I saw Wolf of Wall Street in theaters because somehow I thought I’d heard someone say it was good, which I hadn’t, and I felt like I needed to see it, which I didn’t.
As so many have already pointed out, the movie sold itself as some sort of grand insight into American greed and wealth obsession, with a huge sweeping statement crafted by excellent satire and great direction. In reality, it was a three-hour grin at being a terrible person, and almost no one involved with it seemed to mind. I spent most of the movie throwing popcorn at the twenty-something guy in front of me every time he laughed at a rape joke or a finance joke or basically any joke, and eventually became the eighth person in the theater to walk out.
It did make me think about another movie about American greed and wealth obsession, though, one that really did have a huge sweeping statement crafted by excellent satire and great direction, which was Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring. I saw it in theaters, too, the first week it came out, after brushing up on the canon on which it was based, E!’s “Pretty Wild,” for the second or third time. And I remember being a little annoyed that while the movie certainly had favorable reviews, it seemed to be more or less dismissed after it left theaters, and ultimately ignored during awards season.
Both movies are based on similar true stories: characters taken over by greed and consumption break laws and go to jail; the viewer is left to decide who was right and who was wrong. Nothing ever changes and America keeps going. In my particular worldview, the celebrity-obsessed world of the Bling Ring was far more accessible than the high-stakes stockbroker lifestyle of Stratton Oakmont, and I doubt I’m alone in that.
The number of Americans who have been interested in celebrity gossip versus those who have been bankers is at least seventy-five percent higher, and almost totally overlapping, if all the bankers are being honest. And while it’s easy to maintain that all this pocket of terrible stuff bankers have done is far more important and serious than this other pocket of terrible stuff teens have done, it’s impossible to separate the latter from our wider culture, which makes its story just as worth telling as the bankers’.
It was dismissed, obviously, because it was about a bunch of teenage girls and one gay teenage boy, and unless you make it absolutely clear that you’re putting those sorts of characters into a drama worth really contemplating -- Blue is the Warmest Color, for example, leaves no room for discussion that it’s a Serious Movie -- a cast like that is always in danger of being written off. So while both movies walked the line of total absurdity and real cultural criticism, only Wolf got the honor of also being an insightful look at the grave struggles of being taken over by the dream of money and power.
There’s a constant trope in entertainment of a man being seduced by a younger woman, or an “inappropriately sexual” student, which, from Lolita to Palo Alto, we’re expected to see as a struggle, an internal debate, an awkward and sensitive position for the man to be in, and an interesting angle to explore.
When the same experience is reversed, with a younger man attempting to seduce an older woman, the scenario is almost always played for laughs. The woman denies him immediately, usually with a great one-liner, or, if she goes through with it, walks it off and is totally fine. Gender and Sexuality 101 aside, the business of making the male experience more important than the female experience, or the white experience more important than the person of color experience, has always been at the forefront of our cultural landscape. And it’s tired.
Being a spoiled brat obsessed with shoes and celebrities and fame is a vapid way to live and waste of time to study; being a spoiled stockbroker becomes a legendary view into what our world is like. Neither Wolf’s nor Bling Ring’s worlds are sustainable worlds, in which the average person could live. But the audience of Wolf is assumed to aspire to at least some version of Jordan Belfort’s life. The steady job, the quality pay, a family and a few “basic luxuries.”
If the viewer can see him or herself in that realm, the jump to coked out prostitutes and highly illegal money exchanges doesn’t feel so far away, and maybe even plausible. It’s right there, after all, and it almost makes sense that he would go after it. Balfort’s character becomes more like us, less of a villain, more of a misunderstood Icarus. Alexis Neiers of The Bling Ring, meanwhile, remains below us. We could never be so flippant, so shallow.
When I was in high school and terrible, I prided myself, like so many other misguided teenagers, on being “not like other girls,” or, more specifically, more like a guy. I could be present like a guy, I had guy interests, I had guy humor. I never put it this way, thankfully -- I always felt that I was alone and unique in these traits, which is almost as embarrassing. But I knew that I was beyond what was considered to be feminine, and it felt good.
Later, obviously, I would realize that being “beyond feminine” wasn’t being beyond feminine at all. All the things I was seeing in my self -- a sense of humor, a diverse set of interests, an ability to take up space -- were just skills I saw as advanced. I saw them mainly in men because I was surrounded by men who were allowed to express as many parts of their personality as they wanted, while women who were encouraged to eventually meld into the same three or four types of people.
The result was typical: I felt good and accomplished when I denied what I saw to be womanly, more respected when I seemed more like a man. I was the only person like me who got it, and therefore better than those who didn't understand that we had to get to get rid of those parts in ourselves. I was ahead of them.
Patriarchy is constantly telling us: catch up to us. It's not hard. We did it ourselves. But of course they didn't at all. They're playing in a field where they're right at home, where everything makes sense, where everyone feels the same things and grows the same way, because they created it that way, and made sure no one else was allowed in.
The Wolf of Wall Street was a large step back; its awards and accolades were a few more. But it would be wrong to pretend that the movie’s attitude is still thriving outside of menswear blogs and fraternity houses. We are accepting, now more than ever in at least my short lifetime, that more than one type of person’s story can be told.
The only thing we can ask is for the fast-shrinking group of people who still find the tale of the bold white man to be the most thrilling and relatable one available to maybe sit down, just for a few years or decades, and try to come up with something more interesting.