Is a Vote for Leo’s “Wolf of Wall Street” a Vote for Sexism?

The campaign to assure Leonardo DiCaprio of his first Academy Award has filled many a full page in The New York Times and Variety. The ads laud his all-out portrayal of stock hustler Jordan Belfort, framing The Wolf of Wall Street as a modern financial morality tale and DiCaprio as its coked-up bard.

But the Oscar push that culminates this Sunday night has been deeply misguided. The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t really about money or greed or the broken American financial system.

It’s about gender.

Martin Scorsese used the convenient cover of the public distrust of Wall Street institutions to sneakily deliver a lowbrow bacchanal that doesn’t rise to the level of Caligula, the 1979 film it clearly sought to emulate. Yet, Tinto Brass produced better social commentary. Worse, Bob Guccione had more respect for women. And Caligula had better acting.

The relentless, endless, repetitive, underlying message of Scorcese’s Wolf is simple and brutal: women are commodities to be bought and sold.

In an era in which feminist civil rights ideals of equality and opportunity are on the rise and idiotic public statements about rape and sexual violence will cost even a Republican Congressman a public apology (or his job), Wolf is a stunningly retrograde document that knowingly celebrates a cast of violent and hateful characters who Scorsese undoubtedly thinks of as interesting, picaresque rogues. Who they really are, led by Leo DiCaprio’s vain, loin-driven portrayal of Belfort, debases any Oscar campaign, and renders any vote for DiCaprio as a vote for rank sexism and human trafficking.

Does Leo DiCaprio believes it’s OK to wander through the various post-orgiastic tableaus—and there are many in the numbingly lengthy Wolf—habitually and creepily squeezing random female breasts among the sleeping women in his path? If so, then he undoubtedly believes it’s fine that the man he portrays copped a cheap feel at another time and place. The transaction seems the same—though in this case, Martin Scorcese directed him to do so.

And does DiCaprio thinks it’s okay to snort fake cocaine from the anus of a young female actor on Martin Scorcese’s set because she’s willing and being paid for it (this is the actual opening scene of the movie)? If so, he undoubtedly believes it’s OK that another woman in the time and place the film portrays may have done the same thing with real drugs. The transaction seems the same… well, except for the humiliating presence of the film crew and millions of people in the audience, of course.

Some will argue this is cinema verité: painful perhaps, offensive certainly, but crucial to an accurate telling of the story. They are wrong. It is cinema fantastique, emanating as it does from the mind of the artist rather than plausible reality. This is an aging filmmaker’s final paean to his adolescent fantasies—if that filmmaker’s fantasies ran toward sexual violence, that is. And it’s a prominent actor’s descent into desperation disguised as acting, with a willingness to use women as fleshy props in pursuit of the golden statue.

The most damning proof of DiCaprio’s admiration for Jordan Belfort, and thus, perhaps, his endorsement for the life he portrays in Wolf—comes from his own lips, in a sickening sales video that endorses the convicted felon’s comeback as a self-help guru. Says DiCaprio:

“I have been in his company many times, but there is nothing quite like Jordan’s public speaking, and his ability to train and empower young entrepreneurs. Jordan stands as a shining example of the transformative qualities of ambition and hard work, and in that regard, he is a true motivator.”

In 1971, Pauline Kael wrote perhaps the definitive view of explicit sex breaking into mainstream cinema when she said of Last Tango In Paris:

“It is a movie you can’t get out of your system, and I think it will make some people very angry and disgust others.”

Four decades on, there is no shock value to the images in Wolf of Wall Street, and unlike Tango, there is no illumination to the relationships portrayed, either. As Stephanie Zacharek wrote in a scathing Village Voice review,

“Long after we’ve gotten the picture, Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto are still presenting each new, depraved revelation as if it were an infant water-nymph on a lily pad, a thing of wonder they’d never seen before.”

Because there are no real relationships portrayed. In the Scorcese-DiCaprio Wolf world there is no Maria Schneider who, as Kael memorably wrote of the actor in Last Tango, portrayed “the whole history of movie passion.” There is only the asymmetrical frame of women bought and sold, and used as props. “One hour of that boorishness would be more than enough; by the end of the second, you might be wondering if anyone, including Scorsese, is ever going to call these guys on their self-absorbed idiocy,” writes Zacharek.

In labeling Wolf as the “year’s most misogynist blockbuster,” a charge that holds up, I think, Bustle’s Erin Landau notes that the male fantasy created by Scorcese and portrayed with gusto by DiCaprio is never leavened with judgment,or even mild disapproval:

“The amount of nudity and sex scenes force the women of Wolf of Wall Street into categories, stereotyping them instead of creating thoughtful and dynamic characters that are allowed to break out of their spheres to truly influence the tide of the film. Yet perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this distinct lack of strong female characters is the fact that no one seems to have cared enough to stop laughing and start thinking. In the theater, people clapped and cheered for Belfort’s debauchery, never pausing to really notice the women he used and abused along the way.”

Here’s the thing: Wolf is so long, so pushy, so approving of the behavior on the screen, that it becomes numbing—and you can’t help but believe that both Scorsese and DiCaprio believed on some elemental level that it was actually worth portraying so endlessly. Said David Denby in The New Yorker,

“Scorsese mounts the filthy, piggish behavior on such a grand scale that mere moral disapproval might seem squeamish, unimaginative, frightened. Most of us, after all, wouldn’t dare screw up as badly as Jordan Belfort. The movie has a bullying tone, and you have to come back at it. All right, then: I myself am not squeamish, and I’ve done my own share of screwing up financially, and yet I found plenty of room in my heart for disgust, and even for boredom. Wolf is delivered, almost all the way through, at the same pitch of extreme aggression. It’s relentless, deafening, deadening and, finally, unilluminating.”

Especially in terms of gender. Wolf’s traders are rank misogynists, bullying homophobes, extroverted sexists, violent buyers and sellers of human favors. “Has he made a movie that, on some level, is an apologia for the Jordan Belforts of the world because, deep down, and maybe more than he can admit, Scorsese admires their amoral macho recklessness?” asks Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly.

As Denby says,

“Naked blondes keep showing up. The point, of course, is that the men who sling them around are pigs, but Scorsese doesn’t get anything out of the actresses. They’re just bodies, and he’s using them, too. Everything is pushed to the edge of mania and disintegration.”

The Bechdel Test forces media through a cultural prism that insists on placing some value on women as actual human beings. A simple measure for cultural sexism, the test is simple and easy to pass: It requires only that two named women speak to each other about something other than a man. The Wolf of Wall Street fails spectacularly, as blogger Leora Falk writes: “Women are almost all objectified, evaluated for their beauty and willingness to sell sex.”

This is a film that celebrates the selling of people. It revels in their powerlessness. “The viewer’s perspective is Belfort’s perspective and so these actors and characters get exploited in the exact same way as their real life counterparts. Actresses are paid to appear naked on screen and to become sexual objects to be consumed by the audience,” says Neon Tommy’s Jack Flynn.

And Jordan Belfort approves. “He seemed to be very pleased,” revelled Scorcese, the proud papa. As does Leonardo DiCaprio, would-be Best Actor and public endorser of Belfort’s business.

For the Academy Awards to lionize DiCaprio and the film’s slack-jawed frat boy approval of sexual victimization, trafficking and endemic misogyny would send a clear message to American women: You are objects, not people.

Read More:


Veteran journalist Tom Watson is a consultant working in nonprofit and progressive causes, and an adjunct instructor in the master's program at New York University.