The Oscar-nominated comedy-drama The Big Short, based on the nonfiction book by journalist Michael Lewis, depicts five Wall Street financiers who foresee the 2008 financial crisis. Viewers and critics adore it; on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s 88% certified fresh, and many are predicting it could take home the trophy for Best Picture at tonight’s Academy Awards telecast.
But what most don’t realize is that it also conceals a good old-fashioned mystery — someone is missing. Director Adam McKay disappeared one of the crisis’ biggest heroes.
Lewis’ book begins with Meredith Whitney, a young woman who bagged a Wall Street job straight out of Brown University. Thirteen years later, she cut $390 billion off the value of the U.S. stock market. By noting that Citigroup’s dividends and profits didn’t match up, she spurred a substantial drop in their stock. In Lewis’ words, “Whitney was crashing the stock market with her every utterance.” Whitney’s disappearance leaves a glaring gap in McKay’s adaptation, not least because she’s a badass, economy-stopping genius, but also because the remaining five protagonists are all men.
This is a shame, because countless women and girls needed to see Whitney in The Big Short. After all, “you can’t be what you can’t see” (shoutout to the great Marian Edelman for that one). In U.S. financial services, women make up 54% of the workforce, 16% of senior executives, and an amazing 0% of CEOs. Few women reach the summit of Wall Street, and as a result, female financiers have hardly any role models. With Wall Street making only plodding progress with gender equality, the media has the potential — and a responsibility — to inspire women in finance.
You’d be surprised at the power of popular culture; Bend it Like Beckham motivated tons of girls to take to the soccer pitch, and according to the book Operation Hollywood, naval aviation recruitment increased 500% after the release of Top Gun. McKay could have followed in this vein, spurring women to smash Wall Street’s Perspex ceiling. Depressingly, he omitted Meredith Whitney, leaving women to play mostly secondary characters.
In doing so, The Big Short followed a long and storied cinematic tradition: erasing women from Wall Street.
From Arbitrage to The Wolf of Wall Street, screen time in Wall Street-themed movies is regularly dominated by men, and the few women present are often characterized in the same old, lazy ways. Women rarely appear as senior executives, and in the rare instances where they do, they’re less than inspiring. In the 2012 film Arbitrage, Robert (Richard Gere) manages a hedge fund with daughter Brooke (Brit Marling). When Brooke finds out that her father has cooked the company’s books, she confronts him, like the strong female character she is. But this inspiring moment is cut off after a generous few seconds when Robert tells Brooke that he’s “the patriarch.” She storms off, and that’s that. Brooke has a high-ranking role in the company, but her actions are insignificant.
Same goes for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in which the only high-ranker is a character named “Carol” who pitches an idea to Chinese investors, only for them to prefer male protagonist Jacob’s idea. Carol’s five minutes of fame are up just like that — we never see her again.
One exception to this trope is Margin Call, where the Chief Risk Management Officer, played by Demi Moore, has an active storytelling role. But in Feminist Erasures, Kumarini Silva chalked this up to the film featuring an ensemble cast, making it something of an anomaly.
Whether or not Silva’s right, we can all accept that Hollywood movies lack influential women in senior financial roles. In Wall Street films, women are way better at propping the men up. They can usually be categorized as one of the three S’s: spouses, secretaries, or strippers. Behind every Wall Street powerhouse, there’s a devoted wife. In The Big Short, it’s Cynthia (Marisa Tomei), the wife of Steve Carrell’s character, Mark. She spends many of her limited minutes of screen time on the other end of the phone to Mark, serving as the calming yin to his eccentric, gifted yang. Here’s one example:
TOMEI: I think you should try medication.
CARELL: No, no. We agreed — if it interfered with work.
TOMEI: You hate Wall Street. Maybe it’s time to quit.
CARELL: I love my job.
TOMEI: You hate your job.
In reality, Cynthia (real name Valerie) worked as an analyst at J.P. Morgan, before quitting to launch a clothing line and raise kids. Despite this information being in Lewis’ book, McKay portrayed Valerie in the conventional “Wall Street Wife” way.
Similarly, in Arbitrage, Robert’s wife plays the perfect corporate wife — she accepts that her husband, as a man of his profession, has affairs.
In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Winnie (Carey Mulligan) plans to marry protagonist Jacob (Shia LeBeouf). She’s not yet a wife, but is well on her way to perfecting the “Wall Street Wife” trope. She plays an emotional role, while the men (Jacob and her father, Gordon Gekko) talk business. Not only does she support Jacob emotionally, she also she gives him $100 million of her savings to invest in a fusion research company.
Opposite the Good Wives are the strippers and prostitutes. They’re presented as Wall Street’s vice — they lure men from their families, as in The Wolf of Wall Street. They’re also a symbol of Wall Street’s excesses. When asked about his expenditures, the Head of Trading in Margin Call boasts “76,520 [dollars] on hookers, booze and dancers, but mainly hookers . . . I was a little bit shocked initially but then I realized I could claim most of it back as entertainment.”
This “vice” trope is also evident in the general portrayal of women as Wall Street’s femme fatale. In Arbitrage, Robert faces jail and the ruin of his career because of an accident that leads to the death of his mistress. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps goes even further. Gordon tells Jacob “money’s a bitch that never sleeps. And she’s jealous. And if you don’t pay close attention, you wake up in the morning, and she might be gone forever.” “WTF, bro? Doesn’t this film suck enough already?” exclaims Jacob. We wish — in reality, Jacob lets Gordon’s crass sexism fly. There’s a consensus in Wall Street films — like money, women are the cause of male financiers’ downfall.
When “biographical” and “realistic” films portray women via stock characters like these, how can real women find on-screen role models? Thankfully, some of these women have taken action. Equity, the first woman-driven Wall Street film in 28 years, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last month. The protagonist, main supporting roles, writer, director, and producers are all women. Equity proves that there’s a demand for strong, female financial figures in film — Sony recently bought worldwide rights and the movie features in popular financial publications like Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.
Let’s hope that Hollywood and Wall Street follow Equity in inspiring women to reach positions of financial leadership. Women like Meredith Whitney prove that it’s possible, but they sadly lack visibility on screen and off. Zero percent of women CEOs in U.S. financial service is an embarrassing figure. However, it’s one that can change as women begin to see exactly what they can be.