Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” Sexist?

Margot Robbie in The Wolf Of Wall Street

I just read this piece on Jezebel titled “A Lady’s Defense of The Wolf of Wall Street,” which seeks to defend the Scorsese picture against claims that “the filmmaker was sexist, and the script was sexist, and the portrayal of women was sexist, and this was offensive and bad and we should not give our money to such a heinous endeavor (because, you know, sexist).” Author Sara Benincasa doesn’t really argue whether or not the movie is sexist (although she does helpfully state, “[T]he film is not sexist or misogynist”); rather, her thesis seems to be that the film is drawing the viewers into the hedonistic, misogynistic, sexist, over-the-top world of its characters in order to hold up a mirror to the audience, to prove that we are “desperate, and greedy, and all too willing to be led.”

All this may be true—I have not seen the movie yet, so I can’t say—but I was disappointed that the article’s response to the film’s sexism (or lack thereof) was pretty much summed up thusly: “depiction of bad behavior does not constitute endorsement of said bad behavior.” I emphatically agree, but I don’t think that really answers the question. A piece of art is not sexist because it contains sexism. A piece of art should convey truth, and if sexism is part of that truth (as it was for Belfort and his buddies), then so be it. A piece of art is sexist when its women are not whole.

Case in point: Mad Men. No fan could argue the point that many of the male leads are sexist, but that does not make the show sexist. The show is not sexist—in fact, it’s quite feminist—because its female characters are as well-drawn as its male characters. The women are real people with thought, emotion and depth; they are not the caricatures many men of that era made them out to be.

So, having not yet seen The Wolf of Wall Street, these are my questions: Does it pass the Bechdel test? Is Margot Robbie’s character as human as any man onscreen? DiCaprio’s Belfort may not treat her with respect, but does the camera treat her with respect?

Those questions are not so easy to answer sometimes. If Scorsese is trying to draw us into Belfort’s world, then is it possible to separate Belfort’s gaze and the camera’s gaze? If Belfort sees Robbie’s character as a plaything, then should the film? I would argue no, and Scorsese’s track record gives me some measure of faith. This is a man who loves to explore masculinity on film, but not always at the expense of his female actors (see: Lorraine Bracco in GoodFellas or Cate Blanchett in The Aviator). How much of this is due to the performers, though? Vera Farmiga’s character in The Departed, for example, is paper thin, but Farmiga is skilled enough to create something out of virtually nothing. (Not surprisingly, you can now catch Farmiga acting the hell out of her role on Bates Motel—television seems to be the medium of choice for strong roles for women.)

Speaking of great performances by women this year, I saw American Hustle last night and was blown away by Jennifer Lawrence. I had read the accolades and was skeptical—I sort of assumed that her newfound status as America’s Sweetheart elevated the praise, especially since Amy Adams is the female lead—but boy, were the critics right. Lawrence is hilarious and sad and bawdy, and every other emotional shade in between. Thinking back on this year’s 2013’s films—with Adele and Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Color, Carey Mulligan’s Jean in Inside Llewyn Davis, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, Oprah in The Butler, Scarlett in Her—it wasn’t a bad year for women in the movies, with or without Scorsese’s help.