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Film critic and YouTuber Lindsay Ellis illustrates why we're so obsessed with watching powerful-but-terrible men dominate our screens, from Mad Men's Don Draper to The Wolf Of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort.

The Financial Diet site:


Lindsay Ellis' YouTube:

Written by Maggie Mae Fish:

Edited by Angelina Meehan & Lindsay Ellis:

Pew Research Center:
[MUSIC PLAYING] Hi, I'm Lindsay Ellis.

I am a YouTuber, film critic, and author. And for the month of January, I'm taking over Chelsea's Tuesday show on The Financial Diet, and we are going to talk about money and pop culture.

And today, we are talking about the men. (SINGING) Talk to corporate like a boss. Approve memos like a boss. Lead a workshop like a boss.

Remember birthdays like a boss. America has a long proud tradition of telling stories about everyday men turned corporate moguls and self-made rich guys. They range from Wall Street types, like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street or Patrick Bateman in American Psycho to Succession's Logan Roy.

Oink for your sausages, piggy. Oink, oink. Oh, Jesus Christ.

Oink for your sausages. To literal Mad Men, like Don Draper, to con men, like Tony Soprano, Frank Abagnale, and Walter White. These pieces of media usually show the main character as morally reprehensible, but also kind of the coolest guy you'll ever meet.

Let's knock this motherfucker out of the park! [CHEERING] [SCREAMS] While we may not always agree with their shady business dealings or larger than life luxury, we still return again and again to see these promiscuous Rockefellers wreak havoc in a hotel on Fifth Avenue. But that begs the question, why do these stories appeal to the average moviegoer? After all, you're never going to be that guy.

Probably. [MUSIC PLAYING] Hopefully. Throughout modern history, and arguably all of human history, men have been socialized to be the breadwinner for the family, and characters that fight their way to the top of the money ladder are, more often than not, men. The CEO has become popular shorthand for the pinnacle of capitalist manhood.

And given that women only account for 6.6% of CEOs, according to the Fortune 500 records, it's not like this doesn't reflect reality. More morally bankrupt female CEOs. Narratives like this aren't going to reflect the lived experience of most people, men and women alike.

And according to the Pew Research Center, 40% of the bottom quintile stay within that same bottom quintile. And the largest indicators of future success were not how hard someone worked, but their parents income and housing status. In reality, the American dream of creating a fortune by pulling up your bootstraps or forging checks is much more determined by outside status factors than effort.

But people love narratives about accruing wealth, and there has been an increasing popularity lately in characters who accrue wealth by unscrupulous means. I drink your milkshake! [SLURPING] One of the most compelling aspects of Breaking Bad is that once Walter White is making the money that he set out to make and pay for his cancer treatments, he is not content. He soon wants more than just to get by.

He wants to be Mac Daddy. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No.

I am the one who knocks. HBO's Succession focuses on a family who is born rich, who are likewise unscrupulous most of the time. He hate my fucking chicken.

Only unlike Walter White, they usually keep their bloodthirsty corporate savagery within the realms of what's legal. Are you asking if you can blackmail me? No, I'm not.

I would hate that. I like you. It's just, you know, context.

Most of the time, showing that there are many ways that the wealthy can destroy people, and oftentimes with their means being totally legal. And I'm afraid I have to inform you, you are all dismissed. [SCATTERED LAUGHTER] Yeah, you're all fired. And a lot of the time they do not care if people get hurt, as long as it doesn't diminish their wealth or power.

Problem is, while a show like Succession often focuses on the way that the rich and powerful carelessly do harm to the underclass and get away with it, we're still supposed to relate to the morally bankrupt rich folks. And that can lead us to forget that if we're anyone in the room, we're probably the guy who's getting screwed. When we watch these aspirational wealth stories, we often have to employ a sort of cognitive dissonance to keep identifying with the main characters.

We see them act immorally, which we know is bad. But at the same time, the character is usually using said bad behavior to increase his wealth or gain, and we enjoy that. So yeah, maybe he's ruined lots of lives, most of which we don't even get to see on screen.

But if he wasn't ruining lives to get rich, then we wouldn't get to see all these hot ladies on the yacht. (SINGING) I'm on a boat, and it's going fast, and I got a nautical themed pashmina afghan. And I like the hot ladies on the yacht, so. In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper is introduced.

We follow his exploits throughout the episode. We see him lead a boardroom meeting. Everybody else's tobacco is poisonous.

Lucky Strikes is toasted. We see him sleep with an artist in her hip apartment, and it's not until the end of the episode that we learn that Don is actually cheating on his wife and he has a family at home unaware of his behavior. And while this is a super effective reveal, it's also a case where the audience gets to enjoy a character's bad behavior before considering the harmful consequences that he's causing at home.

Because first and foremost, you, the audience, are meant to relate to Don Draper, not necessarily the people that he's harming. And the next time you rewatch it, you get to enjoy the fun again. And this time it's extra naughty because you know he's cheating, and this time you're in on it with Don Draper, the man.

Films are often shot in a way that exaggerate this cognitive dissonance, so audiences can live out this fantasy and downplay the real world harm created by the corrupt CEO. In Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, a majority of the film follows Jordan Belfort's rise to wealth and power, with a huge chunk of the run-time spent on wild, crazy parties, wacky hijinks, and just plain old excess. Scorsese cast comedic actors in many of his minor roles and will often cut to a joke instead of, say, the person in the office that just got humiliated.

The film places Jordan's character at the center, and as the audience, we are meant to identify with him over his victims of fraud. Even near the end, when Belfort's marriage is falling apart and Jordan's wife has every right to be legitimately angry and hurt by his actions, this scene with Margot Robbie is still played for comedy. Yes, I think it's true!

Say hi, Mommy! Say hi to Rocko and Rocko! The film focuses less on the consequences of Jordan's actions and more on how fun he is.

And to a theater full of people who are much more likely to be the person getting scammed than the scammer, that can be a harmful misconception to internalize. And while Jordan is eventually brought to justice, the film still spends most of its run-time playing into cultural values of what success looks like. It has its cake, but spends most of the film eating it too.

Women in these films usually play very specific roles. They are either a wife, who is expected to suffer for the wealth and financial gain of her husband, the sexual object that the main character gains alongside of his wealth, or a voice of reason, which helps the audience with that whole cognitive dissonance thing. Yeah, but wouldn't you feel better if you sold that stuff to rich people who can, like, afford to lose all that money?

Of course. But rich people don't buy penny stocks. While we are watching the male leader perpetuate the morally bad behavior, while framing the benefits of said bad behavior is pretty awesome, in American Psycho, a story in which a wealthy young urban professional moonlights as a serial killer, the women that Patrick Bateman preys on are almost a parody of how wealthy men often disregard the lives of others, especially women, as they strive for that financial success.

I've killed a lot of people. Some escort girls in an apartment uptown. Some homeless people, maybe 5 or 10.

In effect, American Psycho shows that if you aren't Patrick Bateman, you are probably his victim. And speaking of women, female wealth aspirational power fantasies, is it a thing? Sort of.

Female wealth aspiration power fantasies are harder to come by, but they exist. It's just that more often than not, these fantasies are focused much more on the negative consequences of power and much less on the glorification of limitless wealth. In the film The Devil Wears Prada, we don't follow Miranda Priestly to all of her swanky parties, and we don't see her hooking up with models or snorting blow in the bathroom.

The main character is Miranda's middle class assistant, so we don't really get to enjoy Miranda's wealth and power in the same way that we do Jordan Belfort's. And most telling, at the end of the film, the protagonist decides that Miranda's type of career is not something worth pursuing because of the cost. You want this life?

Those choices are necessary. But what if this isn't what I want? And she gives up on her high fashion career goals to go live with her chef boyfriend on a boat. (SINGING) Everybody look at me 'cause I'm sailing on a boat.

Sailing on a boat. Female wealth power fantasies are also often about overcoming sexism or inequality in the workplace, like Magnolias, Working Girls, Hustlers, and Erin Brockovich. So is there a reason we don't have a female equivalent of Patrick Bateman?

Hey, Paul! [SCREAMS] (SINGING) You couldn't take. More female axe murderer CEOs. Well, it could be a response to the genre of movies about male wealth fantasy.

Women are, more often than not, the victims in situations of abuse of power rather than the perpetrators. Not always-- I see you typing those comments-- but usually. So it may just be a reflection of a more common experience.

But on the other hand, many Disney villains are women seeking power. So as a society, we may still be grappling with the outdated sentiment that women in power bad. It could also just be that the film industry is still dominated by men and that these types of stories appeal less to the decision makers.

But for whatever reason, female fantasy is, more often than not, you know, like, yay, I'm not lied to or shit on anymore. Sir, I'm telling you she's your man. Oh?

And what brings you to that conclusion? She said so, and I believe her. I'm a girl boss.

Now I can exploit the working class too, just like my male colleagues. Whereas the male fantasies more often get to revel in their excess while being like, yeah, it's kind of bad, but mostly it's kind of awesome. It's bad, but awesome.

At the end of the day, these films and TV shows will keep being relevant as long as we live in a world that is, you know, capitalist. They keep middle class audiences glued to the screen living out their wildest financial dreams. But the way we frame wealth and power deserves a critical eye, especially in this era of wildly ballooning income inequality.

And it remains to be seen whether more wealthy female sociopaths will change the way that we approach stories like this. Thanks for watching. Be sure to check out the rest of this series.

Link in the description. And you can see more of my stuff on my own channel-- it's just my name-- and also on PBS Digital Studios It's Lit! And we will see you next time.