Emma Xerri | April 13, 2022
Cover Art by Alexi O’Keefe
Content warning: sex, sexual violence, sexism and misogyny, drug use, ableism
Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street is, as the narrator so eloquently describes his world, “a madhouse. A greed-fest, with equal parts cocaine, testosterone and body fluids.”
The Wolf of Wall Street is renowned for its unwavering status as a film bro favourite. It appears male viewers will be ever ready to fight anyone to the death who claims this movie is too long or suggests that Leonardo DiCaprio was right in not winning the Oscar for this role (a role largely comprised of debauchery, frat pack mentality and disgusting mistreatment of women).
Based on the real-life memoir of the same name, this film navigates the rise and fall of Wall Street stockbroker, Jordan Belfort. The fact that this film is based on a true story terrifies me. Although, this does evoke quite a few questions to consider in order to assess exactly where the problem lies with this film.
Are the movie and its characters the issue?
Is the problem the film bro glorification of it?
Or does the problem lie with Martin Scorsese himself, who chose to use his platform to present such a heinous depiction of masculinity, trusting that his fans and viewers would ultimately glorify and crown him for it?
Whilst, I don’t feel as though the film ever condones the behaviour of Jordan and the other men, I do think the film (and Scorsese) could be doing a hell of a lot more to critique it. Viewers are positioned to find the circumstances and behaviour of Jordan and his frat bros funny. They’re expected to laugh when Jonah Hill’s character, Donnie, loses all motor ability after a dangerous (though regular) stint with drugs. They’re expected to laugh when Jordan surprises his staff with a parade of sex workers on a regular weekday, and then again when Jordan “declare[s] the office a f**k-free zone between the hours of 9 and 7,” as though the animality and virility of these men is just another thing we laugh off and roll our eyes at as we utter “boys will be boys”.
Yes, these characters are criminals and there’s no doubt that they’re presented that way. However, through a contrast between Jordan and his peers, and the film’s FBI agent, Patrick Denham, we see Scorsese presenting an alternative, morally superior way for men to behave. Denham is the first male character to appear even slightly uncomfortable by the constant parade of naked women, and appears to be mocked and belittled by Jordan for doing so. Even still, Jordan asserts himself as the dominant one in their shared scenarios, making himself the more likeable and light-hearted player in the game, whilst Denham is made to appear uptight and, well, less ‘fun.’ However, for these men, ‘fun’ of course means debauchery and sexual violence, so I’d say it isn’t actually ‘fun’ for all involved.
But to be fair, the film started off okay. I mean, nothing says green flag like a film that opens with a bunch of white men throwing a dwarf at a wall for entertainment, right? When discussing this occurrence later, Jordan only further cements himself and his friends as the golden standard for manhood and morality, as he says, “I’m gonna throw the sh*t out of this little f*cking thing,” which is followed by his co-worker remarking, “If we don’t consider him a human, we just consider it an act, I think we’re in the clear.”
Moreover, you know the film’s off to a great start when the first instance in which we see a female character is faceless in the front seat of Jordan’s white Lamborghini performing fellatio. We later learn that this woman is Jordan’s second wife, Naomi, played by Margot Robbie. Our introduction to Naomi reduces her to the most reductive qualities of her character, described by Jordan, simply, as “a former model and Miller Lite girl.” It only becomes more apparent in this scene that Robbie’s character serves to satisfy the male gaze when Jordan breaks the fourth wall, telling viewers to “put [their] d*ck back in [their] pants.”
And to think there were girls in my grade watching this movie on their laptops during health class. The shame.
Not only is the depiction of women as objects of the male gaze disgustingly obvious, but the women in this film also have the delightful additional role of helping men get through their most basic tasks and responsibilities. Mark Hanna, played by Matthew McConaughey asks, “how the f*ck else would you do this job? Cocaine and hookers, my friend.” Quotes like this are of course always accompanied with graphic nude and sexual scenes, in which men are on the power trip of their dreams, using and abusing these women in whichever way they see fit and almost high fiving one another for it.
This passage, said by none other than Jordan Belfort, perfectly (though tragically) encapsulates the way these men view female sex workers:
“At Stratton, there were three kinds of hookers. The blue chips, top of the line, model material. They cost between $300 and $500, and you had to wear a condom unless you gave them a hefty tip, which of course I always did. Then came the NASDAQs, who were pretty, not great. They cost between $200 and $300. Finally, there were the pink sheets. Skanks. They cost about $100 or less. If you didn’t wear a condom, you had to get a penicillin shot the next day and pray your d*ck didn’t fall off. Not that we didn’t f*ck them too, believe me we did.”
However, you’re sorely mistaken if you think such treatment is extended only to sex workers in the film. No, the female staff at Jordan’s financial firm Stratton Oakmont are blessed with the same privilege. Because really ladies, why wouldn’t you want your boss excitedly announcing to your entire office that you’re planning (promised) to get breast implants, as they all cheer like a troop of gorillas? Or perhaps you’d prefer the experience of Pam, another office worker, who “blew every single guy in the office,” and was fortunate enough to be handpicked by the most terrifying duo in all of New York, Jordan and Donnie, who “double team[ed] her on a Saturday afternoon while [their] wives were out shopping for Christmas dresses.”
It is because of this that one of my favourite scenes in the film is the one in which Jordan’s first wife, Teresa, slaps him silly. Truly one of the most cathartic viewing experiences. Teresa is the only female character in the film who isn’t sexually objectified on screen. Rather, she plays a more modest housewife role, fortunate enough to experience Jordan pre-wealth, in which he showers her with gifts and promises her a future which epitomises the American dream of prosperity and riches. However, even though she isn’t sexualised, the treatment of her character left me feeling uncomfortable. She was merely a stepping stone for Jordan to reach a grander life and, in his view, more beautiful women. She is the victim of endless infidelity, and her husband seemingly feels no pang of remorse for her as he shamelessly ‘upgrades’.
Yet, the love and high praise for this movie is quite literally everywhere you look, so I turned to the holy grail of film opinions (however unwanted they may be)—Letterboxd. This was an attempt to prove to myself that I wasn’t alone in the disgust I felt after viewing this film. And alone I certainly was not.
Men and women alike took to their Letterboxd diaries to express their immense discomfort with the movie’s hideous portrayal of women (and men).
“It is a film with bad people doing terrible things for three butt-numbing hours. It is a film that asks its audience to laugh at gratuitous and dangerous drug use. It is a film that asks its audience to be entertained by the degradation of women. (Every woman in the film is portrayed as an object.) It is a film that asks its audience to take delight in one man’s conniving ways that hurt people. I could not accept what the film asked of me. I was repulsed by everything about it, especially its men’s locker room tone and humour.”
“Martin Scorsese’s entry into the canon of epic sexism. It’s a movie which portrays women like nothing more than nonentities, and it’s unimaginable to discern any emotion other than an intense dislike for Belfort and his entourage.”
So, to give this movie any more than a half Greta rating out of 5 would be to completely disregard my own dignity and the dignity of all women. Whilst I believe the male characters in this film are the worst that masculinity has to offer, I do believe more can be said for the film bros that glorify the film despite its heinous depiction of women. It truly is a shame that young men in our society, and men like Scorsese, have the influence to advance films like these to the tops of our ‘must watch’ lists. Do these men feel pressured to enjoy and celebrate films like this, films made by Martin Scorsese and his buddies, or is this merely a failing on the parts of men to see how their celebration of a character like Jordan perpetuates gendered sexual violence? Scorsese viewing Jordan’s story as one worthy of being told also speaks volumes, and not in a way that completely obliterates Jordan and his actions. Whilst we are shown the downfall of Jordan’s career, it appears this is largely on his terms, and even so, the film concludes with him back in a position of power, poisoning the next generation of wall street brokers with his corrupt ideals and money hungry agenda. In no way does Scorsese conclude the film with a message of warning or critique, despite his power to do so.
Unfortunately, it seems that the responsibility of subverting the views and tastes of film bros may lie in the hands of men like Scorsese. Film bros have reached a whole new level of scary with this one, and to sum it all up with this Letterboxd review I stumbled across: “if a guy says this is his favourite movie… immediately run girlie”.