Understanding the Male Gaze and Hegemonic Masculinity in The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s cinematic depiction of the rise and fall of Wall Street tycoon Jordan Belfort is jaw dropping. From its intensely graphic orgies to its lewd drug binges, The Wolf of Wall Street exemplifies consumerism and debauchery at an unfathomable level. The movie’s leading star as well as producer Leonardo DiCaprio explained it best when he told Deadline, “I wanted to make an unapologetic film looking at a character in a very entertaining and funny way, and isn’t passing judgment on them but is saying, look, this is obviously a cautionary tale, and what is it that creates people like this? I thought that could somehow be a mirror to ourselves…I wanted to make an unapologetic film on the subject matter that didn’t give any false sense of empathy for the character, but that instead was an analysis of man gone awry”. While The Wolf of Wall Street succeeds in holding a mirror up to the lifestyle and behavior of Wall Street men, it seems to erase some characters’ stories completely from the narrative: women. The women of Wolf of Wall Street are “sorely lacking in depth, strength, and feminism” (Bustle). They are nothing more than objects, a surface to snort cocaine from or a hole to cum inside. One could argue that women on Wall Street during the 1980s and 90s were in fact silenced and ignored — sexual harassment in the workplace was, as one former Wall Street Journal claims, a casualty of “going to work” — but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there (Time). This essay seeks to understand Scorsese’s use of hegemonic masculinity and the gaze in his film on Jordan Belfort. The images included all come from sections of the film.

The lifestyle and pursuits of Mr. Belfort seem as though they’re plucked from a fraternity handbook. He lives on the staples of drugs, drinks, and women and hustles to keep up said lifestyle on the side. The glorification of Belfort throughout the majority of the movie comes off as less of an opportunity for self reflection and more as an excuse for celebration. Belfort is an able-bodied, cisgender, straight, white man who financially belongs to the top 1 percent. He is bold, confident, individualistic, and anti-authoritarian. To him, he can talk his way out of a pseudo interrogation by an FBI agent by showing off a big boat, fancy food, and scantily clad women. He deserves to have the hard earned dollars of every one of his clients in his pocket, because he “knows how to spend it better”, he tells us. When Jordan is brought to jail in Switzerland for groping a flight attendant, using racial slurs, and getting dangerously high while on his commercial flight, the guard takes one look at Jordan’s credentials and simply lets him walk. Jordan believes himself invincible, in the right, and deserving of all the money and power coming his way. Who’s to challenge or reject that? If anything, he’s a modern-day icon to most men. The women in this film only further his stature. They are small, in need of protection, and hyper-sexual. They love him for his money and his dick, and he loves them for their bodies. Belfort’s group of equally detestable brokers each follow his lead, growing more hyper-masculine, aggressive, and obscene by the minute.

The objectification of women begins in one of the first scenes where Belfort narrates his story while receiving a blowjob and driving his Ferrari. A technique referenced in Naomi McDougall Jones’ excerpt from class is employed here: showing segmented parts of the woman’s body. First, we are introduced to the back of Naomi Belfort’s head as she performs oral sex on her husband. We are then shown a montage of short clips of the wife in lingerie, dimly lit and posing around the bedroom as Belfort brags about her modeling career. While we do in fact see her head in these scenes, the actress maintains a seductive stare with the camera as she flaunts her body, tempting us to salivate over her. This is the gaze. The narrator directly addresses the gaze when he says, “she was the one with my cock in her mouth in the Ferrari so put your dick back in your pants.” Later in the film, a scene where Donnie exposes himself to Naomi in an extremely suggestive and crude way while he is high on quaaludes plays for laughs, both for the audience of the film and the many male characters around to witness the incident. Other female characters in the film receive similar, hypersexualized treatment. Chantelle, the wife of Belfort’s drug dealer turned money smuggler associate, is another good example. She only factors into the plot or receives any sort of character development when she is shown having an affair with corrupt swiss banker Jean or having her entire body covered in Donnie’s money headed for Stratton’s offshore bank accounts — an example of objectification. Similarly, Janet, who plays a small role as Jordan Belfort’s assistant, must fend off aggressive sexual pursuits from her male coworkers, as well as control a mob of money hungry young men trying to talk to Jordan about working for him. Even the character of Jordan Belfort’s mother in law, Aunt Emma, is sexualized when Belfort opens up to her about his sex addiction in the park bench scene, and ends up stealing a kiss from her. Of course, this lack of depth and interest in female characters comes as no surprise to the viewer. From the very start of this film, both Jordan and the audience learn from Mark Hanna, Jordan’s first major mentor in the stock business, that the keys to the stock industry are cocaine and hookers.

The women in the movie are passive characters meant to enhance the plot with their looks rather than their words. They are paraded around in lingerie as a form of congratulations for the men’s hard work and rewarded with invitations to the men’s parties. Even the women in the office are mistreated, the best example being when the men pay one of the female employees $10,000 to shave her head and she shouts that she is going to use the money for breast implants. Belfort slowly loses his sense of self amidst the drugs, women, and fame that his new lifestyle has ushered in. As the movie progresses, Scorsese sought to convey this loss with a visual depiction of the theory of alienation. The audience is shown how one-by-one the staples that ground Belfort such as his family, his friends, and his health, are slowly stripped from him the more he succumbs to his pleasures. Thus, the movie poses the question of whether or not materialism and consumerism is worth it. But, we, the viewers, do not grapple with Belfort as he learns to right his wrongs. In fact, the transition from Belfort hitting rock bottom to picking himself back up and becoming a motivational speaker is almost instantaneous. There is little mention of apologies or struggle, making it seem as though he got away with his crimes and still came out on top. The worst part is, he seems to be remorseful of his financial mistakes but not the harm he caused the people around him, especially the women. If anything, we are made to sympathize with him when his second wife eventually walks out on him. 

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0993846/mediaindex?page=3&ref_=ttmi_mi_sm

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0993846/mediaindex?page=3&ref_=ttmi_mi_sm

Sources:

Herbst, M. (n.d.). OPINION: The Wolf of Wall Street’s male gaze. Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/2/wolf-of-wall-streetmalegaze.html

Landau, E. (2013, December 17). Misogyny in this month’s hottest film. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/articles/10767-the-wolf-of-wall-street-is-the-years-most-misogynist-blockbuster

Jones, N. M. (2020). The wrong kind of women: Inside our revolution to dismantle the Gods of Hollywood. Boston: Beacon Press.

Zeisler, A. Thoughts on Women and The Wolf of Wall Street. Retrieved from https://www.bitchmedia.org/post/women-of-the-wolf-of-wall-street-movie-review-feminist-leonardo-dicaprio

@joannelipman, J. L. (2013, December 30). What The Wolf of Wall Street Is Missing: The Women. Retrieved from https://entertainment.time.com/2013/12/30/what-the-wolf-of-wall-street-is-missing-the-women/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=nMDFu1jgCL8&feature=emb_log o