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Wolf and the Accusations of Presumed Misogyny

Welcome to 2013 when every tiny detail in a film is scrubbed clean of any ambiguity — because if anything is left in doubt it might be misinterpreted and then what does that say about the film? What does it say about the film’s director? What does it say about society? Because our films are, perhaps, the new gathering place where church used to be, there is this continual application of political correctness and morality.

While I think in some cases that is to the benefit of art and artists, sometimes it feels like these arguments puff up just because there’s Twitter.  Or Tumblr. Or Facebook.  Content, traffic, attention. Everyone is watching each other watch a movie.

When Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary Wolf of Wall Street dares to tell the truth about not just the kind of men who play that game, but the layer of society that condones and celebrates it, suddenly Scorsese and Terence Winter are devoid of common decency, wanting only to celebrate the behavior depicted on film. Scorsese’s intention? What of DiCaprio’s? He endorsed Jordan Belfort in a video that keeps making the rounds as if to — what, prove that DiCaprio felt sympathetic towards Belfort? Come on, really people?  When did this become the norm? When did the chattering class, the Twitterverse, lose its ability to tell the difference between portraying and condoning?

The accusations of misogyny have not just sprung on Twitter, but have found their way into film reviews. It isn’t just that there are sex workers parading around, or women treated as sex objects — it’s that, supposedly, the movie encourages the audience to laugh at Naomi (Margo Robbie) when she’s caught with her legs spread apart by a security camera. Here’s the thing — that WAS funny. People were right to laugh. It isn’t as though she was dropping her robe and giving herself to her husband and was caught in a vulnerable position and then laughed at — she was playing a game of one-upmanship with her husband by taunting him. It is one of the best scenes in the movie because it not only depicts the “power of pussy” to bring a man to his knees, but it also shows how she gives it right back to him.  She fights him, toys with him, attempts to keep their relationship together.  It was a game of cat and mouse, that scene, and this time, Naomi lost.

That isn’t misogyny. But for one line she has when she says “you married me,” as if to say, yeah, I’m a trophy wife and you married that — the audience is always on Naomi’s side.  But, it’s worth noting, the audience is actually on the side of the first wife, the film’s only moral center (besides Kyle Chandler).  When Leo dumps her to marry Naomi it is not unlike when Jake LaMotta does the same to marry Vicky. Both of these men pay for that and by the end that choice is seen as one of their tragic flaws.  But the women aren’t the ones who leave the film looking bad. The men are.

One of the problems with women and minorities in film is that we have become so sensitive to how they are portrayed we can really only allow for one kind of dimension. That robs women, and minorities, of the privilege to play complex, complicated — maybe not all that likable — of characters.  We want to replace reality with what SHOULD-BE in our culture, even at the expense of great writing, memorable art.

The reception of Wolf, in this regard, can be piggy-backed on Zero Dark Thirty last year. The line between fiction and reality was blurred and interpreted in both films. Yet what those films ultimately say — what truths they deliver, how they play out the final moments of the film, seems to have doomed them to sink under the pressure of non-fiction.  Did Jordan Belfort pay for his crimes? No. Not really. Did he regret what he did? Sure. Does that matter? Nope. Did any of those billionaires on Wall Street pay? They got bonuses last I heard.

How sad to see smart people engage in the pile-on this year, and last — with Zero Dark Thirty. I was one of them.  I don’t know what it is in us that causes us to have fits about things that really don’t matter.  In one year’s time no one will remember the “controversy” that hit The Wolf of Wall Street. I can guarantee you that. Does anyone remember Zero Dark Thirty’s? The film itself endures, not the hysteria around it.

The only part of the definition of misogyny that has any business being discussed with regard to Wolf of Wall Street is the “objectification of women as sex objects.” Gay men are called the “f” word by shallow loser assholes, and women are paid for sex by same.   This is not a movie that is supposed to make us like the characters on screen.

Misogyny is everywhere in Hollywood. Whenever you read the complaints about the roster of older actresses dominating the Best Actress category, when you look at the slate of films up for Best Picture this year and last, when you look at the majority of films getting made at all women are treated like they don’t matter.  I didn’t see that women didn’t matter in The Wolf of Wall Street. I saw a sexy woman in her 60s kissing Leonardo DiCaprio.  I saw two smart wives confronting DiCaprio as if they actually had thinking brains. Huh. Imagine that.  I saw one of the Wall Street hot shots being, oh my god no, a woman.  I saw a lot of naked sex workers too. I saw a lot of naked men falling down with their asses hanging in the air. I saw a culture exposed.  What I didn’t see was a filmmaker’s, or a writer’s intent to hate women in particular.

What is worse is how women in MOST HOLLYWOOD FILMS and in the Oscar race in particular serve one purpose — to help men achieve their happiness.  Look at Silver Linings Playbook last year. Look at Argo last year.  What movie got the brunt of the outrage last year? Zero Dark Thirty, which was the only film that starred an actual adult female.  And Lincoln, which happened to have one of the best written female characters in any film last year.

Misogyny, like racism, is a powerful obstacle in Hollywood. These arguments are distractions to take our eye off what is really going on.  If a film is being made about misogynists you have to show misogyny.  Does that mean Scorsese, whose main character in his film Hugo WAS a young woman, Scorsese who directed New York, New York, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Cape Fear, and Goodfellas is a misogynist?

As a woman and a feminist I am annoyed by this kind of unwarranted hysteria. Women are people too. We are just as smart and capable of appreciating great filmmaking when we see it.  Many of us are relieved, in fact, to see a filmmaker so utterly nail a ubiquitous personality type, the kind of ideas you see every day in comment sections.  Our culture supports what is lampooned in Wolf of Wall Street only we hide it behind pretty pictures and movies that don’t fully commit to exposing its ills.  Not all of us women put our own outrage above that kind of artistic statement.

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35 Comments

  1. December 31, 2013

    Yeah you know it’s pretty amazing when they throw around “misogyny”. It’s usually about films or directors I like quite a bit. I couldn’t get AD to work last night so I was clicking around youtube and I came across this old interview with Brian De Palma, one of my very favorite directors and king of the supposed misogynists. It was right at the time Scarface was released and he was facing similar backlash. I like what he said at the end. :)

  2. Bob Burns
    December 31, 2013

    with you on Wolf and women and “depiction isn’t agreement”. Honestly do not understand anyone missing Wolf’s disgust with those awful men.

    re: ZD30. If it matters that slavery is depicted accurately, and it does, it matters that torture is, too. In my opinion they were duped and the people who worked for years to get out the truth think so, too.

  3. December 31, 2013

    So about Naomi… (MASSIVE SPOILERS)

    She wormed her way into that party using one dude to get to another. When she and Jordan met, I’m sure there were plenty of naive folks in the audience who saw that as love at first sight. lol That was two people seizing an opportunity. They did not love each other. They used each other for what they needed. He wanted a trophy wife and she wanted his money. That’s an even trade. She’s no better than him. The first wife felt bad about him tricking people into those stocks. Naomi was down with it. She just wanted the money. Don’t be fooled. How fast was she out of there when it was clear he was going to wind up in prison? How fast was she leaving because the lawyer said so? Meaning she’d already been to a lawyer. How fast was she taking his kid away from him? Fast enough that he had to try to kidnap the daughter to stop it from happening.

    But the scene in question was her being caught on camera making herself desirable while also threatening to not let him have any right when it should have been obvious to the viewing audience that she was that close to being kicked to the curb. She knew she was in immediate danger of losing the lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed. So she shoved her vagina in his sex addicted face to distract him. She might as well have drugged him.

    Oh yeah, poor shrinking violet Naomi. lololol

  4. Radich
    December 31, 2013

    When did the chattering class, the Twitterverse, lose its ability to tell the difference between portraying and condoning?

    I haven’t seen WOWS yet; however, what you say here is what bothers me the most about some in the general audience and so called critics nowadays. Is it really THAT difficult to understand the difference? :/

    Well, as it seems, it was a great year in film. Hope we will have the same luck in 2014.

    Happy New Year!!!!! :)

  5. Christophe
    December 31, 2013

    Happy New Year! Long Live Schumacher (Michael that is)!!!

    Capitalism Rocks! After all Scorsese and DiCaprio amassed untold riches thanks to it so it can’t be all that bad!

  6. Unlikely hood
    December 31, 2013

    I am reacting as a friend. I loved WOWS. Great film. Now, here’s how this isn’t helping:

    1.This feels very straw-man. Who is calling WOWS misogynist? (I know AO Scott has been tweeting you to that effect, but to spend 2000 words countering an argument makes the writer look strange without a name or two.)

    2. Everyone remembers the ZDT controversy. Remember who you’re talking to, here. I guarantee YOU everyone will remember this one in a year.

    3. I don’t know that you get to be the “moral center” of a film if you’re in less than a tenth of it. Next you’ll say Beatrice Straight was the moral center of Network. Voice of reason, sure. Greek chorus, maybe. Moral center? That’s some tiny center, there.

    4. You do realize you’re opening yourself up to charges of rank hypocrisy when it comes to misogyny right? This article could have used more examples. Why Spring Breakers isn’t misogynist. Or why it is. Why Adam Sandler movies are or aren’t. What about Margin Call, which certainly didn’t have the female characters you mention? What about the Fast and Furious movies – some producer called their women “eye candy”? But isn’t that a faithful reproduction of car culture? What’s the difference between portraying and wallowing?

    5. Hugo’s lead is female? Come on. You don’t want to be tagged as someone who will defend Scorsese as an artist if he made surveillance videos. When you say that about Hugo, you sound like you’d say anything.

    That’ll do for now. I’m sure I’ll think of more. Remember: I agree with your opinion of the film.

  7. Pepper
    December 31, 2013

    I don’t even care about Argo, but is it fair to critique the film because the women in it serve “one purpose – to help men achieve their happiness”? Clea DuVall’s character was treated basically the same way that Tate Donovan’s character was treated in the film, and perhaps they were serving the ends of the CIA, but they were also serving their own ends in escaping safely. In addition, the actions of the Iranian servant are incredibly brave; she may have been acting to protect her (male and female) bosses but we also get the sense that she has acted out of her own volition because she believes she is doing the right thing.

    The film doesn’t have a great number of female roles, but it is far from misogynistic or minimizing where women are concerned.

  8. John
    December 31, 2013

    Can I just say: so happy to come here and read something like this. The rest of the internet has made me feel filthy/wrong for having enjoyed WOWS. And for what its worth, I think the film wants us to loathe these guys; and so I did.

  9. Sasha Stone
    December 31, 2013

    Pepper, not true. Yes Clea DuVall perhaps but all of the people in charge, all of them, are men. How hard would it have been to write one female character in that movie that had something to do other than bat her eyelashes? I don’t think it’s “misogynist” particularly but give me a break – that is the status quo in how women are portrayed in film.

  10. December 31, 2013

    NAOMI
    So I was a little surprised you asked Cristy for my number.

    JORDAN
    How come?

    NAOMI
    Aren’t you married?

    JORDAN
    Married people can’t have friends?

    NAOMI
    [she gives him a knowing look] We’re not going to be friends.

    ===

    30 minutes later she’s standing nude in front of him.

    I’m with you Antoinette. Naomi is no shrinking violet. She’s a venus flytrap.

  11. phantom
    December 31, 2013

    (Spoilers)

    The weirdest thing about the Wolf controversy is that somehow it gets the ‘it demeans women’ accusation meanwhile simultaneously Hustle gets no badmouthing whatsoever. Not to mention both are about real life con artists stealing their clients’ money, only one of these two criminals gets (at least some sort of a ) punishment in the end meanwhile the other one goes free…and the film getting the backlash is the one ending in a jail ? That doesn’t make sense to me.

    OK now, I won’t deny, to me Wolf was superior in every way, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Hustle because I did, I liked it, I just didn’t love it, mainly because of how once again Russell depicted women. By the way, I do hate backlash for any film, so I’m not trying to start one here, I’m just sharing my highly arguable personal opinion. For the record I have great respect for Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, my problem was not with their performances – both impressive – , it was with the way their characters were written and depicted.

    Sidney’s alterego ‘Edith’ is supposed to be a sophisticated English lady with aristocratic ties and yet when she is in ‘Edith’ mode, she always wore those braless plunging neckline outfits…and in the 70s no less. So I guess what I didn’t get was that if she was supposed to convince their ‘victims’ that she is who she says she is, why did Russell insisted on dressing her for open heart surgery instead of the kind of classy, feminine outfits any regular Joe would expect from a British dame ? There was a reason why the aunt worked out so perfectly for Belfort and co. in Wolf, she oozed the kind of classy sophistication one would expect from an affluent British lady and if you think about it, Lady Edith should have had to pull off something very similar. In Wolf there were hookers who were more covered up than Lady Edith during a business meeting.

    If a woman dressed like that would try to convince me to give her money for an investment, the obviously deliberate distraction would be one giant red flag from the first moment I lay eyes on her. Her wardrobe annoyed me for that reason, it didn’t make sense therefore it felt – at least to me – cheap. A cheap way to appeal to the male demos (the plunging necklines were prominently featured in the marketing campaign, posters, trailers etc.) …and it was too bad because despite problems I had with her character, I still found her the most intriguing part of the whole film.

    What also bothered me that Russell created these two strong female characters and yet it seemed both of these women felt they can only rely on their sexuality when they needed something. Isn’t it bad enough when women are considered to be sex objects by men, now we have to believe that strong-willed women like these two would willingly act like sex objects, too ? Rosalyn tempted his husband and flirted heavily with the enemy, and Sidney seduced their ‘captor’ and wore those ridiculous outfits for business meetings. I get it, they are manipulative, hot women, but wasn’t in their arsenal anything other than flaunting their bodies ?

  12. Pj
    December 31, 2013

    So….let me get this straight….David O. Russell camera lands on Amy Adan’s rear end for less then a second and he is the most evil creepy man of all time but Scorsese has Leo doing coke out of a hookers rear end and he should be celebrated? Or Leo beats up Naomi and endangers his kid and there isn’t anything wrong there? WOW. All the women except for Naomi for a scene or 2, are anonymous topless objects for Leo to grope and bang and do drugs off of and that isn’t misogyny? WHAT!? Are you saying Belfort wasn’t a womanizer with no moral compass!? Huh? Does. not. compute. Maybe all those people saying it glorified excess and debauchery are right if this is “accurate” reading of the film.

  13. December 31, 2013

    Amy Adams wardrobe in AMERICAN HUSTLE actually reminded me of Diana Ross. Didn’t she always wear stuff like that? Anyway, the 70s were a much nakeder time. I think the thing about Irving and Sydney was that they were conpeople lol but they were regular people too. I thought Amy Adams didn’t have to try very hard to convince their victims that she was British. They were taking from normal people as well. How many normal people are experts on how British people speak and dress? Especially back then when we only had three networks and PBS. A slight accent was enough to get them. The stakes only became high when the feds got involved. Otherwise, they were small-timers.

    You can’t use your millenium brain on the 70s anyway. Go back and watch SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and see how empowered those women were. And watch MAHOGANY while you’re at it, because I like giving homework. :)

  14. Pierre de Plume
    December 31, 2013

    phantom, I think Amy Adams’ wardrobe was not just part of the con but exemplified one of the themes – that people believe what they want to believe. In this case and as usual, sex sells (i.e., when the dick gets hard the brain gets soft”).

    Sasha – thanks for writing this. Scorsese I believe will again have the last laugh with this film as he has with so many others of his. The film is magnificent and will outlive whatever sniping is happening at the moment.

  15. phantom
    January 1, 2014

    Fair points from both of you, still, I didn’t think that was the best approach to he character. Then again it was Russel’s vision, he may have had viable reasoms I was simply too lazy to get or look for.

  16. m1
    January 1, 2014

    The weirdest thing about the Wolf controversy is that somehow it gets the ‘it demeans women’ accusation meanwhile simultaneously Hustle gets no badmouthing whatsoever.

    That’s because the Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence characters are actually given strong and interesting voices. Yes, they are objectified throughout the movie, but we are still aware that these characters play a big role in whether or not the men succeed at their plan. Personally. I think this controversy around Wolf is really silly, it shouldn’t be centered around American Hustle either.

    And I know this website isn’t exactly fond of Argo, but calling it misogynistic? Really? Please stop.

  17. Pepper
    January 1, 2014

    If you’re going to ask that question about Argo then it’s only fair to put Scorsese to the same test. Why didn’t Scorsese make Asa’s character in Hugo (the actual lead) a girl? Why didn’t he make one of the leads of The Departed a woman? These questions are rather facetious, but it is worth asking why the women in Hugo are so underdeveloped that the film can’t even meet the Bechdel Test, or why Vera Farmiga’s character in The Departed is basically a powerless plot device. There are plenty of positives about Scorsese; his treatment of his female characters is not among them.

    And I agree with m1 – those women in Hustle are really strong; they drive the entire plot. David O. Russell loves his actresses and his female characters. They interest him a lot more than the men.

  18. January 1, 2014

    American Hustle doesn’t deserve any badmouth regarding the portrayal of its women. They are clearly ahead of the men most of the time, they are the better thinkers and they are the strong ones on whom Bale, Renner and even the doofus Cooper rely on.

    God forbid sexy women are shown as sexy in any movie, regardless of their personality.

  19. January 1, 2014

    Why didn’t Scorsese make Asa’s character in Hugo (the actual lead) a girl?

    Because the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret decided in the title of his book which character he wanted at the center of his story?

  20. m1
    January 1, 2014

    Why didn’t Scorsese make Asa’s character in Hugo (the actual lead) a girl?

    Well, to be fair, the main character in the source material for Hugo is also a boy. I know some directors like to make a lot of changes when adapting books, but this is one that didn’t really need to be made. Besides, the Chloe Grace Moretz character is technically a co-lead. So this doesn’t bother me that much.

  21. austin111
    January 1, 2014

    Thanks Sasha for another interesting analysis. For me, watching Wolf was a fascinating and confusing but utterly memorable experience from the beginning. I kept thinking that this was someone’s bizarro idea of a male fantasy or maybe just a “fantastic delusion” of the main character. It was just so hard to believe. The little film within the film in which the guys were sitting around discussing the dwarf throw was so much like Jonathan Swift satire that I had a hard time getting it out of my head later. Likewise the sex and drugs and other grotesque depictions seemed like something out of a horrible and yet inescapably funny burlesque. I think people going in to see this were expecting a lighter entertainment….DUH! Maybe many just weren’t acquainted with Scorsese’s films, particularly the ones he did more than a decade ago. Who knows? It’s certain that the audiences of today seem much more judgmental and controversy averse but maybe it’s just that the news media in general is more likely than ever to throw water on anything that seems to court controversy. It’s also a fact that the more something is singled out as somehow dark and threatening or unpleasant in some way or other, the more that seems to rule. The voices saying otherwise tend to be drowned out. No one wants to rock the ever leakier boat that we are all now riding. I’m sure there have been scarier moments in our cultural history, but I’m not so sure this has been so incredibly widespread. Frankly, I’m disappointed that some of the film’s biggest critics seem to have sold out to the safe and sentimental, the easier to embrace “all but spelled out” morality of some other films I won’t name. Shouldn’t they be questioning their own critical motives and shouldn’t they be capable of seeing what is absolutely front and center in today’s society and culture? The dumbing down of almost everything around us including them.

  22. JoeS
    January 1, 2014

    Odd thing here is that many of the same folks who accused BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR of ‘misogyny’ are defending WOLF.

    In BLUE there was a perception of a ‘male gaze’ because the camera lingered on Adele’s butt for a second or two too long? In WOLF there is no question that the camera lingers over not just two actresses, but, orgies of them.

    I reject the misogyny accusation for BOTH movies, but, it is ironic that WOLF gets the support of so many who criticized BLUE.

  23. Andrew S
    January 1, 2014

    I think there’s a lot of shaming and reverse bullying going on in our culture – where it’s assumed that if you enjoy a movie that isn’t politically correct, then you are somehow condoning that behavior. Also, if there’s a film that is politically correct or “important” that you don’t like, then you are racist, sexist, a homophobe, etc. I’d love to see more films that aren’t pandering – either in the politically correct way or in the commercial way. There are lots of great films that give women fully-developed characters. The problem is that they are often not high-concept (the exception being something like Gravity) and therefore those films are little seen. The best thing anyone can do is see these films (pay for them if possible) – talk about them, Tweet and Facebook them and change our culture.

  24. Evan
    January 1, 2014

    Thank you for being a voice of reason. Some of the discussion on Wolf has been pretty disheartening, half the time I feel like we didn’t even watch the same film.

  25. Daveylow
    January 1, 2014

    Why aren’t most of the directors of Hollwood films called misogynists since so many of them concentrate on the male characters?

  26. dmso
    January 2, 2014

    “There are plenty of positives about Scorsese; his treatment of his female characters is not among them.”

    Ellen Burstyn says hi (while holding her Best Actress Oscar.)

  27. ubourgeois
    January 2, 2014

    I’ve been saying this for a while. People are so eager to label a film as racist, sexist, etc, and then consequently close the book on it. No discussion needs to be had, if the film had a moment that was uncomfortable to watch as a woman or a person of color, it must be condemned. Now, granted, sometimes this is warranted – there are grossly misogynistic and racist movies still being made, and criticism like that needs to happen. But at the same time, it’s also being doubled back on films that are trying to engage with difficult subjects or with ugly truths. The tumblr-brand of social justice sees no room for reprehensible protagonists or brutal portrayals of evil – it can’t comprehend complexity in media. It wants a hero-protagonist and a villain-antagonist, but maybe the villain can also be likable too. God forbid a film make you uncomfortable.

  28. BUD
    January 4, 2014

    The female characters in American Hustle are more interesting and unquestionably more fleshed out than any female character in WoWS. Scorsese is showing signs of a different generational point of view in his film – David Russell is clearly more sympathetic to his female characters, writes female characters that one has an interest in watching. Would Jennifer Lawrence have any interest in playing the role of the Di Caprio character’s second wife. Not likely.

    I found the Leonardo Dicaprio’s character’s long speeches (diatribes) to his workforce tedious and indulgent – I was seriously clock watching during those scenes. I’m not a critic, I rarely write into these forums but I think it is worth considering why the critics that are calling attention to WoWS. While the main protagonist in WoWS was shown as a man with flaws he was also glamorized and celebrated (in my opinion). While I found the film interesting as a sociological study of the “straight white guy point of view” I thought it was pretty old school, standard, straight, main protagonist character development (not in an interesting way).

  29. Steve
    January 13, 2014

    You mentioned the scene in the nursery with the security camera, saying that it was a game of cat and mouse and “that time” she lost. When did she win?? When did any main female character win? As a “woman and a feminst,” I’m glad you were able to recognize that the scene was showing the “power of the p*ssy” as you so eloquently call it, but it also ends up humiliating her more in the end. That would be fine if it was balanced out later. But the next time she tries to deny her husband sex, he takes it by force anyway (the last time.) Then, when she divorces him (which he deserved in every way, especially after doing the same thing to his first wife,) and he uses his physical advantage to win against her once again. “We are just as smart and capable of appreciating great filmmaking when we see it.” — Are you also “smart and capable” of recognizing that your opinion isn’t fact? So you liked the film. Congrats. That doesn’t make you smarter. It’s just an opinion. I did not like the film, and I did notice a heavy misogynistic undertone that Scorcese could’ve just as easily abandoned while still remaining true to the story. Which is to say, I don’t so much mind the depiction of the hookers, because that is reality, but the subtle story nuances like humiliating, hitting and raping his wife could’ve been left out of the storyboard without hurting the integrity of the story.

  30. Steve
    January 13, 2014

    It just seemed as if to say, “men will always win and dominate in the end, one way or another…either through mental prowess or physical strength or pure luck.” I mean, look, the protrayal of the main character (whose name I’m deliberately leaving out because I don’t want to contribute to his fame,) was entirely too sympathetic. He even gloats that his country club prison sentence, reduced because he was willing to rat on his friends, wasn’t that bad. So in the end, he wins again. Promoting a culture where bad people are rewarded is hardly constructive for society.

  31. Luke
    January 24, 2014

    Here’s my question. Why does it matter so much to women how they are betrayed on film, if they’re so capable and confident in making their own decisions?? Why do you all have to judge characters from different eras, with different lifestyle, based on some modern code of ethics?? Feminist ideals are the best and only way of thinking… despite all of the misandry they spout??

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