Women are largely absent from The Big Short, a funny, fast-paced true story about the 2008 crash on Wall Street. Perhaps this is understandable for a film about a largely male-dominated industry, but the fact that women seem to play such a minor role speaks volumes about value systems on Wall Street—and beyond.
In the film, women appear for brief scenes to explain complicated financial concepts. Margot Robbie defines collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) while naked in a bubble bath and drinking champagne, shortly followed by Selena Gomez explaining synthetic CDOs over a game of poker. Both scenes take a no-nonsense tone with a dry, slightly crass sense of humor. To the writers' credit, the scenes are undeniably effective, as I left with a better understanding of financial topics I hadn’t cared to understand previously. And yet, despite showing that these women obviously know what's what, they still manage to be sexualized accessories—almost comically so. Is it a self-aware objectification to make a point about the lack of women in this world, or what we think their roles should be? If it is, it's subtle, and almost slips by viewers unnoticed.
Afterward, though, it occurred to me that self-aware objectification of women is no better than the garden variety. Recognition of the problem may even serve as a diversion, a cheap method of paying lip-service problem while avoiding grappling with the deeper currents of the problem. Self-awareness is a step toward reality, sure, but can be a devious way of avoiding real work toward a solution.
Beyond the silver screen, the role of women in finance has been subject to scrutiny. The New York Times recently published an article about the lack of women present at the World Economic Forum conference known as Davos , a yearly gathering of financial tycoons where only 17.8 percent of the participants are women. Cathy O’Neil, advocate for women in STEM and former Wall Street hedge fund manager, turned the conversation back to the larger motives at play. Rather than bemoaning the absence of women at the elite conference, she displays a lack of confidence in the merits of a conference, stating, “I’m proud that women have better things to do than spend their time in high-security luxury to disingenuously discuss the world’s poor.” Her critique is harsh, but it is an important strain of thought in a culture inclined toward criticizing any time women are underrepresented without asking the questions of why or whether it’s necessarily a good thing.
Similarly, I’m not sorry there weren’t more women in The Big Short. Do women have the smarts, quick wits, and negotiation skills to run in the rugged world of Wall Street? Absolutely. But maybe we should step back and consider the original motives. O'Neil discusses her lack of faith in the solutions at Davos, where she suspects the snazzy ideas are primarily a means of self-promotion. A surface-level concern about what seems to be a lack of women in an industry distracts from the deeper, more pressing need for women and men of integrity in the financial sector.
There are no heroes in The Big Short. The analysts who saw through the fraud in the system effectively bet against the American economy at an immense profit. But perhaps there is a heroine—not a flashy star, but instead a minor supporting character. One of the main hedge fund characters experiences a personal crisis and issues with anger management. In what I found to be the most moving scene of the film, we see his wife comforting him, giving him the grace and the space to walk away from a job he feels trapped by. In that moment, a minor supporting character with limited dialogue offers an alternative to the disordered value system of a fraudulent Wall Street. That scene made me proud to see a woman in a supporting role.
Films and industries with strong women are undoubtedly something to work toward, but that should not require being complicit to a value system that is rotten to the core, like the portrait of Wall Street portrayed in The Big Short. Cultural norms may have conditioned moviegoers to pay more attention to actresses in bubble baths than a quick snapshot of a wife comforting her husband, but false perceptions of value do not lessen the magnitude of womanly strength and leadership. Before calling out for diversity, perhaps we should critically reexamine how merit is doled out in existing systems, whether in Hollywood films or on Wall Street.
Photo Credit: Paramount