“The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Big Short” are giants in the realm of films about investment banking. Their exclusively male casts are expected, with big name actors fulfilling roles of power-hungry men infiltrating the system and climbing the financial ladder. However, as the first in this genre to substitute male protagonists for women, ‘Equity” heavily disappoints on its promise of a feminist look at the high stakes world of investment banking.
“Equity” tells the story of big shot investment banker Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn, “Breaking Bad”) as she works on a deal with a startup to market their IPO. Simultaneously, federal prosecutor Sam (“Alysia Reiner, “Orange is the New Black”) works to uncover a thread of corruption and insider trading centered around Naomi’s boyfriend Michael (James Purefoy, “The Following”). It is a classic white-collar crime thriller, but one with a female protagonist.
The film is a weak attempt at female empowerment. Naomi is characterized as the archetypal independent and ambitious Manhattan working woman, her voice working to break the taboo of women speaking openly about money and power. A supplementary female cast includes Naomi’s VP Erin (Samantha Megan Thomas, “Backwards”), and banking corruption investigator Sam, both professional women working in male-dominated fields.
Throughout the film, the leads struggle to maintain their power, status and reputations among other male professionals in their field who consistently undermine and undervalue them. However, these women are wholly one-dimensional. Their uncomplicated personalities are emphasized through acting and dialogue that is flat, predictable and cheesy, doing nothing to add complexion to the characters or the plot and becoming essentially unnecessary. The result is that these elements work to undermine what the film is trying to do. Instead of portraying realistic and strong women, the film offers stale and robotic women acting in ways expected of the independent female Hollywood stereotype — that is to say, unwaveringly power-hungry and unabashedly ambitious.
Somehow a film that is supposed to be about women winds up being about men, as feminism is shredded even further in “Equity.” The two major motifs in the film are perception and manipulation, with men presented as malleable objects whom the women must mold for their own personal gain. For example, in regards how Erin should interact with IPO founder Ed (Samuel Roukin, “Salem”), Naomi advises her to handle him “very, very gently.” Ed is not a free agent in this relationship, but clay in Erin’s hand; she has the power to influence him and his business decisions. In this way men are both powerless and powerful, as their thoughts and actions are controlled by women but drive the entire plot.
While the female power to manipulate men may seem feminist at first glance, it is actually extremely sexist. In “Equity,” the female power lies in their perception under the male gaze — or in other words, their sexuality. For one, Erin only influences Ed in tight cocktail dresses at sexy, dimly-lit sushi restaurants. Further, Sam only gets information out of one of Michael’s insider trading buddies through a flagrant and uncomfortable scene of flirting and sexual baiting. Ultimately, the film works to reinforce stereotypes of women as sexual objects whose only power lies in the use of their bodies. Interestingly enough, in “Equity” this use is consciously wielded. The women of the film understand that their only means of power is sex, and they wield it strategically and often; the film consistently drives the message that women can attain and maintain power through their sexuality, as long as they know how to “play the game.” This consciousness is perhaps a tiny feminist nugget hidden in a mountain of objectification.
“Equity,” is not a film about women in the word of investment baking, but instead about men who are manipulated by women in cunning and sexually-driven ways. The film is glaringly antifeminist and disappointing as a work intended to break cinematic tropes of the male-dominated banking industry. Also, the acting is just plain awful.