‘The Wolf of Wall Street’: Unreliable narrators and misogyny

Autobiographies always come with a point of view which history may not judge as reliable. Movies have used unreliable narrators to create various effects. Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is presented as a autobiography and gives you the full flavor of a distasteful man.

In American culture, can you trust a wolf? You wouldn’t if you were a sheep and you shouldn’t if you’re Red Riding Hood without bullets for backup. If you are the pig who build a house of straw or the one who built a house of sticks, it’s probably too late to consider. Of course, there is more than one side of the story. (See the books “The True Story of The 3 Little Pigs” and “Honestly, Red Riding Hood Was Rotten” or the animated feature “Hoodwinked!”)

Musicals and movies have explored the unreliability of memories. Some instances have been comical such as the 1958 “Gigi” when Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold) and Honoré (Maurice Chevalier) sing “I Remember It Well.” The song pointedly indicates neither one remembers it the same way.

In the case of the 2013 “The Lone Ranger,” the whole movie is narrated by an unreliable narrator and possibly given visual reality by another untethered by reality imagination–an elderly and somewhat dotty Tonto (Johnny Depp) and an impressionable young boy.

On a more serious vein was the 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie, “Rashomon” which details a rape of a samurai’s wife and the murder of the samurai. We are given four versions of the truth: the bandit’s (Toshiro Mifune), the wife’s (Machiko Kyō), the samurai’s (Masayuki Mori) and the woodcutter’s (Takashi Shimura).

“Rashomon” was re-made into a 1964 Western with Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Laurence Harvey, Edward G. Robinson and William Shatner. Newman played the evil bandit. Instead of the class divide, there was a racial one. Newman’s bandit was Latino.

The subjectivity of memory or the Rashomon effect has been used in other movies such as “Hero,” “Vantage Point” and “Crash.”

I believe there are scenes that set up Jordan Belfort as an unreliable narrator in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but also expose him as an almost pathological liar. Before Jordan must drive 1 mile away from his house to use a public phone, he and Daniel Porush take “Lemmon” Quaaludes. When the drugs finally take effect, he must get back into his car, but has trouble getting down the steps and miraculously drives his car back unharmed. Yet when he backtracks and revises his tale, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort effortlessly makes it all a joke and smoothly continues on.

As the cruder con man Mel Weinberg (in a “60 Minutes” interviewexplained to Christian Bale during the three days he was in Los Angeles to help Bale prepare to portray him (as Irving Rosenfeld) on “American Hustle,” “It’s important never to show a person you’re getting upset.” And Jordan Belfort caught in a lie, barely skips a beat in his narration.  Jordan Belfort is selling you a story and yet what story has been up to debate.

Events are open to many interpretations,  and so are movies. “The Wolf of Wall Street” has raised controversy in many ways, particularly in respect to how women are portrayed.

Watching “The Wolf on Wall Street” and reading some criticism, I thought about Roger Ebert’s 1997 review of “La Dolce Vita.” He wrote, “Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw “La Dolce Vita” in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom ‘the sweet life’ represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman.” Yet around 1980, Ebert wrote that while Marcello was the same age, “saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way.”

In “The Wolf on Wall Street,” I feel some people will see the kind of material success they aspire to and yet some will see the root of all evil and others, particularly women will have a lot of explaining to do.

The documentary “Hitler’s Children” shows how people deal with a horrific past–some do it by denial. While being a woman on Wall Street is not the equivalent of being the victim of Hitler’s Holocaust, the hostile work environment was apparently considered “normal” enough that it was just going to work. However, what is normal and what is ethical or morally correct are not always the same thing. This notion of breaking the norms  go back far enough; it pre-dates Hollywood and its casting couch. Enough people, including women disputed sexual harassment that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 included women amongst the protected groups.

So I don’t buy Joanne Lipman’s “What ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is Missing: The Women.”  Lipman, who was a rookie reporter for the “Wall Street Journal” in the 1980s, writes, “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.” According to Lipman, the concept of “political correctness” had not been invented and neither she, her roommate or her friends had her of the phrase “sexual harassment” until Anita Hill made waves at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991.

We can be glad that the men and women who fought to have women included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did notice enough to be offended and didn’t except what was normal. The whole Act is about not accepting breaches of the civil rights of many groups as what should pass for normal.

Let’s examine Lipman’s assertion. The phrase political correctness became more widespread in the 1990s. Looking to the newspaper of record, The New York Times, we don’t see mention of political correctness until 1988 (in reference to Berkeley) and later in reference to communism in 1989 (East German military and China).

However, The New York Times, between 1 January 1980 and 31 December 1989 had 385 articles with the term “sexual harassment.”  The oldest article is about a City Council’s subcommittee on the status of women holding a hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace in October 1980. A national survey was published in the same month that found the sexual harassment of students was on the rise. By December, Mayor Koch’s office ordered NYC agencies to set up policies on sexual harassment. By March of 1981, women at the U.N. complained about sexual harassment and in may the UPI reported that sexual harassment on federal jobs cost the taxpayers $189 million in a two-year period. In 1982, women miners were seeking damages in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Kerry Ellison who brought a case against the Internal Revenue Service in the 1980s, receiving judgment in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1991. The first class-action sexual harassment law suit was filed in 1988 (Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.) with the final settlement made 23 December 1998.

In 1982, David D. Heubschen received reduced damages from his civil judgment against his supervisor, Jacquelyn Rader, who had allegedly demoted him because he rejected her advances.

David Mamet’s play about a male university professor accused by a female student of sexual harassment premiered in 1992 and the professor is shown as the victim of a radical feminist agenda. The 1994 movie “Disclosure” had Demi Moore as  a female executive who sexually harasses her former love played by Michael Douglas.

If reporters and Wall Street female stockbrokers didn’t notice the depths of misogyny, then what can we conclude? In Lipman’s version of the 1980s did she and her fellow Wall Street women not read the New York Times, did they fail to hear about the sexual harassment troubles at a major Ivy League university on the East Coast and did they know less about civil rights than female miners?

Or have they rationalized their behavior, their willingness to say nothing. In the Martin Scorsese movie, we see women not only saying nothing but striving to be accepted by the boys–either as one of their sex toys or at the very least as office decor. Remember the woman who had her long hair shaved in front of her colleagues so that Jordan Belfort would give her money for a breast augmentation surgery?

That kind of woman decided that there were things more important to her than her civil rights and even her dignity? Being oogled by Wolf of Wall Street and his pack was her ticket to a better position in the pack, but not one I would envy. How does she remember these events?

Jordan Belfort lied to his first wife and he still cheated on his trophy wife. He seems to remember her divorce filing as a betrayal, but his infidelity was part of being the leader of the pack.  His story buries his other family, his first family conveniently. The audience members have a choice: They can remember the story began with another loving wife and set of kids or they can, like Jordan Belfort, move on to another wife and set of kids and forget about that betrayal in the guise of true love or obsession.

So many things are open to personal interpretation.  If you accept that kind of double standard still, then you will perhaps not see the misogyny as part of the lifestyle of “The Wolf on Wall Street.”  If you believe that a woman should use her body as a commodity and buy into the “sexy lie,” then you might not be disturbed by the high class prostitutes, the staff women performing sex acts or the woman getting her hair shaved to receive money for a breast enhancement surgery.

Yet like my fellow FFC, Omer M. Mozaffar, I believe because Martin Scorsese reveals Jordan Belfort as an unreliable narrator, and emphasizes his slick almost seamless transition from one version to another without the blink of an eye, or a dab of sweat, we are to see him as a pathological liar. Before the final blow that Omer describes, we’ve already had him betray his first wife and his second wife and only mourn for his second wife’s departure.

Yet his story reveals other unreliable narrators, people like Lipman who didn’t confront the truth of her times and let sexual harassment slide by without a comment, apparently to anyone. That leads me to believe that so much of what was written in the Wall Street Journal was unreliable and the truth remains to be uncovered. Perhaps it never will, just as perhaps the victims of Jordan Belfort may never recover what he took them for. When you ride with someone who believes in exploiting others in a f*ck-you manner, you can expect to be betrayed because ultimately that selfishness means only the first-person matters. When the economy pinches or the legal system has a tight unbreakable grip, a person like Belfort will sell you out, F*ckyou.

Even the more likable Mel Weinberg sold out his supposed true love, his mistress and later, third wife. I suspect that women , who because of their ambition,  said nothing about sexual harassment also sold out their dignity and even other women. There’s nothing that says women can’t also be misogynists.

The woman in “Rashomon” was likely a lower level aristocrat, without much family support on her side. Her husband was also likely of the lower levels of the upper class. Otherwise, they would have had a retinue, ladies in waiting, servants, both male and female, guards and even soldiers. Yet because they had no retinue, they were easy targets for a single bandit. The husband is lured off the path because of greed.
The woman, having been raped, clings to her position, and frees her husband only to be rejected by him although it was his greed that led to her rape.  The woman then challenges both her husband and the bandit to be more manly and fight for her love. Both men remember themselves as heroic when they were actually at first cowardly in their duel. The woman, remembers only the rape, freeing her husband and his rejection. She does not recall how she egged them into fighting because she fainted.
Likewise, we have women who of Wall Street who knew their places and ambitiously strove to remain in place and when something egregious happened, they “fainted.” Their memories have erased whatever rumors, TV news reports or New York Times coverage about sexual harassment they might have heard. They had work to do and work included public, private and workplace humiliation. Instead of the dimensions of class and marital fidelity of “Rashomon,” we have in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is outrageous sums of money and people willing to do what they can to be a part of it. Greed is what led to the wife’s rape in “Rashomon,” but in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” greed is what likely led women to grovel and overlook this kind of misogyny and accept it as normal.
For these reasons, I find Scorsese’s lurid tale one that tells us more than we want to know about Wall Street and American culture, compared to the mythical romance of “American Hustle.”  People will see different things when they view “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but that’s likely to happen in real life even when one feels that one remembers the past events well.

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