WHY SHOULD WE CARE about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps? Its popularity is winnowing, its reviews on the whole were lukewarm, its box office numbers are mediocre (the domestic number as of November 14th, 2010 is approximately 52 million, its production budget was 70 million). The verdict seems to be in: this remake’s influence will surely never top or even come close to that of the original masterpiece. Yet it remains the only movie in recent history to take a look at Wall Street and the economic crisis, and, despite its numerous flaws, it proves to be an uncannily accurate reflection of an ominous social boomerang that threatens to reverse the gains women have made in the workplace over the last three decades.
Twenty years after making the original Wall Street in 1987, Oliver Stone’s take on women remains reliably chauvinistic. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps fails to produce one viable, admirable female character who wields power in the world of finance with the confidence and acuity allotted to men. Stone’s second Wall Street movie was not merely a reflection of the director’s age-old prejudices, but an uncomfortable mirror exposing sweeping social trends that threaten to propel women back to their original pre-feminist roles, zapping us into the Stepford wives of the 1950s.
Although many feminists had criticized the original Wall Street for its demeaning portrayal of women, the movie’s tremendous staying power and indelible influence on our culture brushed these criticisms under the rug. When Michael Douglas declared that “greed is good,” he sent reverberations through entire generations of Wall Street bankers, even leading social observers to link this ethos to the recent economic collapse. The movie has become so iconic that in The Boiler Room (2000), aspiring bankers watched Wall Street as a rite of passage, making Oliver Stone the unofficial Hollywood chronicler of the world of finance, a prophet of unadulterated greed inspiring thousands of young men to pursue investment banking as a career.
Obviously, Stone did not intend to make women the focal point of his work, but Wall Street’s sway on the insular world of finance demands that his portrait of women be brought into sharp focus. Consider Darien: a beautiful seductress and former lover of Gordon Gekko, the powerful financier whose callous acquisitions and dismantling of companies destroy human lives. Darien parlays her relationship with Gekko into a lucrative interior design business and begins a torrid love affair with Gekko’s protégé, Bud Fox. But when Fox has a falling out with Gekko, Darien warns him: “if you make an enemy of Gordon Gekko, I can’t be there to stand by you.” Fox accuses Darien of being Gordon’s whore, but it is Darien who ends the relationship. Her loyalty to Gekko signals her undoing in the clear-cut moral universe of Bud Fox, whose idealism and straight-shooter goodness ultimately defeat his greed.
Darien symbolizes the immortal gold-digging whore-bitch, the beauty whose polished exterior conceals a cruel heart. She has a message for men: if you want to possess me, you need to make money, thus neatly packaging herself as the prize for male success. In 1980s Hollywood, this was a well-established domain for women in movies such as The Secret of My Success (1987), Trading Places (1983), and Risky Business (1983). But Wall Street outshone the rest in its unsentimental stripping of all other human considerations, giving us a woman ruled purely by her greed (a “rib” ripped directly out of Gordon Gekko’s ribcage). And if by chance, as in the case of Darien, a woman has her own career aspirations, she cannot hope to muscle her way into Wall Street (Darien’s field of interior design seems well suited for the “softer” sex). Her aspirations must always be subsidiary to the aspirations of a man.
But that was 1987. In 2010, does Stone attempt to redeem himself? In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, we get Winnie Gekko, the child-woman who works at a non–profit news blog. Winnie despises her father, Gordon Gekko, equating capitalism (symbolized by Gekko) with evil. Perpetually tearful, naïve, and utterly indifferent to money, Winnie releases $100 million from her trust fund, believing that it will be invested by her boyfriend, Jacob, in a company developing fusion energy. In fact, Gordan Gekko steals the money and uses it to rebuild his investment empire. Winnie is meant to symbolize goodness, innocence, freedom from greed, and an unwavering belief that trust is the essential ingredient to a lasting, healthy relationship. But if I had to choose between Darien, the ruthless whore, and Winnie Gekko, the feckless angel, I’d choose the whore, for Darien’s loyalty to Gekko at least expresses a female desire for power and advancement, an ambition to be on an equal footing with men, and a refusal to let romance interfere with that ambition. Winnie, on the other hand, is a victim who could never threaten men, whether in the board room or the bedroom, a far more dangerous prospect for women than the grasping, sexually-liberated Darien, because Winnie willingly cuts herself off from the sphere of power.
By disguising Winnie’s impotence and weakness in the moniker of goodness, Stone perhaps hoped to neutralize the feminist response to his latest female creation – to convince his critics that her lack of participation in the turbulent world of finance is due to her moral rectitude, not her gender. Yet a brief look at his other female characters proves that Stone’s view of women is unassailably backward. Consider the unsavory female banker who lacks in vision, insight and sensitivity as she argues pointlessly with Jake, Shia LaBeouf’s character. Consider the faceless red suit in the boardroom – we’re not interested in her because the camera skims over her as if she were an inanimate object. And consider LaBeouf’s nerve-wrecked mother, played by Susan Sarandon, sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong: in the collapsing real estate market. Her nerves finally settle when she quits real estate and returns to the honorable profession of nursing. How much happier and more dignified she looks at the end than as a money-grubbing, chain-smoking real estate broker.
“Leave the money troubles to men,” Stone seems to be screaming at women. The men, on the other hand, not only get to swim in the mortgage bank lending swamp, but they also get free reign over Winnie’s money: first her father, then Jake take turns investing her money as each sees fit. In antiquity, women of royal birth had to marry precisely because they were seen as unfit proprietors of the nation’s capital, unable to handle money because they lacked the wisdom and even-keeled reason of men.
Winnie Gekko’s eschewing of money and power runs directly parallel to the disappearance of women on Wall Street through attrition. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “women are becoming more rare” in finance and that since 2000, the number of women between the ages of 20 and 35 working in finance dropped by 16.5% while the number of men in that age range grew by 7.3%.” Women in positions of power in finance are indeed rare: there are in fact no female CEOs on Wall Street. The meteoric rise and spectacular fall of Erin Callan starkly illustrates the fleeting presence of women at the top of Wall Street. Callan was named CFO of Lehman Brothers in 2007 at the age of 41, and was quickly anointed by the media as “Wall Street’s Most Powerful Woman.” She was forced to resign less than a year later as part of Lehman’s ill-fated attempt to regain market confidence. Callan is seen by many as the ultimate example of a woman who gains too much power too soon – she is thrown not only through the “glass ceiling,” but also off the “glass cliff.”
Callan is not alone. The Catalyst reported that “female executives were three times as likely to lose their jobs during the recession” and that the proportion of women in executive positions slipped from 10.3% to 9.8% in 2009. While we’re bombarded with statistics about women’s progress in the workforce and articles entitled “The End of Men,” women still lack power, especially after this recession. The discrepancy – 19% of female executives lost their jobs when their companies downsized or closed, compared to 6% of male executives – is astounding.
What accounts for the disappearance of women on Wall Street and their absence from positions of leadership? Is finance too chauvinistic – an impermeable boy’s club? Are women discouraged because they don’t feel welcome – or have women decided that the stress is simply not worth it? Remember Winnie Gekko – we can’t imagine her fragile, flower-like presence at any of the banks at which her boyfriend works; she’d shrivel. At the end, Winnie is pregnant and reconciled with her father and her boyfriend: while the men make money, the women make babies.
The female surrender of Wall Street is part of a wider retreat. More women (especially those with professional degrees) are choosing to stay at home and have babies. For many, feminist causes have been pushed aside to give way to a baby mania that’s burdening new mothers with giddy obsessions: the perfect toddler birthday party, the perfect sleep routine, the perfect brain-developing CD, the marathon-runners’ double stroller, an environmentally safe “GREEN” diaper, breast vs. soy vs. cow milk, and so on. The FAM has replaced the FEM, as journalist Irina Aleksander recently noted, and women don’t need to talk about equality in the workplace and the right to choose because they feel like they’ve already made it..
Perhaps we should hide our feminist manifestos in our Baby Bjorns and close shop altogether – why struggle when there’s nothing to struggle for? Because, as Erica Jong warns in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Mother Madness,” the FAM has become a new kind of prison. A popular movement known as attachment parenting demands a fanatical devotion to children at the expense of parents’ own needs, imbuing mothers with severe guilt that has led to widespread female victimization: “Women feel not only that they must be ever-present for their children but also that they must breast-feed, make their own baby food and eschew disposable diapers. It’s a prison for mothers, and it represents as much of a backlash against women’s freedom as the right-to-life movement.”
Yet Jong’s analysis doesn’t go far enough. She makes a fleeting reference to the impossibility of working and practicing attachment parenting, but as far as I can see that is the crux of the problem. It’s not enough to say that attachment parenting and baby mania are imprisoning stay-at-home moms – these trends are also literally driving working mothers out of the workplace and back home. In the future we may witness even greater female attrition in the workplace, not only in finance, but across a whole range of careers. Already in this economic crisis, women’s potential pregnancies or children are viewed as real liabilities, especially against the backdrop of swarming resumes of eager, equally deserving men.
The so-called Mommy Wars have undoubtedly pitted stay-at-home mothers against working mothers. Due to the demands of a hostile, stressful work environment that is often the trademark of Wall Street, and the feeling that they’re “missing out” on their children’s young lives, many working mothers confess to experiencing unbearable guilt, and in the process they devalue the significance of work in their own lives. On the contrary, Jong argues, being raised by a village is an advantage rather than a necessary evil; children adapt, learn, and become increasingly social and flexible as a result of being with different caretakers. The working mother is raising her own child even if she is not able to spend 24/7 with her child; the “other people” are her support group – her village – her teammates who allow her to have a job. Yet now, once beleaguered stay-at-home moms have gained a new confidence and pride in their title. As a stay-at-home mom, I can safely report that saying the words, “stay-at-home” has acquired an almost boastful lilt. Yet I fear that our rise is at the expense of the working mother, the result of a fallacious either/or philosophy. In order to help the working mother re-establish herself, to regain the confidence she once enjoyed, we cannot treat one woman’s choice as a judgment or denouncement of another. There cannot be a winner to the Mommy Wars, but a peaceful co-existence and a profound acknowledgment of the hardship involved on all sides. One working mother recently told me, “I do everything – work and take care of the children and my husband who stays at home. But I really have no other choice.” I wanted to throw my arms around her and thank her for going to work every day, for doing her part as a lonesome woman (she happened to be the only female partner in her law firm), in the world of men.
Working and taking care of young children is phenomenally difficult, but it is necessary for women as a defiant stance against historical oppression. If we don’t work, we’ll completely disappear from the spheres of social, political and economic power. In order to see the first female Wall Street CEO claim her rightful title, the role of the working mother has to be resurrected as a desirable and worthy goal, allowing us to move beyond the weepy Winnie Gekko. Women have a responsibility to our society to tackle every field, however unreceptive it may be to them – and at long last induce the financial industry to become more representative of both genders.
Anna Fishbeyn is a writer and performer. Her one-woman solo show, Sex in Mommyville, debuted at the Flea Theater in New York City this summer, and will be shown again at the famed La MaMa Experimental Theater Club this December. She recently published an article about the sexuality of mothers entitled “Whoa, Mama!” in NYPress.com.