The stock market—short-term pulse of the economy and long-time stomping ground of old men—is notoriously emotional. Framing this one certainty about it, CNNMoney’s Fear & Greed Index exasperatedly wonders “what emotion is driving the market now?” It has always struck me as comical that this all-important focal point of capitalism is so often described in terms one might recognize more readily in a soap opera. Hallowed business media outlets regularly personify markets with bouts of sadness (“Europe in Doldrums”), buoying hopefulness (for tax-cuts, a lot of the time), and pure exuberance. Of course it’s embarrassing and unprofessional for a human being—especially a female one—to display emotions on an individual basis, but perfectly rational for an entire market made up of thousands of mostly-male traders to signal them collectively. And so, the finance industry expertly brews feelings, bets on them, ushers in new companies to have feelings for, and sometimes (often) cheats in the process. The “Wall Street thriller” genre would be an unlikely phenomenon were it not for this bubbling well of emotion and obfuscation. Over time, these movies have largely reflected the stubbornly skewed gender composition of the industry: from Wall Street to Wolf on Wall Street, it is always shamelessly greedy men pulling the stunts. Then in 2016 came Meera Menon’s Equity. It’s a Wall Street thriller complete with all of the trimmings one would expect from it: a catchy, conniving soundtrack; panning shots of New York City; two-faced characters; and a big IPO hanging in the balance. There are two key differences, however, that separate and elevate this film above its predecessors. First, it places women in all of the key roles both in front of and behind the camera, and second, it frankly refuses the oft-employed tactic of titillating an audience by glamorizing the vices of finance. The result is not only a fascinating and realistic glimpse into what happens when women—typically straddled with the bulk of the world’s low-paid emotional labor—are thrust into the heart of the world’s most lucrative “emotional” work, it is also a sharp critique of Wall Street and society’s blind adulation of money. What I found particularly delightful was that neither of these things were immediately obvious. Instead, the film builds its case surreptitiously, taking you on a ride that is in itself exciting and suspenseful, while sprinkling a trail of hints and metaphors that culminate in the knockout, full-circle conclusion.
Naomi Bishop, played with singular intensity by Anna Gunn, is a driven senior-level investment banker at a leading investment bank. The film is set in the years after the financial crisis, and we find Naomi trying to recover from an IPO in which she (possibly due to being a she) has “rubbed some people the wrong way.” Accompanied by her star VP Erin, who is played with a perfectly strained balance of ambition and caution by Sarah Megan Thomas, the women vie to underwrite a hot, new tech start-up called Cachet. But Cachet’s journey from private to public company is not smooth. The company is run by an insufferable tech bro (in the vein of a younger Travis Kalanick), and sharks eager for insider information lurk in the shadow banking system. Naomi’s college friend, Samantha, enters the scene as the third key woman—a public attorney investigating white-collar crime. And while the three women are very serious about pursuing their takes on success, the men prefer to—and can afford to—see themselves as merely playing a game that comes naturally. Naomi’s boss is constantly pulling blocks from a jenga tower in his sprawling office, her mentor has retired and purchased a golf course (where he tells her he never did “give a shit” about his job anyway), and her romantic interest, when confronted about his job—“It’s all just a big game to you…”—pauses before responding, incredulously, “What else is there?”
Indeed the market is game-like; the shrill bell of the New York Stock Exchange is reminiscent of the start of a horse race: emotions run high and bets hollow out pockets. But the game portrayed in Equity is rigged. Meritocracy is shouted from the rooftops, while real power continues to be subject to a shady set of unspoken rules. The protagonists of Equity will no doubt surprise you when it comes to who is willing to play by those rules. But the lifelong conditioning of women to be emotionally aware and savvy has its perks in this industry, and if one can fully embrace a lust for money, there is a lot to be reaped. The fact that the world they navigate was built by and for men does not make women immune to its crookedness—it just makes it harder for them to win; and then, perhaps, the main equity achieved is not in their level of success but in that of their moral bankruptcy.