THE BIG SHORT: So White, So Male

So on purpose.

In the year of #OscarSoWhite I have heard a persistent, low-level buzz surrounding The Big Short. It’s popped up in my social feeds and I’ve seen it alluded to in reviews and articles. It seems to be itching right at the edge of the mass consciousness (of movie writers) and now, with The Big Short surprisingly finding itself an Oscar frontrunner after winning the PGA award, it could blow up bigger.

“There sure are a lot of white guys in The Big Short.”

One acquaintance in the entertainment industry Facebooked about turning off the screener when she realized the only women in the movie were sexy actresses shoehorned in for direct-to-camera addresses. Some people have muttered sexism over the scene where Margot Robbie explains some banking mishigoss while in a bubble bath. Others have wondered why Adam McKay didn’t include more women or people of color in his story about the housing market bubble popping. In a year when diversity in Hollywood (or lack thereof) is finally getting the attention it deserves, the extraordinary and overwhelming white maleness of The Big Short could look like the epitome of everything wrong with society.

And it is! But not in the way these people are claiming. The Big Short needs to be overwhelmingly white and male because it was white men who ran the economy into the ground. To introduce diversity into this aspect of a true story would, I believe, be doing a disservice to the harsh reality of the situation: it was white guys who did it. I’m not trying to Godwin this piece right to hell, but it’s sort of like making a WWII movie and casting your Nazis with an eye to diversity - you’re missing the point.

The white maleness - and the deep bro-iness - of the traders and bankers in The Big Short inform their actions. They are people of privilege, and they are born into a system that supports them, that enables them and that even rewards them for their bad behavior because they are white, male and rich. It is vital that the face of the enemy be depicted correctly, and in the case of the recent global economic meltdown that face was white and it was male.

Of course The Big Short isn’t really about the guys who ruined the economy. It’s sort of a disaster movie about groups of guys who saw the crash coming, and how they all worked on their own with the knowledge of the coming disaster. I know what you’re thinking: why couldn’t any of these characters have been race or gender-swapped?

Because these characters are not heroes either. What makes The Big Short an extraordinary film is that you spend the entire movie with these three groups - Christian Bale as the solitary, semi-autistic genius, Steve Carrell as the righteous and angry man leading his ragtag team, and Brad Pitt alongside two newbies looking to get in on the game - and that you love them. You want them to find the loopholes, to see the warning signs, and to use their abilities to make money from the coming disaster. It isn’t until the end that The Big Short stops and rubs your face in what these guys did - they saw the end of the world coming and their immediate instinct was to figure out how to profit from it.

That’s huge. It speaks to the brilliant filmmaking of Adam McKay - anytime a director can make you identify with characters who are doing bad things and then pull the rug out from under you like that you know the director is the real deal. But more than that it speaks to the entirety of late capitalist culture, and it offers us a mirror in which we can glimpse the way we look at the world. Over the course of The Big Short we never question what these guys are doing - it’s like if someone made a movie about an asteroid about to wipe out the Earth and it focused only on the guy making a killing selling useless asteroid shelters. None of the ‘heroes’ of The Big Short take real action to stop the impending crash. By the end of the movie many of the characters have changes of heart and recognize what they’ve done, but that’s only after the bubble bursts. Nobody in this movie goes to Congress. They just go to Vegas.

That means these guys are still the enemy. They’re still the white men who ran the whole ship aground, doing it all for profit. The Big Short allows us to identify with these scrappy weirdos, but at the end reminds us that they’re all part of the fraternity as well, that they are not much better than their white male colleagues who wore down the economy. In fact they may be worse, as they stood around and figured out how to make a buck on the suffering of others. The white men who wrecked the economy were stupid and greedy. These white men were weirdly heartless. It asks us to consider just who it is we are rooting for in any story about the economy.

Perhaps that’s what some have missed - The Big Short isn’t about how great these guys who shorted the economy are, it’s about how they were a part of the problem, and how some of them realized this.

Could a black actor have played any of these roles? Yes. I can think of many. I can think of many actresses who could have stepped into a part and done it more than justice. But while that may have been great for larger causes of diversity and inclusion, it would have watered down the truth The Big Short is getting at:

It was white men that did this to the world.

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