did bros cause the financial crisis? hegemonic masculinity in the big short

The following is a guest post by Joseph Gamble.

There’s a moment in The Big Short (2015, dir. McKay) where the film cuts to footage of a grandfather and his grandson eating eggs at a diner. Over the footage, we see the text: “The truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry. —Overheard in a Washington, D.C. bar.”

As a literary critic specializing in gender, race, and sexuality in English Renaissance poetry, I was a bit offended that I was watching a movie about a subject I thought everyone hated—the economy—only to learn that it was my work that people would rather avoid. I couldn’t believe that people don’t like poetry![1]

But I didn’t come to The Big Short to learn what people thought about poetry. I came to The Big Short because I wanted to understand the financial crisis: the collapse of the housing market; what “subprime” meant; what a “credit default swap” was. I knew that Adam Davidson, of Planet Money fame, had served as a consultant for the film, and I appreciated his brand of bringing narrative to economics, so I thought it would be worth a watch. But what I learned from The Big Short wasn’t that the economy collapsed because of some complicated accounting, or some arcane spreadsheets that even the bankers couldn’t understand, or because of abuses to the English language that produce such horrors as “bespoke tranche opportunities.” If I had learned that it was just a mathematical problem—if I had learned that we all got in over our heads with the blood-rush of profitably turning an expense into negative revenue, and vice-versa—I would have felt a lot safer, because I still wouldn’t have understood the underlying causes—I’m a literary critic, after all, not an economist—and I could have safely[2] continued to ignore terms like “Collateralized Debt Obligations.”

But what I learned was more devastating, because it was closer to home. I learned that it wasn’t financial legerdemain that caused the economy to tank. It was masculinity.

There are (at least) two observations to be made about gender in The Big Short. The first is that there are almost no women in the film (I counted maybe 8 or 9?), and at least three of them are either naked, stripping, or lying in a swimsuit in Las Vegas. Two of them are bankers, and one of them works at S&P—which, in a movie about bankers, amounts to some pretty lazy tokenism.[3] This is an easy observation to make—that the film is designed to appease the male gaze—and it’s so easy for those of us in gender studies that it’s become a reflex. (Though, clearly, being reflexive in gender studies doesn’t make it any less present, or damaging, in popular culture.)

The other observation, the one I want to spend a little more time on here, is that this film is filled with men. It might seem like that would be an obvious corollary to my first observation, but we would’ve thought that it would be obvious that the packaging of discarded B-rated, adjustable rate, subprime mortgages into AAA-rated CDOs would be disastrous, right? But apparently it wasn’t so obvious. And since some sociologists spend their entire careers unveiling the invisible effects of masculinity, let’s assume that it’s not obvious: let’s assume it’s data.

There’s a moment in the film when Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) talks to two mortgage loan officers. They brag about how many loans they write in a month, and how they don’t verify their clients’ incomes. One says: “I focus on immigrants, you know. Once they find out they’re getting a home, they sign.” The other, who prefers to give out loans to “cash rich” dancers with bad credit, tells us he’s a “yield guy.” The film points out that these men—these white, straight, rich men—are bragging about their conquests. And as has been true for white, straight, rich men for hundreds of years, a “conquest” for these men means asserting their dominance over women and people of color.

There’s also this: two of the film’s main subjects, Shipley and Geller, travel to a securitization conference in Las Vegas. They meet, at a shooting range, with some traders who work with CDOs. One of them, a muscled white man in a tight shirt says: “I need the CDO machine to run for another two years, and then I’m rich as fuuuck, and I’ve got my house in Aspen.” When Geller asks him if he’s worried about the possibility of the mortgages at the heart of those CDOs defaulting, the trader replies: “Could you please stop being such a buzzkill dude? We didn’t bring you out here to talk about work, bro.” Why did they bring them out there? “Because we need to be able to expense the ammo to a client. I’m gonna go shoot some terrorists!” He then goes on to chest-bump a friend after shooting a gun into a cutout of Osama Bin Laden.

Shipley and Geller conclude that the men are “morons” and “tools.” But those morons and tools are the ones pressing the buttons of the “CDO machine,” packaging up the debts of poor people—those immigrants and dancers that the mortgage loan officers liked to “target” (the same thing this “bro” does with his gun)—and selling them for huge profits without assuming any of the risk themselves. Just as the mortgage loan officers imagine their jobs to be conquering women and people of color, these Wall Street traders imagine their jobs to be “dispens[ing]….ammo to a client.”[4] [This sentence and footnote reflected a misheard line in the film – ed]

Where might they have learned to perform their masculinity in this way? Some ongoing psychological work suggests frat houses. It’s a short trip, apparently, from the frat house bedroom to the bank lobby. But it’s not that frat houses are the source of all toxic masculinity. It’s that they’re symptomatic of the way hegemonic masculinity consolidates itself into particular forms, of which the “frat bro” is just one example. To be clear: there’s a difference between “men” and “masculinity,” and not all masculinities are equal. What’s important to see in this film is not so much the sheer number of men, as it is the incessant performance of hegemonic masculinity.

We might think that the shooting-range-bros are the masculinity problem in this equation: if we could just replace the Ryan Goslings of the world with the Steve Carrells, nobody would ever lose their pension again. But I want to suggest that there isn’t so much of a difference between the masculinity performance of the bro culture of young MBAs trading debt products and the masculinity performance of the scrappy Cassandras shorting the MBSs—that is, betting on the collapse of the whole Jenga tower. One of the ways the Cassandras perform their masculinity, after all, is by yelling very loudly. The other way is by making lots and lots and lots of money. It’s hard to tell Judas from Moses here. And though the intensity of the Vegas frat bro’s gun-toting is striking, we should also notice that that scene begins with Shipley and Geller shooting their own guns down the range.

Once you start to see this, you see it all over The Big Short. The first time we meet Michael Burry (Christian Bale), we see him as a child, playing football. When his prosthetic eye falls onto the ground, he scuttles off the field. He spends the rest of the movie trying to make up for this blow to this masculinity. The only things we know about Burry are that he is disabled[5], and that he is smart. We know he is disabled because he tells us. We know he is smart because he has an M.D. He won’t let anyone forget about and a copy of The Wealth of Nations.[6] But even more than the damaged masculinities at the heart of its main characters,[7] at the end of the day, each of the characters in this film is intent on proving his—his—ultimate sovereignty over the situation at hand. Baum, for instance, holds out on dumping his load of CDSs because he wants to prove a point. Murry freezes his investors assets, despite the threat of lawsuits. And when he makes one investor $458 million in profits, he signs the email notifying him of his gains: “You’re welcome.”

So where we might have thought that this was a movie about masculine bros ruining the economy, in fact it’s a movie about smart guys affirming their masculinity through battling dumb guys affirming their masculinity through financial conquest.

Maybe even worse, the film doesn’t seem to recognize its own implication in this production of masculinity. While it implicitly critiques the frat bros at the shooting range, it reproduces that very same version of masculinity as it flouts its own intelligence: McKay seems to revel in the fact that he can explain the financial crisis to us lay people and do so in the mouths of Margot Robbie, naked in a bubble bath, or Selena Gomez at a poker table, the female prop to the older white male economist sitting beside her. The dumb rich guys want to conquer women; the smart rich guys want to tell women what to say. At the level of content, The Big Short says: masculinity is a problem. But at the level of form, it says: masculinity is intoxicating. In this way, McKay is no better than Baum, getting rich while acting like a savior. But maybe that’s one of the lessons we’re meant to learn from the film: we can’t expect those in a position to gain financially from toxic systems to participate fully in the dismantling of those systems.[8]

The reason it’s so hard to see this happening on the surface is because one of the most insidious functions of the consolidation of masculinity into its hegemonic form is that it conceals the process of its own construction, marking itself as a natural condition of social order: boys will be boys, and if you want them to be otherwise, you’re just a buzzkill, dude. This is why it’s not obvious that there are so many men in this movie, why you might very well watch this movie and think it has absolutely nothing to do with gender. Or, even worse, why you might look at the actual financial crisis and not see the gendered logics underpinning it. Such an ideological formation wins big when it wins, and if it loses, it passes the buck onto you, since, like Sara Ahmed has pointed out about racism, pointing out a problem is itself deemed the problem.

When it wins, it wins, but when there’s a loss, it’s on you…sound like anything we’ve heard of before? Hegemonic masculinity is the collateralized debt obligation of gender, scooping up all the B-rated iterations of masculinity—extreme narcissism, misogyny, homophobia[9]—and tying them up into a pretty little AAA-rated package of incredible power and high social value. It turns out that Wall Street is too male to fail.

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault described power as a “micro-physics” that is “exercised” in a variety of “dispositions, manoeuvres, tactics, techniques, [and] functionings.”[10] I’m not an economist, nor am I an economic sociologist. But I am a gender theorist. And it seems to me that what we can see in The Big Short is the interarticulation of multiple tactics of power, the collision of many different social atoms that produced the financial crisis. If we don’t understand how gender played its part in causing the housing bubble, then we can’t fully understand how the economy has functioned, and will continue to function in the future.

Luckily, though, there are whole swaths of academics who can offer us a “history of the present” vis-a-vis gender. People who study the Renaissance, for instance, have recognized for a long time that masculinity is anxious: that it has to constantly prove itself. But what we haven’t made clear enough is that the anxiety we see in 400-year-old poetry can help us understand why the Fed hasn’t raised interest rates in years. Wall Street might have learned a lesson, after all, from Shakespeare, whose Merchant of Venice rehearsed for us, as far back as 1600, the dark consequences of the performance of a racist masculinism, and the perils of betting on future earnings. We might see in Antonio the hubris of the shooting range bro, waiting for his Aspen house: “Thou know’st that all my fortunes are at sea: / Neither have I money nor commodity / To raise a present sum. Therefore go forth— / Try what my credit can in Venice do;” (ll. 177-180). But, where McKay’s film can’t imagine any motive for this but masculinist achievement, Shakespeare gives us, characteristically, something much more fascinating: Antonio bets his fortunes on his love for another man, Bassanio, telling him: “My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (ll. 138-139). Wall Street—or maybe it’s McKay?—doesn’t even go so far as to give us an “I love you, bro.”

But if there is one redeeming thing about The Big Short, it is that it has reminded me of the importance of thinking the economy with gender, race, and sexuality in my own work, just as it has reminded me that the archives of (historical) socioeconomic knowledge are far-reaching and multifarious. That it might make sense to read investment portfolios alongside Shakespeare; to survey both the lives of bankers and the lives of long-dead lovers, just trying to make their way in the world. Maybe that anonymous D.C. drinker had it right: maybe truth really is like poetry, since, as William Carlos Williams reminded us, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

Joseph Gamble is a PhD student in English & Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.

1. Just kidding: I could totally believe it. The first thing people tell me when I say I work on poetry is: “Oh, I hate poetry.” It doesn’t matter who they are: a stranger, my parents, even some of my literary critic colleagues. Hatred of poetry is easier to come by than a subprime mortgage.
2. Or, rather: incredibly dangerously! But I would have slept better at night, at least. Ignorance is bliss.
3. For those who would object that the lack of women in the film stems from an attempt to accurately represent the gendered labor divide on Wall Street: (1) This seems to be belied by the data, which suggest that, in fact, almost 50% of those employed at 6 of the largest banks are women. (Though, unsurprisingly, those numbers are skewed by women in non-financial, presumably administrative/secretarial, positions.). And, more importantly, (2) it doesn’t take into account the many times The Big Short breaks the fourth wall and says: “By the way, this isn’t exactly how it happened,” calling attention to the fictionalization inherent in the “based on a true story” formula. However much it wants to be journalism, this film is still art, and we should be holding our art to the highest standards of our ability to imagine better, more equitable, futures.
4. That this could mean either arming their clients with ammo, or shooting their clients is perfectly commensurate with larger structures of contemporary American masculinity. This is precisely the way hegemonic structures work: by incorporating competing definitions until everything means the same thing. 
5. There’s a lot to be written here about the way disability and masculinity intersect in this film, especially around mental disabilities. Multiple times, for instance, the men assert that the only reason they would buy CDSs is because they’re “off their Zoloft.” 
6. How a medical degree has any bearing on his ability to discern macroeconomic trends is lost on me. 
7. Michael Baum losing his brother functions as his version of dropping an eye on the football field. This is a common, lazy, narrative trope: the death of a “minor” character is used to prop up the supposed depth of a “major” one. 
8.
Thanks to Luis Flores for helping me see this.
9. “Buttfuck” is a favorite insult of even the smart men in the film, since being gay is so unspeakably horrifying that they can’t even name it directly. As a gay man myself, I should know: every morning I’m shocked to find out that once again I’ve woken up gay! How horrible! 
10.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. 26. 

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

9 thoughts on “did bros cause the financial crisis? hegemonic masculinity in the big short”

  1. Finance certainly is disproportionately male. Living in Chicago (and I imagine NYC), it’s difficult not to hear horror stories about finance bros. There are also data, e.g. Karin Knorr’s paper on global finance, showing the violent metaphors financiers use in negotiation (“getting bent over,” “cornering the market”).

    But my sense is that the gendered aspects of finance have been cartooned in the arts and media. See also Madmen. Finance and advertising are traditional whipping posts for left economic critics. In this view, those sectors are the apotheosis of the lying and cheating endemic to the entire economy. Most people writing movies and TV shows are left critics.

    So while men certainly do often behave badly in these industries, I hesitate to draw larger conclusions about the nature of masculinity itself, or the economy itself, from these depictions.

    Also, if we could just stop using the phrase “toxic masculinity,” that’d be great. I think our job here is to understand masculinity, not pathologize it. Let’s forget that the psychoanalytic tradition, “lack,” “compensation,” and so forth was first used to say shitty things about women and homosexuals. I hesitate to turn around and aim it at men.

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  2. I also have to concede that the kind of Gordon Gecko, Ayn Rand, rampant selfishness that financiers often support, is a particularly stupid vision of both masculinity and economic trades. This is where midcentury libertarians (Uncle Milton in particular), and economists screwed up. Selfishness, greed, and ego erode economic productivity and the masculine empathy that gets expressed in protectiveness and providing. Bad stuff.

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  3. This line made my day!

    “Hegemonic masculinity is the collateralized debt obligation of gender, scooping up all the B-rated iterations of masculinity—extreme narcissism, misogyny, homophobia[9]—and tying them up into a pretty little AAA-rated package of incredible power and high social value.”

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  4. I sure am glad that this exists so that I have a place to send people who ask what I thought about while I watched the film. As a side issue, offering those quick cut “We Didn’t Start the Fire” style docu-news reel footage inserts gave me the impression that someone convinced themselves that the 20th century = the history of these doods.

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  5. “what we haven’t made clear enough is that the anxiety we see in 400-year-old poetry can help us understand why the Fed hasn’t raised interest rates in years.” Agreed. We haven’t made that clear enough. I wish one of us would try.

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  6. Interesting to read this post after having just finished Lauren Rivera’s “Privilege,” which highlights all the ways in which preferences for bro-y job candidates get enacted in investment banker hiring (as well as in consulting and biglaw).

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation. Just once, though, I’d like to see someone do one of these studies with an ingroup as a comparison case. Something that highlights the ways in which preferences for social justice-y candidates get enacted in social work hiring, say. Most of these selection mechanisms are I imagine general, not specific to whites, men, conservatives, Christians, the rich, etc. etc.

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