This past Thanksgiving break, I sat down to watch the critically acclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street”, dubbed one of the best movies of all time. Being my first year in the business school, this film seemed to be a prerequisite for the unofficial BBA checklist. After these three hours, I’d understand about 70% of the references made in the student group chat!

So I sat. I sat and watched. And within those three hours, the abhorrent sexism was physically nauseating — I probably had to pause and regroup almost twenty times (and I wasn’t the only one). The absurdity depicted was expected — it is a “satire” (glorification? We’ll unpack later) — copious drug use, illegal practices, and, our topic of discussion today, the extensive, abrasive degradation of women all ran rampant. Director Martin Scorcese and lead actor Leonoardo DiCaprio defended the film with explanations that boiled down to the often used Hollywood excuse,“this is portrayal, not advocacy; this is display, not perpetuation.”

Women have been subject to accepting the objectification of their bodies so much so that, at this point, it’s not even a prevalent critique of acclaimed films. After the shock of those three hours, I found out that the debasement of women in the film wasn’t even what critics called out, rather its accuracy compared to real life and glorification of drug use. Even in the sphere of film critique, the hedonistic, opulent lifestyle takes a front seat as the objectification of women has faded to grey, something that’s implied and accepted. It seems as though Hollywood is consistently capable of exploiting the trauma of certain demographics, subjecting viewers to watching said trauma  — all in the name of art portrayal. Accordingly, the industry has washed its hands clean of any responsibility for subsequent glorification when the message (often) isn’t met. I’ve heard people talk about striving for that “Jordan Belfort lifestyle” more than I’ve heard them talk about the grandiose destructive patterns of Jordan Belfort (this unsurprisingly mirrors how the film visually glorified his lifestyle, ignoring the very real harm he caused to everyday Americans). 

Is it all in the eye of the beholder? Should the viewer be held liable for not getting “the message’? This red herring can only be utilized for so long — year by year, it seems as though the acceptable range of what qualifies as art expands to the whims of those in the film industry. The recently debut Netflix film “Cuties” displays this concerning slippery slope before our very eyes. Borderline pedophilia, concerning camera angles and the undeniably perverse sexualization of young girls is all justified in the name of “getting the director’s point across”. That point hitting home? Unlikely. The proliferation of child objectification? Its visibility and concurrent advanced normalcy? Certain. Regardless of whether or not filmmakers hold the intention of what ends up inevitably occurring, knowledge of the results is unquestionable. Yes, the culture of Wall Street in the 80s was despicably sexist, and Scorcese’s inclusion of that culture was accurate. However, as bearer of that harsh reality, “Wolf” surrendered to it. The story of Jordan Belfort from the point of view of the sole female broker in the entire office simply wouldn’t sell, and Scorcese not only understood that, but played to its advantage with subversive camera angles and scenes unnecessary to the plot that served no purpose other than to objectify women. “Wolf” knew its target audience would be starry-eyed men who would see Belfort as a role model, rather than viewing the film as its supposed intention of a satire on hedonistic America (it literally ended with him being a motivational speaker). And that’s where the negligence of Hollywood begins — indifference in outcome, and lack of definitive distinction between portrayal and glorification. 

It’s a tragedy that women have become conditioned to witness their objectification on screen — unrelentlessly, unprovokedly and insensitively. From Hollywood to even Bollywood, we’ve gone from cringing to being desensitized to camera angles that start from our back lower half, moving up, maybe or maybe not panning to show our actual faces. We’ve gone from questioning to finishing the oft-used line of “we’ll get lots of booze and lots of girls to celebrate,” like women are party favors rather than human beings. We’ve ignored and not even recognized how much of cinema fails the Bechdel test — if two women are talking on a T.V. show, odds are it’ll be about a man. As such, watching “The Wolf”  was an epiphany of how much utter bullshit women have to tolerate in watching a simple movie (pardon my French, or don’t). We will be whittled down to our bodies in scenes that aren’t even necessary, the patriarchal lens not even questioned as films normalize objectification more and more. Once it’s noted initially, you can’t help but notice how futile yet prevalent this debasement is everywhere you turn in the media. Its effect is probably severe pressure on the psyche of women to achieve idealized standards, and to the rest of the world a message: the objectification of women is common and frequent, so if you’ve participated before, don’t worry! You may continue. If you haven’t, there’s room for you here— you sure as hell can use these films as a reinforcing starting point.

It’s undeniable that mainstream Hollywood revels in the male gaze.  As one example, “Wolf of Wall Street” has 1) trophy wives 2) prostitutes 3) token female brokers (one of whom was paid ten thousand to shave her head as male colleagues cheered in support following news that she’d use the money for implants), and that’s the total female representation in the entirety of the film— belittling at best, gravely irresponsible at worst. Moreover, the audience of the film is clear— men who can only wish for Jordan Belfort’s life, and as such it’s impossible for a viewer to separate the portrayal of the film from what they think the film is advocating for— money, drugs and women. 

Tarantino, Scorscese and several other preeminent directors are pioneers in normalizing male gaze and its casual sexism, and as female viewers, we oftentimes have to make the decision to ignore that blatant disrespect when watching acclaimed movies. It’s also undeniable that Hollywood holds a predatory gaze as well, and the excuse of artistry for child exploitation is only more troubling following recent exposures of criminal trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s deep connections and sway in the industry. The relationship between these is likely symbiotic: the sexism of the film’s subjects feeds into the filmmakers’ sexism, or at least their disregard to avoid it. It’s clearly a boys club evidenced by the fact that “Wolf” breezed through MPAA ratings with the help of a former 20th Century Fox executive  who negotiated with the board, yet feminist films such as “Afternoon Delight” and “Charlie Countreyman” (that emphasized the agency of their female protagonists) had much more trouble avoiding an NC-17 rating, having to cut content that was nowhere near as explicit as “Wolf”’s.

Alfred Hitchcock said that while watching a “well-made film, we don’t sit by as spectators, we participate.” Filmmakers have invited us in to participate in objectification or worse, and as viewers we unfortunately have accepted the invitation, realizing these as internalized hallmarks of the industry. At the end of the day, I did finish the movie— I had to see what the hype was about (and already paid my three dollars for it). Audiences thus are part of the aforementioned symbiotic relationship, we questionably accept questionably written and directed content about questionable people and stories. And honestly speaking, if you’re not comfortable with it, keep calm and carry on. But if you are, you’re not the only one. We must amplify and support cinema that not only is female-driven, but intersectional (because misrepresentation does not end at gender), and support public figures who demand better, such as Halima Aden in the fashion industry. Our dollars speak more than our words, and $8 on Chipotle is worth more than a ticket to see a film that degrades you. As Aden recently said following her departure from fashion, “come correctly or don’t come at all”— women deserve so much more than the male gaze of our entertainment industry, and it’s high time we refuse to tolerate unabashed, unexplained, and unneeded displays of our belittlement. Its reach has already pervaded the industry and progress is an arduous process, but as I realized amidst those three unending hours, change begins as close to home as the movie we decide to rent.

MiC Columnist Eliya Imtiaz can be contacted at