If you find yourself reading this article within driving distance of an American college, I challenge you to venture onto campus. Find a fraternity house- preferably a big one with Corinthian columns and immaculate grass. Find parking- a challenge in and of itself- and head up the stairs to the house. Knock on the door- you’ll have to do it loudly to compete with the trap music- and wait for a brother to answer. He’ll ask you which brother you’re there to see, or if you’re the Domino’s driver, or if you saw the Domino’s driver on your way in: ignore this. Tell him you’re a film scholar conducting research on film characters, and prompt him to think of which character he most admires. I’m willing to wager a semester’s tuition that he says Jordan Belfort.
The Wolf of Wall Street & Satire
Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Belfort in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street depicts a charismatic, larger-than-life, and all but invincible man who has everything he could ever want; Scorsese’s wild scenes of drugs, sex, chaos, and excess only amplify the delusion. It’s no surprise the character has become a universally accepted symbol of frat stardom: they want to throw parties like Jordan; they want a wife like Jordan’s; they want to build an empire like Jordan. Perhaps it’s their willingness to believe that they’re each capable of all this and more that prevents them from understanding The Wolf of Wall Street as satire.
If the frat boy you’re holding hostage at the door can fit another question into his busy schedule of beer pong and South Park reruns, ask him to give you a brief synopsis of The Wolf of Wall Street. Another semester of tuition says he’ll use the phrase “rags to riches” at some point in his summary. Every time I’ve conducted this study myself the subjects recognized correctly that this is a story about The American Dream, but fail to recognize it’s a caricature of it, and that its features have been wildly exaggerated for comedic effect. Jordan doesn’t have a white house and picket fence; he has a mansion with an adjoining golf course. Jordan doesn’t have a pretty, modest wife; he has a model: an upgrade from his less valuable first wife. He doesn’t have a good job that puts food on the table; he has a crime syndicate keeping both his inner circle and himself filthy rich. This eventually catches up to him, of course, but the price he pays for the extravagant luxury that comprises most of the film is one most of us would consider a bargain. It’s not much of a cautionary tale in that sense, and I suspect it was never meant to be- it’s a gaudy parody of the 1%. We get to see not only what these decadent brokers have but also how they got it, and the vast majority of us would conclude that they’re undeserving.
The American Dream
Your frat boy would correct you here. “He was craftier than everyone else. He worked really hard and took care of his boys,” he’d assert through a mouthful of pizza (the Domino’s driver came around the back), and you really can’t blame him for this stance. The brokers were written with an unmistakably fratty voice that affirms the boys’ club mentality so prevalent at Stratton Oakmont and Wall Street beyond it. They see themselves in Jordan and his merry band of misfits, and they see these extensions of themselves achieving something that far surpasses the American Dream of old- of course they’re on Jordan’s team. Jordan’s charisma is taken as trustworthiness, his wealth as evidence of his moral righteousness, and Scorsese’s depictions of both are taken as the gospel truth.
While their code of morality is notoriously fluid, archetypal frat boys stand behind several unwavering, universal truths. First, khakis go with everything. Next, hazing is bad, but only if you get caught. Snitching is an unforgivable sin, as is listening to music at any volume below the speaker’s maximum. They believe in loyalty, and polo shirts, and above all else The American Dream. Many of us are jaded to the idea in 2021- there’s no universal ideal of success anymore, and even if there were we would never believe that it’s equally accessible to each and every one of us through hard work and dedication. The American Dream, for those who still carry its torch, is no longer a picket fence and a nuclear family; it’s a foreign car and a Rolex. At the intersection of familial wealth, self-importance, and youthful naivete you’ll find both the frat boy and his American Dream. There is no depiction of The Dream too massive or spectacular for him- it’s all perfectly attainable if you believe in yourself, so it simply cannot be satirized.
Identifying with Characters
I grappled for a while with whether Belfort’s frat messiah status was a byproduct of a collective misunderstanding of The Wolf of Wall Street or a willful removal of the character from his source material. This is the treatment many popular film characters have gotten, particularly those with whom men identify. It doesn’t matter what their film has to say about them if you just pluck the character out and preserve them in your mind as their strongest, funniest, richest, best selves. Think about Tony Montana- within the confines of Scarface he’s a Macbethian figure, doomed to a bloody end for his ruthless ambition and greed. Removed from the narrative he’s a symbol of entrepreneurship, grit, and The American Dream in his own right. The Joker: in context a brutal, psychopathic villain; outside of it a misunderstood outcast with a sense of humor. Tyler Durden, Bojack Horseman, Don Draper, Patrick Bateman, the entire cast of Goodfellas: the list goes on and on. They’re all complicated and in many instances redeemable men, but have reached idol status no thanks to their source material, rather in spite of it.
I think the truth behind frat boys’ fascination with Jordan Belfort is an amalgamation of all these factors: their inability to understand satire because their belief in The American Dream can expand to accommodate excess; their identification with and consequent trust in Jordan and the men around him; and the removal of the character of Belfort from the context of the film which incriminates him through satirical depictions, the plot, and unreliable narration.
“I just think he’s cool,” your frat boy would conclude, shrugging as he finishes his slice of pizza. You’ll thank him for his time and you’ll leave the house, and you’ll return home to report on your findings and the status of my two-semester bet. If I was right, I won’t make you pay my tuition- I’m a benevolent film analyst. If I was wrong and you’re not feeling quite as benevolent that’s alright too: you take the money, and I’ll take the year away from Frat Row.