Gordon Gekko, Unintended Role Model?

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An icon of greed undertakes a public-service campaign, but Wall Street's damage has been done.

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The Los Angeles Times reports that the actor Michael Douglas, star of Wall Street and its sequel subtitled Money Never Sleeps, has just done a public service announcement for the FBI attempting to raise consciousness against financial fraud:

He notes that Gekko cheated innocent investors out of their savings.

"The movie was fiction, but the problem is real," he said.

"Our economy is increasingly dependent on the success and the integrity of the financial markets," Douglas continues. "If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is."

But there's an irony behind Douglas's gesture. Entirely contrary to the purpose of the director, Oliver Stone, and Mr. Douglas himself in making the first Wall Street, it inspired a generation of would-be One-Percenters. As Mark R. Yzaguirre wrote on the Frum Forum site:

Gekko was more than just a memorable villain.  His character became an icon that people wanted to emulate, a result that the creators of his character didn't intend.  The co-writer of Wall Street, Stanley Weiser, has stated: "As the years have gone by, it's heartening to see how popular the film has remained. But what I find strange and oddly disturbing is that Gordon Gekko has been mythologized and elevated from the role of villain to that of hero."  Stone himself has said "In the original I think Gekko was a one note villain, he was pure villain to me because he was an aggressive, shallow, money seeking person. I think people liked him, they found him exciting."

I can definitely attest to that fact.  As a young person in the late 80s and early 90s, I don't know how many times I saw the original Wall Street with friends, and in most cases (particularly among my friends who went to business school), the Gekko character wasn't seen as an example of an unethical culture, but as a role model to follow.  One wonders how many times Stone or Michael Douglas have had investment bankers approach them to say how Wall Street inspired them to get into the finance business.

The Austrian filmmaker Thomas Fuerhaupter's documentary Michael Berger: A Hysteria, which I saw recently at Anthology Film Archives in New York, recalls that the young Berger, growing up in Austria, was so riveted by Douglas's performance that he dreamed of a Wall Street career and started to dress and comb his hair like the Gordon Gekko character. And American gangster films are well known to have inspired copycats worldwide. Saddam Hussein, according to one of his biographers, saw the fictional Godfather as a role model and emulated the film's most horrific moments.

Of course, unintended consequences of authorship didn't start or end with the 1980s. I explore other cases here.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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