This is what feminist cinema looks like.
The new film Equity, starring as well as written, directed, produced and financed by women, could be the new standard-bearer for judging a film’s feminist sensibilities. (Throw out your copy of the Bechdel Test.) Currently in limited release and expanding nationwide on Sept. 2, Equity has given us a Wall Street movie at last that doesn’t involve women serving as strippers, girlfriends or pawns of the patriarchy.
The film is timely in light of feminism’s mainstream resurgence. Art reflects culture, and Equity, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, certainly speaks to contemporary concerns about the respect, compensation, and autonomy that women are accorded in the workplace, as well as questions of women’s work-life balance. Not since 9 to 5 has a film so excelled at addressing issues specific to working women.
Equity tells the story of Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn), a senior investment banker who recently suffered a setback with a dud IPO. The blame for its failure has fallen entirely on her shoulders. Naomi is looking to recover and land a promotion as global CEO at her firm, Remson, by helping a digital privacy company, Cachét, launch its own IPO and go public. Helping her with the project, and also seeking a promotion, is Erin Manning (Sarah Megan Thomas, who co-produced the film). Manning’s career trajectory faces potential jeopardy when she finds out she’s pregnant, and this pregnancy leads her to make a questionable decision shortly prior to Cachét’s opening.
This fateful decision, bred by insecurity but not greed, catalyzes a sequence of events that causes irreparable damage to both Cachét’s success and Bishop’s career. Complicating matters is Bishop’s smarmy and ethically dubious boyfriend, Michael Connor (James Purefoy), a Remson hedge fund broker being investigated for insider trading by Bishop’s college friend, Sam (Alysia Reiner), a federal agent working for the US Attorney’s office.
The media has largely mischaracterized the film–an indication of its singularity. It’s been suggestively described as a kind of “She-Wolves of Wall Street” and has been compared to previous “Wall Street thrillers” like Wall Street, The Big Short, and the insipidly juvenile The Wolf of Wall Street. These are films in which, as Anna Silman writes in a smart piece for New York magazine, “female representation is usually something along the lines of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.” The takeaway here is superficial—finally we have a female-led Wall Street film!
While it’s true that this is noteworthy, many critics have failed to explore how female characters and a plot about women deeply affect the film’s structure, its content, and its dramatic action. It is so different from the Wall Street movies of the past that it’s fair to say Equity has invented a film genre of its own.
The film’s setting is arguably one of the only things it has in common with films like Wall Street (1987), which focuses on the antagonistic relationship between a machiavellian boss and a business greenhorn. In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, male characters are the sole makers of their fate. They epitomize the American male ego in all his presumptive individuality and sense of invincibility. “Greed is good,” Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) says in the film’s most infamous speech. “Greed is right, greed works.” Stone’s moral framework is apparent: The fatal flaw in his characters is their greed. Gekko and his protégé come to “have it all,” but they lose it all because of their deadly sin.
This classic “fall of man” narrative does not exist in Equity. Unlike the untouchable male protagonists of typical Wall Street dramas, our intrepid female protagonist is quite fallible. In male-driven Wall Street films, the protagonist’s fall is precipitated by flagrant moral transgressions, actions that embellish a man’s power and masculinity. In Equity, Bishop’s moral transgression—if we can call it that—is that she is a woman. Her gender is her fatal flaw.
The difference is critical: Her fall is not internally motivated but externally manufactured—caused by sabotage, and by the men who are frustrated by her authority and unapologetic ambition. “The perception is that you rub people the wrong way,” Bishop’s boss says when she asks about a promotion. Equity director Meera Menon and screenwriter Amy Fox emphasize this central issue in various ways, including in the character’s name: The etymological origins of the character’s first and last name translate, respectively, into “Pleasant Overseer.”
Also unlike the male protagonists of most Wall Street films, Bishop does follow an ethical code. In contrast to Gordon Gekko, Naomi Bishop’s most famous speech about her love of money isn’t about greed as much as it is about necessity. “I like money,” she confesses to a group of young women at an alumni event. “I like knowing that I have it. I grew up in a house where there was never enough.” She explains how she took a job on Wall Street in part to pay for her two younger brothers’ college educations, noting that it’s also okay to seek out money for personal gain. “I’m so glad we can sit here, as women, and talk about ambition,” Bishop continues. “But money doesn’t have to be a dirty word. We can like that, too.”
This is the reality of women working on Wall Street. Women remain grossly under-represented and underpaid in the industry, especially in the C-Suite. To date, there has never been a female CEO at any of the top 22 largest investment banks. They fare little better at S&P 500 companies in general, where, according to 2016 research by the non-profit Catalyst, “women currently hold 22 (4.4%) of CEO positions” at these companies.
“For women, you always had to prove you could to do the job before they give you the job, and for men, they would give them that opportunity before they proved themselves,” Barbara Byrne, a vice chairwoman of banking at Barclays and one of the film’s producers, said in an interview with The New York Times. Byrne told the Times that one of her favorite moments in the movie is when Naomi is labeled “difficult.” “That has certainly been said about me,” she said. “What was I told a couple of weeks ago? ‘You were overbearing.’ That’s mostly because I’m expressing an opinion.”
Eight women on Wall Street expressed similar views in the New York interview. They said the film captures the hostile way in which women like Naomi—authoritative women who do not apologize for being powerful—are treated by their male colleagues. “Women’s behavior continues to be policed in a way that men’s behavior doesn’t seem to be,” Silman concludes.
This sexist policing occurs throughout Equity, sometimes from women themselves. Erin Manning, longing for a job promotion, constantly checks her body for any sign of pregnancy. She squeezes herself into pencil skirts covered by billowy blouses so as not to be discovered. Women seeking recognition without harassment on Wall Street must make themselves seen while simultaneously trying not to draw attention to themselves–a nearly impossible task.
At the film’s denouement, Bishop, realizing she’s been sabotaged once again, yells at her boss—“When is it my year?!” It’s a line that reverberates from the screen to the audience.
At least in cinema, we may be finally arriving at a newly complex imagining of women in power. In very rare cases, art can inspire reality. The promise of Equity is that it can help us reimagine women’s place in the financial halls of power, facilitating much-needed progressive change even after the theater lights turn back on.