Does ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Treat Women Worse than ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’?
On reducing God's image-bearers to trophies and objects
Practically everyone I know loves Top Gun: Maverick. Likely the most effusive praise I’ve seen comes from my friend and film critic Steven D. Greydanus, who writes that the movie “is more than a nostalgia sequel or legacyquel; it is almost more than a movie. It is a manifesto and a monument, a defiant time capsule and a swaggering IMAX spectacle without precedent or peer.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across a wildly different take from film critic Jeffrey Overstreet.He lists several problems he has with the movie, the last item being “its objectification of women as trophies.” (He even prefaces this problem by inserting the word “sigh” in parenthesis, evidently to express his exasperation with the objectification.) Until reading Overstreet’s review, I had seen no mention of any such female objectification.
Not having yet watched the film myself, I can’t comment on the veracity of Overstreet’s concerns. Nevertheless, I can appreciate what appears to be his sensitivity to forms of objectification that aren’t blatant or explicit. Women can indeed be treated as objects, not just through the visuals of a story, but through the mechanics of the story itself.
My main surprise, however, was based on the contrast between Overstreet’s response to Top Gun: Maverick and his response to the objectification of women in The Wolf of Wall Street. He began his review of the latter by quoting those who condemned the movie:
“What? You liked The Wolf of Wall Street? How could you possibly recommend such Hollywood muck? Such profanity! Such perversity! Such evil!”
His response to those who are disgusted with the film’s depictions of perversity is to sigh—again, ostensibly in exasperation. We’ll address a possible source of his exasperation in a minute. First, though, we need to address The Wolf of Wall Street’s treatment of its actresses, not the least of which was Margot Robbie.
(If you’re already convinced WoWS objectifies some of its actresses, you can skip the following two sections below; they are designed to convince those who are skeptical that Martin Scorsese, the film’s director, did anything exploitative.)
Objectification in Sheep’s Clothing
The script for The Wolf of Wall Street introduces Robbie’s character, Naomi Lapaglia, as “24, blonde and gorgeous, a living wet dream in La Perla lingerie”—a description followed shortly after with this addition (after her character licks her lips): “she’s incredibly, painfully hot.”
These aren’t lines spoken by the debauched character of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who narrates the film; they represent a description from the screenplay itself, which exists as a set of instructions for how the filmmakers are to shoot the scene (and Naomi’s character). An objectifying lens informs the movie’s own view of Naomi.
This is evidenced further in how Margot Robbie was chosen for the film. When Scorsese’s casting director, Ellen Lewis, saw what Robbie was planning to wear to the audition— “jeans and a shirt, her usual look”—she informed Robbie that was unacceptable and sent her out to “buy the highest heels she could find, the tightest dress she could squeeze into, and a push-up bra.” All this in spite of the fact that, as Robbie put it, “I never dress like that, ever, but I thought, ‘Just do what she says.’”
The result, Margot said, was that her feet hurt and she thought that she “looked ridiculous”:
She didn’t think, “Oh my God, I’m walking into a room with Marty and Leo.” She was just thinking, “Don’t trip, don’t trip.”
Instead of the expected excitement at meeting Scorsese and DiCaprio, all she could think about was the possibility of falling over and making a fool of herself.
Think about that for just a moment. Before even meeting Scorsese, Margot was turned into a sex object—contrary to everything that felt or seemed natural to her. Made to look “ridiculous” in dangerously high heels, and then paraded in front of a panel of men, Margot was forced into Hollywood’s standard “objectification mold” in order to even be considered for a role in the film.
Of course, audiences didn’t see the screenplay or anything behind the scenes; they saw the finished product. In talking about the completed movie, the blog ScholarDay comments on Robbie’s onscreen objectification:
When we as an audience see [Robbie] completely nude, a woman who never wanted to do a nude role in order to have a career in Hollywood, we are looking at a woman who had to take three shots of hard liquor in the morning in order to stand there naked in front of us [according to a HuffPost article]. When talking about the character she played in The Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie was tragically adding commentary on the character women are forced to play in a male-ran Hollywood:
“The whole point of Naomi is that her body is her only form of currency in this world.”
Robbie’s behind-the-scene and onscreen objectification bled into the way audiences responded to the movie. I have previously documented how even distinguished figures like critic James Berardinelli and filmmaker Rich Cohen have objectified Robbie in response to her role in the film. As I wrote back then, “stories that objectify humans invite an audience response that echoes that objectification.”
The way Margot Robbie was cast, filmed, promoted, and talked about in The Wolf of Wall Street all point to this reality: Robbie’s body was the only form of currency our entertainment culture was willing to legitimize.
An Equal Opportunity Objectifier
With somewhere close to 22 sex scenes, The Wolf of Wall Street objectifies more than just one actress. Another example is Maria Di Angelis, who plays an uncredited role as one of roughly 20 “high-end hooker[s]” during a “mass orgy scene aboard a charter plane.”
As with Robbie, the objectification of Angelis began during the casting phase:
The first step was e-mailing pictures of my body to prove I was still in the right kind of shape. They wanted to see how my butt and legs looked. So I just grabbed my iPad and, partially dressed, struck an arrogant pose and clicked “Send.”
Some might argue that a process like this isn’t necessarily evidence of objectification; like Robbie, Angelis was simply filling the requirements for a role that involved a sexualized character. But that’s just my point: an image-bearer of God had to send pictures of her various body parts for evaluation by a filmmaking team who had to decide if her body qualified as sexually alluring enough for a viewing audience. Objectification was baked into the very process—as it has been for Hollywood’s long history of evaluating actresses based on their level of sex appeal.
During Angelis’ part in the orgy sequence, her scene partner, P. J. Byrne, was supposed to order her to perform a particular sex act, to which she was to reply, “Make me!” With Angelis’ permission, Byrne grabbed her by the throat to force her acquiescence.
Fast forward to Angelis’ experience after filming ended:
We were in a van on the way home to Manhattan, being bused from this crazy shoot, and I was quietly sitting behind two men who were also in the orgy.
“When the brunette said to that actor, ‘C’mon, make me!,’ I couldn’t help but get an erection,” one of them said. “It was so hot. . . .”
They didn’t realize it was me. But when they saw me getting off the bus, they recognized me. “Oh, sorry,” they said. “Was that you?”
Notice how these two men acted when “caught” responding to Angelis sexually: they apologized. They were aware that a line of indecency had been crossed; they had confessed to enjoying her objectification in her very presence, and their instinctual response was to say, “Sorry.”
A friend of mine once put it like this:
[W]e need to recognize that the burden of sex scenes and nudity in general, whether anyone reckons particular examples to be gratuitous or artistically warranted, exploitative or otherwise, has historically fallen significantly harder on actresses, who have always been required to do much more nudity in general, and sexual nudity specifically, and who are and generally have been more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than men in all kinds of institutional and social settings, including Hollywood.
Playing at Morality?
During a Manhattan press conference for The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio said, “[W]e were trying to depict a modern day Caligula and all the debauchery that comes with it.” As a result, and to quote The Movie Blog’s Paula Schwartz, the film comprises “179 minutes of scene after scene of rampant, drug-fueled sex in yachts, mansions, planes and offices.”
And yet, in his lengthy review of The Wolf of Wall Street, Overstreet never once mentioned female objectification. It seems that the main reason for this omission was his (legitimate) enthusiasm for Scorsese’s message: “the filmmakers’ intentions were to zoom in and expose evil.” The reason the film spends nearly three hours watching Belfast’s debauchery, followed by him simply getting slapped on the wrist before he moves on to being a motivational speaker, is this: the audience is meant to recognize that our society encourages Belfast’s hedonism; while behaviors like his should be condemned and punished, they often aren’t because the masses secretly aspire to his level of carnality.
Scorsese’s intentions, apart from any other consideration, seem theoretically logical.With these intentions in mind, Overstreet wrote in another article that the film was “a ferocious satire that both exposed corporate evil and revealed the lives of the 1% as hell of denial and self-destruction, so that we would see that what they’ve won is nothing to be coveted.”
In other words, Scorsese earned the right to shoot the film the way he did because his end-game was to condemn the incessant onscreen debauchery. Put more succinctly, the end justified the means (in this case, both literally and figuratively).
There is a problem with this line of reasoning, however—and I’m not the only one to notice it. For example, the book Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue says the following in its evaluation of The Wolf of Wall Street: “A filmmaker’s creative intentions can and should inform our understanding of a movie’s power and meaning. But these intentions (however virtuous they may be) cannot be our only interpretive criterion” (172).
More pointedly, film critic Jonathan Kiefer wrote that DiCaprio’s “resourceful scoundrel” in The Wolf of Wall Street seemed like a “brazen improvement on Spielberg’s much more timid Catch Me If You Can. That film wouldn’t have known what to do with heaving hysterical mobs having orgies of sex or selling on the trading floor; this one almost doesn’t know what to do without them. Glorification may not be an intention but may be a consequence.”
As I have written elsewhere,
[A] director’s intention does not exist in a vacuum. It would be intellectually dishonest to believe artistic intent automatically nullifies any potential misuses of style or technique. And explicit depictions of…sexuality are susceptible to unintended messages.
For all of Scorsese’s good intentions behind The Wolf of Wall Street, he ended up extolling that which he wished to condemn.
Style is Substance
When evaluating visual stories, Christians all across the political spectrum can fall into the same trap: they can label as legitimate virtually any stylistic choice needed to drive home a film’s message. For conservatives, these stylistic choices include blatant sermonizing and fantastic (i.e., unrealistic) worldbuilding. For liberals, these stylistic choices include softcore content like “simulated sex” and an overall reveling in “gritty realism.” For both conservatives and liberals, a laudable message will cover a multitude of questionable methods.
It seems Overstreet’s agreement with The Wolf of Wall Street’s intentions prevented him from recognizing its questionable methods—including the female objectification inherent in the film’s visual palette. Overstreet would do well to remember an important principle he has made elsewhere (I’ll put it in bold because it deserves emphasis):
Style is substance. . . . If you change the style of something, you change what it can mean.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with addressing human objectification in a visual story. It can be handled in a way that maintains the dignity of its actors. But when Scorsese employed pornographic filming techniques, he automatically changed what the film meant; the style changed the substance.
So, does Top Gun: Maverick include “objectification of women as trophies”? Not yet having seen the movie myself, I can’t readily say. But one thing I am sure of is this: if the numerous depictions of sexual exploitationin The Wolf of Wall Street don’t count as objectification, then nothing does.
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For those not familiar with Jeffrey Overstreet, his writings on cinema have been recognized and praised by the likes of Eugene Peterson, RogerEbert.com, and Publisher’s Weekly. A former film critic for Christianity Today, he has taught classes at places like Houston Baptist University and Covenant College. His “moviegoing memoir,” Through a Screen Darkly, has been “used as a textbook at Seattle Pacific University, Fuller Seminary, Northwestern College, Bryan College, Biola University, and in other schools and L.A. film programs.”
All verbiage in quotation marks in this story comes from a 2014 article in The Globe and Mail, entitled “Slapping DiCaprio was just the beginning for Margot Robbie”: https://www [dot] theglobeandmail [dot] com/arts/film/slapping-dicaprio-was-just-the-beginning-for-margo-robbie/article16265484.
This paragraph is lifted from an earlier blog post I wrote, entitled “What About Actors Who Willingly Undress for the Camera?”
All verbiage in quotation marks in this story comes from a 2013 article in New York Post, entitled “My ‘orgy’ with Leonardo DiCaprio”: https://nypost [dot] com/2013/12/23/my-orgy-with-leonardo-dicaprio.
It’s worth noting that, when Angelis was introduced to P.J. Byrne on the actual set for the orgy scene, Byrne joked, “Oh my gosh. You’re gorgeous! What am I gonna tell my wife? I’m so happily married, I can’t even look at you!”
Those who fall back on Scorsese’s good intentions in filming material like this—to expose the evils of these debauched businessmen—must reckon with the reality that the material, by virtue of its pornographic nature, came across (at least to some—not the least of which were other actors in the same scene) as sexually arousing, not morally repulsive.
In an interview, Scorsese explained his intentions thus: “To present characters like this on the screen, have them reach some emotional crisis, and to see them punished for what they’ve done, all it does is make us feel better. . . . I didn’t want [the audience] to be able to think problem solved, and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world, and everything down to our children and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future.”
In the interest of full disclosure, let me share my public comments to Jeffrey Overstreet on his review: “[T]here are certain forms of visual media that can be condemned by members in the church who have not seen many (or any) of them—like pornography. Would you agree? Pornography is an inherently evil form of communication that cannot be redeemed—even by a moral message. And those of us who have not seen WoWS are still concerned about the blatantly pornographic elements in the movie. . . . The Internet is awash with reviews of the film that mention the NC-17 level sex in the film. Therefore, are not our concerns about the film genuine and worthy of note—even if we haven’t sat down and watched the movie?”
I later fleshed out this line of reasoning in a blog post entitled “Should You Criticize Movies You Haven’t Watched?”
Many such depictions are graphically catalogued on IMDb: https://www [dot] imdb [dot] com/title/tt0993846/parentalguide?ref_=tt_stry_pg. (Reader discretion is advised.)
Concerning your #10 footnote, much of the nudity and sex scenes - once they're out or are available to caption - are documented on adult sites. I wish to not give these sites exposure so I will not list them here. One site you can search via actor's name or by project. If they are in the database they categorize each scene as "NUDITY" or "SEXY" (the latter usually covers everything outside of bare nudity, so see-through dresses/lingerie, underwear, hair covering breasts etc.)
This comment may seem very bizarre, but it goes to show that under "artistic expression" and "realism" talking points, mainstream tv & film dips into adult entertainment of the XXX variety - which includes softcore.