in Long Island, and…” - smash cut to Naomi reclining on a luxe bed in fancy lingerie - “this is Naomi, my wife, former model and Miller Light girl.”
Every feminist criticism of this movie as depicting Naomi as a sex symbol, a trophy wife, a gold digger, etc., is correct, but only because the narrator of this story lists her along with his cars and yachts and horses as a prized possession. By the film’s end, Naomi has completely and utterly exploded out of this narrative, revealing herself as fully human and concerned not with her husband’s welfare, but with her own, and that of her children. It’s only when she starts vocally expressing her displeasure that Jordan’s inner cruelty and ugliness boils to the surface.
See, we, the viewers, know implicitly that Jordan is a cruel, callous villain. But we’re not going to cry about a totalled Ferrari. We’re not going to cry about a sunken yacht. Watching material wealth being destroyed isn’t going to inspire in us the sort of visceral emotional reaction necessary to drive home the film’s thesis.
When Jordan got high and smashed his Ferrari, the entire theatre dissolved into raucous laughter. When Naomi announced her intent to file for divorce, and he responded by raping her, physically assaulting her, and kidnapping their daughter, the theatre was silent. “My wife,” Jordan roars, throughout the arduous, terrifying sequence, “my daughter!” He is literally asserting ownership over the women in his life. The violence inherent in his nature and his occupation is no longer metaphorical, but real, and palpable, and tangible.
The four-year-old daughter’s head lolls back as the Ferrari collides with the brick wall of the Long Island mansion, and the platinum blonde trophy wife screams in anguish, and all of a sudden, we are no longer dealing with pretty baubles of Jordan’s fantasy, but living, breathing human beings.
We were all along, of course; we just didn’t get to see past the periphery of Jordan’s myopic vision until this point.
Essentially, Wolf succeeds as an indictment of misogyny precisely because it caricaturizes its women characters and pushes them to the margins. “This is the mind of the prototypical wealthy white man,” the film says. “Isn’t it a scary place to be?”
Still, we don’t hear the stories of the migrant workers of colour that Jordan and his firm exploit. We don’t hear the stories of the sex workers Jordan and his co-workers abuse. They, too, are on the margins of Jordan’s conscience, but the film doesn’t give them a chance to display their bruises and discuss how misogynistic violence specifically and particularly hurts them.
When all is said and done, the biggest victim of Jordan’s rampant misogyny is a wealthy, beautiful, stick-thin white woman; an easily sympathetic victim. This is as much attributable to Scorsese individually as it is to broad trends within the film industry. It deserves feminist critique and consideration far more than the film deserves to be called misogynistic merely for its wholly unsympathetic depiction of misogynistic male characters.
We need more films like this one, films that paint hallowed bastions of masculinity as pathetic and miserable, films that are unflinching in their critical examination of how men exact misogynistic violence. We also need films that grant credence to a wide variety of women’s experiences. Wolf succeeds on the first two counts, but not quite on the last. And that needs to be the focus of the feminist discussion surrounding both this movie and the film industry as a whole.