Wall Street Women on Film

Melissa S. Fisher

In an early scene in the recent film Equity, senior investment banker Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) and vice president Erin Manning (Sarah Megan Thomas) are celebrating a deal with clients in an upscale restaurant. Soon Erin heads to the bathroom, a nearly full martini glass half hidden by her purse. As she pours out her drink and begins to fill the glass with water, Naomi enters the bathroom. Meeting her protégée’s gaze in the mirror, Naomi probes, “How far along are you?” Erin covers her panic at her boss’s discovery that she is pregnant. She smiles quickly and demurs, “It’s really early. Six weeks.” Naomi returns a tight smile, congratulating Erin before disappearing into a stall. Left momentarily alone, Erin takes a deep breath, muttering “fuck” as she looks back at her reflection in the mirror.

Equity dwells on Erin’s and Naomi’s most acute desire: to rise within the corporate world. In spite of being pregnant, Erin is committed to advancing in her career, even if it means trying to conceal her pregnancy, neglecting her marriage, or cheating. By the end of the film, Erin is sharing inside information with Michael Connor (James Purefoy), Naomi’s coworker and lover, about Cachet, a tech company that Naomi is taking public, information with which he sabotages Naomi’s plans and, with them, her career. Instead of Erin’s troubles in balancing her incipient motherhood and her hard-driving career, the film’s focus is the moral compromises of female ambition.

Since at least the 1980s, Hollywood films about Wall Street have been concerned with individual mobility and success in the corporate workplace. Most revolve around money-obsessed men: their cheating ways in business and their gallivanting with call girls and strippers. More recently, women’s strategies to advance in the professional workplace have assumed a central place in popular and business culture, with TV series like The Good Wife and Madam Secretary winning viewers and acclaim. And of course, Sheryl Sandberg’s self-help treatise, Lean In, blew a haboob of feminist infighting across media. Equity features relatively little in the way of earnest bootstrapping. Instead, the film fingers structural constraints, showing in refined narrative detail how women’s success and advancement in finance (and to some extent, men’s as well) does not depend exclusively on hard work. Instead, the film depicts a particular set of well-honed talents as the keys to the kingdom: the ability to please and impress those with power, and if necessary, to engage in disguise, deceit, and seductive charm.

From left: Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) and Naomi (Anna Gunn)

Female ambition in Wall Street films has long centered on a heroic “corporate shape-changer,” a moniker that anthropologist Elizabeth Traube coined to describe characters like Erin who succeed through cunning, duplicity, and the artful manipulation of images and bodies. Take the 1988 film Working Girl. Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) is an aspiring secretary with a working-class background. Donning the shoulder pads of ’80s corporate femininity, Tess masquerades as her patrician executive boss, Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), to seal a deal with investment banker Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) and further her career. In the 1996 film The Associate, investment banker Laurel Ayres (Whoopi Goldberg) pretends to be an upper-class white man to succeed in the financial world after no one will do business with her. First her character is an elusive man who does business by phone, but “he” finally has to make a public appearance at a meeting. Laurel enlists a friend who works as a female impersonator to create a disguise, making Laurel look like an upper-class white male financier. The film ends with her dropping the disguise at the meeting, thereby revealing racial and sexual discrimination on Wall Street.

Like those in Working Girl and The Associate, Equity’s characters deliberately rework their images in pursuit of success. Erin, however, does not need to pass, either in terms of class or race. As a white woman, she has already been granted entry—however provisional and tenuous—into the financial elite. Instead, Erin seeks to solidify her status by refining both her body and her presentation to the standards of the professional-managerial class. We witness her engaging in a strict fitness regime to maintain her young, fit, sleek physique; she runs miles through the streets of Manhattan at night. And several times she carefully checks the mirror while dressing for work, making sure to hide any hint of a telltale pregnancy bump. All of this effort seems directed less at her husband, whom we barely see, than at male clients. For example, Naomi discovers Erin at a romantic dinner with Ed, the nerdy young male CEO of Cachet, to help seal the IPO deal. She warns Erin that she had better know what to do if Ed hits on her, instructing her to “handle him professionally and very, very gently,” to which Erin retorts, “Yeah. I know how this works.”

Erin is not the only female corporate shape-changer in Equity to perform heterosexual seductiveness for professional gain. Samantha “Sam” Ryan (Alysia Reiner), a Justice Department investigator and lesbian living in Park Slope with a wife of color and their two kids, seduces a male financier to gain some dirt on Michael Connor in an effort to build a case against hedge fund rogue Benji Akers (Craig Bierko), who does business with Michael. One might expect Sam or even her female finance counterparts to be the voice of justice, truth, and moral decency. After all, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, journalists and others argued that women, with uniquely moral feminine qualities, could have averted the financial debacle. The strategic chameleons of Equity could never inhabit such narrative consistency.

Unlike most books and films about professional women, “Equity” places female ambition squarely within the financial workplace.

Anna Gunn’s Naomi displays great skill in manipulating her image, something Gunn picked up from meetings with Equity’s female investors who had spent their real-life careers on Wall Street. To aid Gunn’s preparations, the investors held a pretend tech IPO, giving Gunn special access to their selective use of emotion and affect and allowing her to master the necessary deceptions of her character’s ambition. In the film, during a critical client meeting with Cachet, the camera focuses in on Gunn’s subtly controlled facial expressions as she tries to convey a sense of poise, ease, and reassuring self-confidence. Far from the comic duplicity of Working Girl or The Associate, the result is a “shape-shifter realism” that is both moving and uncanny.

The affinity of performance across finance and film that Gunn draws out reflects the real world of business. With screens of all sorts now central to high-end service work, professional and cinematic labor has never been more similar. Indeed, celebrity has become an important dimension of finance. Today, bankers, traders, and brokers perform in the public eye through social media as well as in the mass media, where they have fascinated for decades. These include male financiers such as stockbroker Jordan Belfort, whose rise to the high life and fall into crime and corruption were depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort. In the contemporary banking community, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase has been nicknamed the “Teflon CEO” for getting his firm through the financial crisis without major blemishes to his reputation. His resilience is often remarked upon in articles in major business magazines such as Forbes.

Recently some women in finance have become celebrities in their own right. The lives of the first generation to establish themselves in the industry, which I chronicled in my book Wall Street Women, remained hidden behind the closed doors of the corporation. But the successes and failures of subsequent generations have increasingly played out in public and on social media. This is especially true for high-ranking women who faced glass ceilings or were fired in the wake of the 2008 crisis. When Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan was reportedly fired that year, an article in Fortune entitled her story, “The Fall of a Wall Street Highflier.” Four years later, when Ina Drew resigned as JP Morgan Chase’s chief investment officer after reports the bank lost more than $6 billion, the New York Times referred to her as “the woman who took the fall.”

Naomi Bishop represents this new type of financial celebrity woman. It is no coincidence, then, that the opening scene of Equity depicts Naomi brushing her hair in the mirror and getting dressed for work while simultaneously watching Bloomberg newscasters debate her professional ability to take companies public and manage their IPOs. Within the film’s narrative and visual logic, Naomi personifies a key anxiety that professional women experience: the feeling of continually being watched. Toward the end of the film, the camera looks down onto Naomi, taking the position of the ever-vigilant god of public and professional approval and opprobrium. Surrounded by her male colleagues, she slumps in a chair and holds her head in her hands, unable to maintain her carefully calibrated emotions any longer, as her signature deal begins to tank. Director Meera Menon explained to me that she employed these overhead angles to “emphasize Naomi’s increased sense of paranoia about who is watching whom, and who is capable of doing what to whom.” As Naomi’s project and career rapidly crumble, her image goes with it.


Naomi’s story does not end happily, placing Equity at odds with a number of recent popular books that I’d call “female financial melodramas.” Like many of their male counterparts, the women in these works all ultimately leave the corporate world and its moral dilemmas to find inner happiness. For example, Suits (2011), a memoir by Nina Godiwalla, a child of Persian-Indian immigrants, details her journey to Wall Street and subsequent decision to leave and found a company that teaches mediation and stress management to professionals. In Full Circle (2016), ex–Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan, now Erin Callan Montella, traces her experiences becoming the highest-ranking woman on Wall Street in 2008, including her resignation prior to the firm’s bankruptcy. It then follows her devastating personal crisis, including a divorce, until she ultimately finds happiness with a new partner, a man who rescued victims at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and their baby.

In contrast to the women in Suits and Full Circle, two of Equity’s three female characters remain in finance in spite of its structural and moral constraints. Sam, the lawyer, ultimately decides to leave the Justice Department for a position inside a Wall Street firm. Erin is ultimately promoted, seemingly unhindered by her pregnancy. In fact, the only female character who leaves finance is Naomi Bishop. In an ambiguous ending, the film shows Naomi walking out of her firm, leaving her job. This scene was recut several times. Some of the film’s investors, the ones who are also female Wall Street veterans, were concerned that the scene showed her as too much of a victim. Accordingly, the scene was slightly edited so that viewers might read Naomi’s walking out as a decision she makes of her own volition.

Equity appears to be paving the way for more Hollywood films centered on Wall Street women. Warner Brothers is currently moving ahead with an adaptation of the comic novel Opening Belle (2016), by Maureen Sherry, a former managing director at Bear Stearns. It’s unclear yet if the film will follow Equity in exploring the darker side of finance. To be sure, there are similarities between the eponymous Belle, to be played by Reese Witherspoon, and her Equity counterparts. The book, however, returns to the familiar tensions of work and family life that have occupied so many column inches since the 1980s and that require shape-shifting of a different sort.

In one very brief scene in Equity, Erin is seen reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s hugely popular article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Throughout Sherry’s novel, Belle instructs the reader in what it takes to make the attempt. In one telling passage she explains,

 

The secret of working mothers everywhere is compartmentalizing: the ability to jam into a mental drawer that which can’t be dealt with at the moment. She jams a family problem into a mental filing cabinet, slams the door shut, and does her work. When she gets home, she reverses the process, disconnecting her wireless world while reviewing first-grade spelling words, or reading Harry the Dirty Dog for the fifty-seventh time.”

 

Despite the common setting of Opening Belle and Equity, Belle ultimately has more in common with characters such as The Good Wife’s (2010–16) Alicia Florrick and the work-family struggles that give the series its title.

Unlike most books and films about professional women, which almost invariably dwell on work-life problems, Equity places female ambition squarely within the financial workplace. And we don’t hear these women talking about female leaders being more caring, motherly, and risk-averse, words that were typically used to describe female financiers in the midst of the financial crisis. Instead, in the very last scene, when Sam is asked by a female Wall Street recruiter why she wants to move to the corporate world, she starts to explain that she has a family and is looking forward to having a sense of stability. But she stops midway, declaring that she “likes money.” Turning gender stereotypes on their head, she pronounces, “I am so glad we can sit here and talk about ambition. But money doesn’t have to be a dirty word. We can like that too.”