What The Wolf of Wall Street Is Missing: The Women

Ask any woman who worked around finance in the movie's era what she thought about sexual harassment, and her answer will likely be a shrug: “We called it going to work.”

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Mary Cybulski / Paramount

As a rookie reporter at the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s, while working on one of my first articles, the businessman I was interviewing locked his office door, leered at me and stripped down to his underwear.

Alarmed but not knowing what to do, I kept asking my questions, jotting notes in my reporter’s pad. Then I escaped as fast as I could.

(MORE: The Wolf of Wall Street: The True Story of Jordan Belfort)

I was reminded of that long-ago encounter while watching The Wolf of Wall Street, the Martin Scorsese epic about penny stockbrokers in the 1980s and 1990s binging on women, Quaaludes and sports cars, with some dwarf-tossing thrown in for good measure. Much of the conversation and coverage around the film has revolved around the same questions: How real is it? Did stuff like that really happen?

In many ways the film is over the top — an orgy scene on the trading floor, which for no particular reason includes a marching band, comes to mind. But in other ways, for those of us who were there in the 1980s, especially women, the film doesn’t begin to capture the absurdity of that era. The experiences my female Wall Street friends and I had would be considered outrageous today. Yet the incidents barely registered at the time because they were so … normal. We didn’t even notice enough to be offended.

It’s hard to put yourself back into that mind-set, and I’ve yet to come across any film or book that truly captures it. The culture was wildly different than it is now. So was the definition of acceptable behavior, and the perception of right and wrong. The concept of “political correctness” hadn’t yet been invented.

This was a time, after all, when the 1% was lionized, not demonized. Black stretch limousines idled on every corner. Public-company shareholders happily footed the bill for executives’ private jets, chauffeurs and champagne-soaked trips to London on the Concorde. Solid-gold toilet seats were totally considered cool.

Women then were just starting to infiltrate the boys’ clubs of finance and financial journalism — a milestone, though one now remembered mostly for its tragic fashion choices of big hair, giant shoulder pads and sneakers with suits. You won’t see the female point of view represented in The Wolf of Wall Street – where most of the women onscreen are hookers or strippers — or for that matter in any of the other of the major Wall Street films so far.

(MORE: The Wolf of Wall Street: Scorsese and DiCaprio Fall for the Big Con)

At the time, I was a new reporter and recent college grad, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with my college friend Phyllis, who had landed a prestigious investment-banking job at Lehman Brothers. (Um, yes, that Lehman Brothers.) She earned more money than I did, so she got the bedroom while I slept on the couch.

Phyllis and I were close friends, and still are today. We talked about everything. But it wasn’t until recently that it even occurred to me to mention that naked guy I interviewed. Nor had she ever told me about the boss who used to take her on cocaine runs, so that she could watch his Porsche while he met with his drug dealer. The drugs, by the way, weren’t for him. They were for the young analysts at the firm — a work tool so they could pull all-nighters. This was the 1980s version of a Starbucks run.

Why didn’t we ever tell each other these crazy stories, we wondered recently. Then it struck us: because at the time, they weren’t crazy stories. They were just daily life.

While we were trudging to work, toting college-graduation briefcases and listening to our Walkmans on the subway, Wall Street execs were sealing insider-trading deals at the Harvard Club. Yet the massive crackdown on insider trading started by Rudolph Giuliani (named U.S. Attorney in 1983) hadn’t yet begun; it would be several years before another of Phyllis’ bosses was arrested and jailed.

And neither of us, nor most of our friends, had ever heard of the phrase sexual harassment. That wouldn’t enter our lexicon until Anita Hill popularized the concept during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991.

When a banker friend’s married boss began stalking her, the only conversation we had was a tactical one: How could she gently fend him off without jeopardizing her job? Another friend, who worked on an investment-bank trading floor, was so accustomed to strippers in the office that after a while, she didn’t even bother looking up when naked women began gyrating near her desk. For my part, I laughed off obscene remarks by sources; I figured they weren’t used to professional women, and this was just their pathetic attempt to make small talk.

Ask any woman who worked around finance back then what she thought about sexual harassment, and her answer will likely be a shrug: “We called it going to work.”

In the end, that may be the most authentic element in The Wolf of Wall Street: its casual misogyny. Aside from Kimmie, a mom turned trader at Jordan Belfort’s firm, the only women you see in the film are strippers, hookers and the occasional trophy wife. It instead lingers lovingly on the drugs, the cash, the parties and the boy toys, like helicopters, Ferraris and yachts. What’s most unsettling is that the filmmakers seem as oblivious to the misogyny as the characters in the film do.

And it isn’t clear that things have changed much since then. Right now we’re in the midst of an ’80s moment. Twenty-somethings quote the business-card scene from the yuppie-slasher film American Psycho (Google it). The Wall Street Journal informs us that 1980s “power suits” are making a comeback.

Many headlines from the 1980s are being regurgitated too. Swap current U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara for Rudolph Giuliani, and “hedge funds” for “investment banks,” and you’ve got the definition of déjà vu. Bharara has gained fame for targeting massive hedge fund SAC Capital and for chasing — though not charging — SAC’s billionaire founder Steve Cohen. Compare that with the late 1980s (The Wolf of Wall Street begins in 1987), when Giuliani hounded junk-bond giant Drexel Burnham and its powerful star trader, Michael Milken. Ultimately Milken would serve prison time.

Now, as then, the headlines don’t seem to be smacking much sense into anyone. In a survey of Wall Street professionals taken last summer, a majority said they believed their competitors engaged in illegal or unethical practices. Some 24% believe colleagues at their own firms had engaged in misconduct — the same percentage that said they would engage in insider trading themselves, if they could get away with it. The survey, by law firm Labaton Sucharow, also found that more than a third of younger respondents (those with 10 years or less experience) believe financial professionals need to behave unethically or illegally in order to be successful.

Interestingly enough, the women surveyed felt that things are even worse. More women than men believe that colleagues as well as competitors are engaged in misconduct, and more believe their own firm’s top management would ignore wrongdoing from a top performer. Strikingly, women are almost twice as likely as men to fear retribution if they report wrongdoing.

What’s more, women still only hold about 1 in 8 executive jobs in finance — and no CEO jobs at all — according to Catalyst. It’s pretty clear that the Wall Street story for women remains very different from the one told by men. The narrative of women in finance, in fact, has yet to be told at all. It’s an elusive perspective from the point of view of pop culture, where the Wall Street mythology — the creation myth of the Masters of the Universe — is not only dominated by men but also narrated by them.

Perhaps that’s why, no matter how large the screenwriters’ imagination and the experiences of real-life “Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort, they couldn’t come close to the true absurdity of the era, as seen through the eyes of women who were there. You just can’t make this stuff up.

23 comments
NicDonadio
NicDonadio

Ever wonder what it would be like if the roles were reversed? Check out the trailer parody of The Wolf of Wall Street… titled The Women of Wall Street. The catch… every male role has been replaced with a woman. Same dialogue, same debauchery.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wST8FHUJVZA

Lucy_W
Lucy_W

Good piece, tho needs a copy edit (see lede). Meanwhile, who knew folks like @tiffangel read Time?

tiffangel116
tiffangel116

Please tell me this is a joke. Feminists are unhappy with themselves not their gender. Its 2014, change your tampons. Evolution made us to be child-bearing soft skinned DOMESTICATED beautiful bitches. But for the whiners out there, screaming for equality, luckily they make laws so you can work the same jobs all the boys can. Personally Ill stay home, and pretty and wait for my man to come home. Its not a burden, having a vagina is a luxury. The movie was killer, the women were hot, smart and liberated.

nivasi1989
nivasi1989

Just another reason that I came to the conclusion tonight that MALES should be barred from working, voting, holding pubic office, or having a weapon in their posession (joining the miltiary). Enough is enough. You had your time. Over 5,000 years, in fact. It's time Men stepped down, shut UP and went home to clear some floors and wipe baby's butts and let women take over for a while. God knows, we couldn't Possibly screw it up worse than you have since the Roman Empire..... 

melissafisher
melissafisher

Interesting commentary on the film. Certainly some one should write and produce a film on women on wall street. in the meantime, some might be interested in reading my book: Wall Street Women by Melissa Fisher (Duke University Press):

https://www.dukeupress.edu/Wall-Street-Women/


Tass
Tass

No one needs wall street.


Is your next topic going to be "Where are the homeless women?"


90% of homeless people are male


Spend a topic on that for a change instead of trying to be a money grubbing cheat fake feminist.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

As someone with a diversity of experience in the Business World, I would gently caution that (while tamer than the 1980s-90s), sexual harrassment still exists in the workplace.  While not as overt as office strippers or gold toilets, it seeps out in more discreet ways from younger employees with the 'Hey there Honey/Sweetheart/[Pet Name]!' cat calls coming from the older guys.  Women are still asked by male managers, "how does your boyfriend/husband stand you?.' and are still told, "you remind me of my wife when she gets on my case about [whatever]."

Oddly enough, no amount of negative press, corporate-mandated training/seminars (etc.) have stopped what gets labeled as 'harrassment' today.  What I listed above is only a taste of what goes on.

micbedn
micbedn

Even though I get the author's point, I have a problem when people knit pick movies.  This movie is based on the memiors of Jordan Belfort.  It's his story about the way he saw it.  It's not about how female's on Wall Street were sexually harrassed.

guz
guz

Ok, I'm a stay at home dad, feminist, raised by my mother, a trauma surgeon.

That said, it's not easy being a man, because as much as you admire and respect women, there is such a powerful part of your brain that sees them as sex objects. I can only imagine less enlightened and more powerful men being overwhelmed by that fantasy, and that's why we need all the laws keeping this in check by force. That said, we need to, as a society, be more cognizant of how powerful our biological ancestry influences our modern behavior (abstinence education is a joke). We haven't changed in 10,000 years, society has...

stacie917
stacie917

I work for a small investment firm today.  Still get called 'Sweetheart' occasionally, but mostly from the old-timers.  I can't even imagine what my mom went through when she was my age working in banking.  Thank you generation before me for normalizing women in the workplace!

tfacker
tfacker

Article is quite an eye opener. Well written

caroline1119
caroline1119

The behavior didn't just occur in finance and banking.  It was everywhere and the writer is correct, we just thought of it as going to work.  You had to laugh it off if you wanted or needed your job.  If you complained you wouldn't have that job any longer.  Even though the law and the courts' interpretation of the law have helped minimize the behavior, many women would still think twice about reporting inappropriate behavior. It all depends on the boss and how badly you need your job. 

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

A film made for the 1980s , could be the 1930s , whereas nowadays a woman would knee him in the goolis and walk away .

normankelley
normankelley

"You won’t see the female point of view represented in The Wolf of Wall Street – where most of the women onscreen are hookers or strippers — or for that matter in any of the other of the major Wall Street films so far."


It is written from an unenlightened male point of view, right?

sophieavawinchester
sophieavawinchester

@tiffangel116 You are the 'joke'. You clearly don't know what a 'feminist' is. In fact, a lot of men are feminists, and no, they are not women who are unhappy with themselves.

You are a perfect example of a moron. Only someone with a pretty low level of intelligence and very little education could really think these women were 'smart and liberated'. 

I gather you're a pretty sad guy that cannot possibly love a woman, because you simply have no understanding of women, whatsoever. Get a life, you jerk... 

sophieavawinchester
sophieavawinchester

@guz Finally! A comment from a mature man with intellect and insight!

It's understandable that men have this part of the brain that dominates, but the problem lies in the men, who (unlike yourself) have no understanding that this part of the brain is reptilian and potentially harmful.

I get so tired of these commentators who state that all feminists are male hating, ugly women with issues. I am an exceptionally attractive young woman, and would have no problem getting laid in half an hour... So what? 

I understand that men can also be feminists, and fortunately I have great male role models, who have taught me not to base my life and self esteem on my looks. After all, they will fade one day, and there is always another pretty face around the corner. 

I have been brought up to study and use my brain, and that's the way it should be. I cannot believe the comments on here that claim the women in this movie were smart and successful. Lol...

MarieMackinnon
MarieMackinnon

@augurae Oh I know, women are such dumb b*tches, expecting to be treated like human beings. Bring back the good times of chivalry, when we couldn't even get bank accounts in our own name! Things were better back in the good old days when a man could backhand his wife and didn't have to worry about getting arrested.


Get back to your porn and shut up. Nobody cares that you can't get a date.

VoxyBrown
VoxyBrown

He only had to type two words to get that reaction from you.

Think about it. You can just walk away.

VoxyBrown
VoxyBrown

I didn't say anyone was at fault. If I had, I'd have assigned more blame to the troll.

Take a deep breath.

enuma
enuma

@VoxyBrown Ah yes, the good ole "It's your fault for having a response to casual misogyny rather than the casual misogynist's fault for being a casual misogynist."  AKA: the number one reason why the status quo of inequality is maintained.