[CW: sexist language, description of sex scene]
I resisted watching The Wolf of Wall Street when it was in theaters; I didn’t see it until a few weeks ago, when it hit Redbox and Patrick wanted to rewatch it. The production of this film is admirable, but in the same way that some people can’t stomach slasher movies, I have trouble finding entertainment in stories about predatory capitalists. I’m not keen on writing anything that would necessitate a rewatch of the full three hours, but a few thoughts sprang to mind.
The world that Wolf portrays constructs a binary of winners and losers, the divide only quantified by one’s bank account. Characters do not gain or lose weight as part of the story to inform us that they have crossed the divide from one category to the other, as in Death Becomes Her or Dodgeball: a True Underdog Story. The type of characters who those films are about– the women of Beverly Hills and gym-goers– have statuses that are tied into their ability to maintain the ideal body type, which both films comment on. Compare this to the main characters in The Wolf of Wall Street: the stockbrokers statuses are directly wealth-based, and they make this wealth from manipulating the people they associate with, their clients and employees. Thus it is appropriate to Wolf‘s logic that associating with fat people, over one’s own body being fat, is one of the ways in which the film signifies loserdom, synonymous with being anything but upper class.
The Wolf of Wall Street is conspicuously absent of fat women, the possible exception being Jordan’s (Leonardo diCaprio) housekeeper (Johnnie Mae), who, tellingly, is also the only black person in the film. The reason I say this is a conspicuous absence, unlike other movies that lack fat female characters, is that hypothetical fat women are symbolically attached to male characters to mark them as losers. In a passionate speech to his sales team, Jordan spurs them to success by presenting two futures: driving a new Porsche with a beautiful, large-breasted wife in the passenger seat (and if Jordan’s own wife is any example, the winner’s wife is thin), or driving a beat-up Pinto with “some disgusting wildebeest with three days of razor stubble in a sleeveless muumuu, crammed in next to you”– an image that evokes laughter from his team, his “room of winners.” Anyone who doesn’t see Jordan as a role model is instructed to “work at McDonalds,” low-paying jobs and low-quality food being the shameful realm of losers. Stratton Oakmont has some female stockbrokers as well; even if they are not seeking trophy wives for themselves, they still distance themselves from fat women to prove they are winners. In one scene, shoe designer Steve Madden presents his company to the Stratton Oakmont team but lacks Jordan’s charisma: the pack quickly turns on him. “They’re fat girl’s shoes!” one of the female brokers shouts out derisively, as her coworkers throw things at him.
The winners constantly surround themselves with thin, beautiful, sexually available women. However, even these women are broken into categories of winner and loser. Jordan describes three types of sex worker whom Stratton Oakmont hires, describing them in terminology he uses for the product he sells. The “blue chip” women who charge the most are “model material,” the example being a beatifically lit, model-thin woman who floats towards the viewer from among a small group of stockbrokers, laughing and holding a flute of champagne. The “NASDAQs” are the mid-tier sex workers: a curvier woman who jiggles her body suggestively at the larger group of office workers around her; she is drifting like the “blue chip” woman, but moving across the screen as though she were on a conveyor belt at a grocery store checkout. Finally, the “pink sheets” are the “skanks” who charge the least, represented by a larger woman still who is bored and stationary, braced against a desk while her flesh bounces from the force of the stockbroker who is fucking her, a horde of his coworkers packed in the office, waiting for their turn. None of these women could rightly be called fat, but this is a context where the range of body size considered beautiful is as slender as those who fall within it; the trimmer the body, the more monetary worth assigned, the more exclusive her company.
But what of the gentlemen? A few of the guys in Jordan’s “pack” are chubby, and ostensibly winners, but they are only winners through their connection to Jordan. The pack are initially presented as losers, all of whom are weed-dealing hometown buddies of Jordan’s who are slow to understand his business philosophy. Jordan has to groom them into aggressive salesman through giving them a literal script. They live through him vicariously to an extent, egging him on to seduce Naomi (Margot Robbie) while they watch from a balcony; this is the dynamic that Jordan’s success thrives on. “I know they’re knuckleheads,” he tells his dad (Rob Reiner) in order to explain why sex workers’ services are billed as business expenses, “I need them to want to live like me.” Jordan embodies the winner, inspiring his employees to be more ambitious and aggressive. Not only is Jordan the man with the Porsche and the $40,000 watch he can throw away without batting an eye, he is the provider of thin, beautiful women. Moreover, Jordan has learned the secrets to hyper-success in his field from Mark (Matthew McConaughey), one of the slenderest male characters in the film.
Donnie (Jonah Hill), Jordan’s right hand man, is the prime example of the fat man who can’t quite be a winner on his own. He is desperate for Jordan’s approval from the start, offering to work for him minutes after introducing himself. He does things that are socially awkward and downright taboo, such as marrying his first cousin and masturbating in the middle of a crowded room. Jordan and the others make fun of him when he’s more inebriated than they are. He may be sexually attracted to men, not a trait that is looked upon favorably in the movie’s world. He mirrors Jordan’s ruthlessness, but in a way that is less inspiring than Jordan’s speeches. During a crucial trading day, Donnie shames a stockbroker who has taken a few minutes to clean his fishbowl by swallowing his goldfish in front of the whole office. Donnie asserts dominance over his employee, but the self-imposed frat house dare that he utilizes is model behavior for a goofy fat sidekick. Even after he becomes wealthy, Donnie stays married to his cousin, suggesting his inability to leave behind either his boorish personality or his middle-class beginnings. Jordan, on the other hand, becomes more charismatic and assertive as he gains wealth, divorcing his first wife who he married before making it big in favor of gorgeous, blonde Naomi.
There are several factors and turns of events that bring about Jordan’s downfall, but Donnie is a factor in a few of them. He calls their banker on a tapped phone under the influence of quaaludes (before choking on a piece of ham). Through his awkward way of socializing, he provokes another pack member into a fight in public, which gets the police involved. Donnie’s poor decision making is not the only harbinger of doom for Jordan: Jordan alerts Donnie that he is wearing a wire, which incriminates Jordan in tampering with an investigation. Jordan’s friendship with a fat person, making a decision to protect that friend in contrast to his materialistic winner persona, has contributed to his departure from the “winner” category. In a final stroke of fate, Jordan’s high class position unravels for good due to a bourgeois restaurant chain.
Despite imagery in media such as political cartoons that cling to using fat as a symbol of privileged wealth, the reverse has been true in USian culture for generations. A slender body is the ultimate sign of wealth that people of every class are mandated to strive for, a body that has the time and resources to be sculpted by plastic surgery, personal trainers, fad diets, and cocaine, a body that symbolizes the willpower and drive required to survive in the bootstrap narrative we tell ourselves. Fat bodies are seen as lower class, associated with overindulgence, lack of social ability, and poor decisions, qualities that contribute to failure. Despite the characters in The Wolf of Wall Street adhering to this mentality, we see that Jordan, despite his straight-sized body and financial success, can’t separate himself from “fat” behaviors and characters, showing us how fleeting and unstable the conditions for winning are.