Wall Street is famously full of dudes.
And movies about Wall Street are too. They tend to include hectic scenes on trading floors, charged dialogue about money and greed. In these movies, women—when they’re present at all—tend to be lower-ranking deputies or assistants, or, more often, wives, girlfriends, or love interests. According to statistics compiled by the financial-services firm PwC, women actually make up 60 percent of the employees in its industry worldwide—and yet only 19 percent make it to leadership roles and a mere 2 percent become CEOs.
That’s why Equity is so refreshing. The movie, which Rolling Stone dubbed “The She-Wolf of Wall Street,” is an exploration of successful, driven women in finance. It features Anna Gunn, Alysia Reiner, and Sarah Megan Thomas as powerful financiers who are upfront about their ambition and love of money. A female-driven Wall Street movie is a rarity, and Equity boasts an all-female creative team as well—from its director, Meera Menon, to its production company, Broad Street Pictures, which Reiner and Thomas co-founded.
At its core, Equity is a fictional corporate thriller in the vein of Margin Call. It follows Naomi Bishop, an ambitious and aggressive senior investment banker working on a series of Silicon Valley IPOs in hopes of becoming the head of her division. But the film also touches on the issues women face on Wall Street with bosses, clients, and each other. Below, Atlantic editors Gillian White and Bourree Lam talk about the film and its relevance to issues women face in the workplace, and working in the finance industry specifically.
Gillian White: This movie felt a bit different to me even before I got into the screening room. The last time I went to see a film about Wall Street, it was finance-bro central. Granted, this was a pre-release viewing and a large portion of the guest list—including some members of Congress—was probably purposely skewed toward women, but still, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a screening that was so woman-dominated. Especially not a movie about finance. On the one hand, it was pretty cool, being surrounded by so many successful, smart, elegant women. I wanted to talk with all of them. But, I was also a bit sad, but unsurprised, that so few men decided to come out.
Bourree Lam: I saw the movie at my desk in our New York office, so I’d like to hear more about how your screening crowd reacted to certain scenes in the movie. I thought the opening captured some familiar cliches about people working in finance in the city—the fancy apartment, the late nights in Midtown, the car service, the elegant clothes, and personal fitness sessions. I thought the speech near the beginning of the movie was one of its most memorable moments, for both Anna Gunn and the movie overall. Gunn’s Naomi Bishop is at an afterwork women-in-leadership roundtable (and there are so many of those these days), and she talks about the fact that women can be powerful, ambitious breadwinners. In that speech, Naomi also says, “Don’t let money be a dirty word. We can like that too.” That phrase becomes a central theme and plot device in the movie.
White: Yeah, there were a lot of knowing sighs, and chuckles at some of the various stereotypes. I liked that initial framing of these characters. These are women who loved their jobs because they loved the skill set it requires, the competition, the chaos, and the perks—money, nice clothes (lots of power dressing), swank apartments, and fancy dinners. That may not be the thing that people want to hear or see at a time when everyone is talking about vast inequality and the sins of Wall Street. But, for the sake of gender equity, I think it was important to show that women were enjoying all the things Wall Street men were enjoying. I did think that it was interesting that the story tried to justify Naomi’s desire for money and make her a bit more relatable by having her talk about how she used some of her money to help her family by putting her siblings through college. I almost felt like that detracted a bit, like she had to make some argument as a female caretaker.
Also, I got a kick out of the initial conversation shown between Erin and her husband, where she is gleefully preparing for a client pitch and taunts him with her competitiveness. I thought the framing of women’s relationships both at and outside of work, and between each other, was probably the most interesting aspect of the movie.
Lam: One of the salient points the movie makes about female friendships in the office is one I hear often—the paranoia that certain people are getting ahead because of perception. For women, this often includes what people know about their personal lives. For example, one of the most powerful moments in the first half of the movie is when Naomi discovers Erin in the bathroom pouring her martini down the drain. Erin mumbles an obscenity, because now her boss knows she’s pregnant and she’s (rightfully) scared that that’s going to lead Naomi to view her in a different light, which would likely hurt her career.
Naomi is viewed as a shark, and she wants to be. But it’s blatant in the movie that this perception of her as a powerful, aggressive, work-focused woman is also hurting her career and botching deals. She verbalizes her frustration that she doesn’t know what she can do with that, because that’s not exactly a performance-based measure. There’s also the meta-narrative that while men get mad at other people for failure, women get mad at themselves.
White: The relationship between Naomi and Erin was kind of heartbreaking. To go from a mentor-protégé affinity to malicious rivals was deflating. I think it highlighted that train of thought that comes up for some who are a minority in their field, which is the notion that “there can only be one” and that self-preservation, at the end of the day, will trump friendship, loyalty, or anything else.
I was also disheartened by the soft skills women were expected to have in order to be successful. Despite the fact that Naomi has obviously been a financial powerhouse for years, her last deal went south and her current one threatens to do the same because she doesn’t pass the likability test for her male clients. I found that to be so frustrating, since that is so often used against powerful women and is essentially a catch-22: To be respected you are often told to be more aggressive, but once you are, you’re no longer likable. The other thing that felt difficult to stomach was the ways in which both Erin and Naomi use sexuality to try to relate to clients. Erin is young and beautiful and lets her frantic, egotistical Silicon Valley client enjoy her company and flirtation until he indicates that he doesn’t actually think she’s of value professionally. Naomi makes it clear more than once that she used to play that game too, but has both risen above it and aged out of it being useful.
Lam: The soft-skills thing is definitely interesting. For men, these soft skills are often portrayed as being able to “be one of the boys”: boozing, eating steaks, and doing man stuff. For women, these soft skills are portrayed as taming the tiger that is your client/boss/difficult colleague. I like that Naomi butts heads with this concept and the double standards it reveals. She is clearly very good at pitching, a soft skill that’s very important in her line of work. But her straight talk rubs a lot of people the wrong way. And on the other side of the movie, her regulator friend Sarah is getting treated a lot better in the U.S. Attorney’s office. Intentionally or not, it sets up this duality between the public and private sector in terms of how women are treated professionally.
White: I thought Equity had a pretty quick and easy way of illustrating what happens when a company decides to go public: from the pitch, to the due diligence, to the pricing, to the roadshow. Also I really liked the inclusion of the interns, who talk big but are essentially just making pitch books, sitting in corners, and fetching cookies.
Lam: The deal at the heart of this movie isn’t as complicated as what goes on in The Big Short or Trading Places. But the company whose IPO Naomi is in charge of sure is relevant: A secure social network is very of the moment. And speaking of The Big Short, I don’t get why there are Jenga sets in finance movies these days. Is playing Jenga a metaphor for risk? Is it just a set device for showing the tension of professional relationships? I thought the Jenga set in The Big Short was silly, but I have heard from nearly every non-finance person who watched that movie that it was the first time they understood CDOs, securities ratings, and tranches—which is kind of awesome. The Jenga set in Equity didn’t have such a big task; it represented the establishment (possibly?) and there’s a certain emotional payoff when Naomi knocks it over—signaling that she’s not playing this game anymore.
White: I feel like we have definitely exhausted any Wall Street moments involving a Jenga set. And can we talk about the ending? I really didn’t enjoy it. Attempts by Hollywood to display the revolving door between Wall Street watchdogs and Wall Street itself have been pretty clunky, and this wasn’t much of an exception. I really liked Reiner as a powerful lawyer who, almost gleefully, takes bankers down a peg for their wrongdoing. But her change of heart felt too abrupt: While she certainly isn’t making the money Naomi is, she definitely doesn’t seem to be hurting and has an entirely different life that involves a wife, kids, and a house in Brooklyn. That made her shift to the prioritization of money feel a little over the top for me.
Lam: I’m going to be honest: I would have liked to see Naomi make a boatload of money. I know that isn’t the point, but that would have been cheesy and satisfying. The movie just quickly turned cynical: Naomi loses on the promotion and leaves the firm (where does she go?), Erin gets her job, Michael leaves for the hedge fund, and Sara—Reiner’s character—uses Naomi’s language to land a job at Bain Capital.
I guess you can argue that this ending is more “real,” given all the issues with Wall Street’s treatment of women and that deals sometimes do suffer due to technical issues or leaked information (ahem, Facebook). But somehow none of these answers felt right, and maybe that’s just the place we’re at right now in terms of women in the finance industry. I have to say though, and I just saw the new Ghostbusters recently too, that I just loved the portrayal of women in these powerful lead roles. I always wonder with these movies how it would have impacted me had I watched them at a more impressionable age. I loved the jabs at very real-life office-culture things, such as people asking women to smile more. I loved the swearing. I loved when Naomi explodes after being asked why she’s not satisfied at mediocrity. She yells, “I was supposed to be a motherfucking rainmaker!” And I think the point is, perhaps in a different world, she would be.