Martin Scorsese and the Male Gaze

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by Sam Adams
February 12, 2014 11:20 AM
9 Comments
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In an Al-Jazeera America essay called "The Wolf of Wall Street's Male Gaze," communications strategist and former Businessweek staffer Moira Rosen lights into what she characterizes as the unrelenting objectification of Martin Scorsese's film:

Wolf fails to say anything interesting about the women who inhabit Jordan's world. Interchangeable Barbie-doll figures, hookers and strippers serve simply as props for the male protagonists as they carry on with their debauched antics, drawing plenty of laughs from the audience. Scorsese and Winter had plenty of creative freedom in their treatment of Jordan’s story; all that was needed to show how marginalized women were on the Wall Street trading floors of the 1980s and '90s were a few key scenes featuring prostitutes and parades of strippers. Instead, Scorsese and Winter carry on in shot after shot, displaying dozens of barely clothed or naked female bodies whose not-so-private parts are meticulously waxed or shaven. The breasts, stilettos and shimmying bottoms continue, ad nauseam; with all the titillation, it starts to feel like the filmmakers are being seduced by the very Wall Street machismo they purportedly critique.

Don't worry: I'm not going to dredge up the whole Wolf debate again. But Rosen's critique dovetails with pair of recent video essays exploring the way women are treated in Scorsese's oeuvre as a whole. Nelson Carvajal and Max Winter's takes the dialectical approach, contrasting the way women are both abused and idealized in Scorsese's films:

While Dina Fiasconaro's plays like a brief for the prosecution:

Watching the two side by side, it's striking how many of the same moments the two focus on, and how differently they're treated. Fiasconaro's "The Representation of Women in Martin Scorsese Films," which is sorted into labeled sections, files the Casino scene where an irate Sharon Stone confronts Robert DeNiro under "Mental Illness," where Carvajal and Winter's "Women in the Works of Martin Scorsese" uses it as a kind of wry opening salvo, blending it neatly with Margot Robbie's outburst in Wolf. Fiasconaro, by contrast, opens with Scorsese's on-screen appearance in Taxi Driver, playing a character who luridly fantasizes about taking violent revenge on his cuckolding wife, which tells you all you need to know about the way she approaches the subject. Rosen and Fiasconaro both reference the concept of the male gaze, which originated with Laura Mulvey's landmark 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." But neither takes into the nearly four decades of debate that have followed, in which Mulvey's ideas have been complicated and criticized for, among other things, gender essentialism and heteronormative bias. 

That's not to say Scorsese's movies never cross, as Rosen puts it, the "fine line between accurately depicting the rampant objectification of women... and succumbing to it." For me, After Hours is inescapably soiled by the rampant hysteria of Griffin Dunne's displaced word processor, whose below-14th-St. Odyssey seems like one long bout of castration anxiety. But to reduce Scorsese's films to a single metric -- "Is Martin Scorsese sexist? Check One: [  ] Yes [  ] No" -- is to flatten out and discard the tangible and poignant way in which he has wrestled with images of women throughout his career. (Given that he has been married five times, it's safe to say he's wrestled with them in his personal life as well.)

It's all too telling that Fiasconaro's essay leaves out Jessica Lange's terrified attempt to protect her daughter from Cape Fear, and makes no reference to Shutter Island, in which Leonardo DiCaprio's character literally grapples with the specter of his dead wife. (Carvajal and Winter quote both, although they skip over The Age of Innocence, one of Scorsese's greatest films and one of his least archetypically masculine.) Scorsese's perspective, like any artist's, or any person's, is limited, but if his point of view is definitionally masculine, it is also uniquely his own, which is to say, not Man's but a man's. If you accept that, to paraphrase Avenue Q, everyone's a little bit sexist, then the question is how they address that fact, whether they passively succumb to it or enthusiastically embrace it, or whether they honestly lay it on the line. From Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid to The Brown Bunny, some of my favorite films do a misogynist two-step, lionizing their loner heroes while showing how they're permanently crippled by the roles they've embraced. The Wolf of Wall Street is atypical for Scorsese in that it leaves most of that anguish offscreen; it's for the audience to suffer the pangs of conscience that Jordan Belfort never has. But it doesn't follow because the movie's hero gets off easy that we do as well.

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9 Comments

  • M | February 25, 2014 9:19 AMReply

    You should do Steven Moffat too ! <3 bye bye =D

  • Dina | February 13, 2014 12:11 AMReply

    Thank you for featuring my video. However, I just want to clarify that it wasn't made as a standalone (or all inclusive) piece - it is simply a visual accompaniment to some academic research I presented on the topic, which hones in on certain themes and takes a few of the strongest examples from Scorsese's body of work.

  • Dina | February 13, 2014 10:02 AM

    Sam, not in any cohesive, written form (yet), but I'd be happy to share my research with you offline!

  • Sam Adams | February 13, 2014 9:17 AM

    Thanks for clarifying. Is that research available online anywhere?

  • David Ehrenstein | February 12, 2014 8:03 PMReply

    "The Male Gaze" -- a tire old feminist fraud tat should have bitten the dust 20 years ago.

  • Helen | February 12, 2014 12:56 PMReply

    There's a much easier and more personal way to gauge this: be a woman. Be a woman, with a lifetime of experience as the object of the male gaze (both in person and in the mediated cultural sense), and then watch his films. Or don't, as you may soon find that you have little taste for them. It's not really that fine a hair to split.

  • TOMRIS | February 12, 2014 6:56 PM

    Well, I am a woman (despite what my name suggests- I get Mr. Tom a lot in emails from people who don't know me); and I stand by the below comment I made. I know we won't agree no matter what, however I truly think the unflinching display of misogyny in WOLF suggest the opposite. Scorsese describes (indirectly cautions). Doesn't prescribe. Cheers.

  • Sam Adams | February 12, 2014 12:59 PM

    Changing my gender and entire life experience is the easy way? What's the hard way?

  • Tomris | February 12, 2014 12:27 PMReply

    My two cents: it is precisely because Scorsese shows the blatant sexism with an overdose, WOLF reads as the exact opposite of misogyny. It underlines it so harshly that there is no escaping from it. But then again, this goes hand in hand with my attitude toward the entire film as well. There is no way to look at WOLF and think “this is normal behavior”.

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