Introduction: Classic Literature Doesn’t Always Make a Classic Film
Whenever a classic work of fiction is adapted for the silver screen, there is both a feeling of excitement and dread. Sometimes an essential work of literature like Les Misérables becomes a near-perfect film, moving audiences and refreshing old works for new times. However, more frequently the “liberties” taken by directors and producers turn great writings into cinematic trash unworthy of the price of admission. The Great Gatsby (2013) is such absolute cinematic trash, perpetuating misogyny, whitewashing racism and otherwise contributing little and detracting much from the original work.
This Film is Misogynistic
One of the most striking features of this bucket of cinematic bile is how women are depicted as existing for the sole purpose of fulfilling the sexual desires of men. Most women we see can either be seen clinging to the arms of men in suits two at a time or are shown in the near-nude dancing for a man’s entertainment. Black women in particular are sexually objectified. In one scene Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the protagonist of the story, looks out of a window of his cousin’s husband’s mistress’ apartment to see a young black woman in lingerie dancing for an older white man, who later pulls her away from the window, most likely to a bed.
The primary female characters fare little better than the rest. Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Nick Carraway’s cousin, essentially exists as the disputed sex toy between Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). She is portrayed as an idiotic, child-like person whose primary motivation is “having fun.” When speaking about how her husband was most likely with another woman while she was alone giving birth to their daughter, Daisy says that she was glad it was a girl so she could grow up to be “dumb.” Daisy is, as far as characters go, the weakest in the movie, lacking any development whatsoever. The other most prominent female character is Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), Daisy’s friend, whose primary motivation is bedding powerful, wealthy and notorious men. The only other female who even has a name is Tom Buchanan’s mistress Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) who appears in only a handful of scenes and has no purpose in the story other than having sex with Tom and being hit by a car. All women in this film are shown either in revealing flapper attire, barely-there cocktail dresses, or in their underwear.
Another fault of this film’s engagement with gender is how, like other Hollywood films, it reduces love and romantic relationships to sex, with the feelings that romantically-involved characters have for one another being measurable by the number of times they have sex during the course of the film. What this kind of perspective on love does is perpetuate the notion that the pinnacle of human intimacy and human relationships is intercourse. The only “evidence” that Daisy and Gatsby are in love comes from the cluster of scenes wherein the two have sex. There are no deep talks or any real communication; just scenes of Gatsby allowing Daisy to admire the wealth he has accrued interspliced with sex. What this kind of depiction of romantic relationships does is it motivates the sexual objectification of women, communicating the idea for women to have intimate and committed relationships, they need to be willing to submit to the sexual advances of their partner for their love to truly exist, and that men need to dominate a woman sexually before he can be said to “have” her.
This concept of a man possessing a woman motivates the central conflict of the story. Both Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are motivated by possessing Daisy physically and psychologically. In the main confrontation between Tom Buchanan and Gatsby, Gatsby is determined to make Daisy say that she never loved Tom and her husband, who is widely known as having a mistress, expresses hypocritical indignation toward Daisy’s affair with Gatsby and argues that Gatsby is of insufficient “breeding” to be with her. Daisy is ultimately unable to chose, making her seem more like sexual cattle than a person with thoughts, feelings and goals in life. With this being the female lead in the story, it’s safe to say that The Great Gatsby‘s depiction of women leaves much to be desired.
This Film is Racist
Any student of U.S. history should know that the 1920’s was not a good time to be a black person in America. The south was an open apartheid regime which enforced the second-class status of blacks through all-white juries and terrorist violence, with some being lynched and even burned alive. The north fared little better, with entire towns enforcing racial homogeneity by expelling all black workers from their community by sundown (these towns were called “sundown towns” and existed in the north as well as the south). While American communists were fighting the opening battles of the civil rights struggle, liberalism hadn’t yet caught up, and blacks all across the country lived lives of discrimination, exploitation and comparative poverty.
This film whitewashes this history by showing well-off black men adorned in gold jewelry, in scenes reminiscent of current rap videos. In a scene where Nick Carraway has lunch with Gatsby in a speak-easy in the rear of a barbershop, we see black women in the near-nude dancing before a crowd and singing the chorus of Jay-Z song “Hundred Dollar Bill.” Black women in the film are viewed exclusively as sexual objects, and frequently the sexual objects of wealthy white men. Black men are either well-dressed members of a criminal underworld or servants to the wealthy white characters. There is only one black person who has a speaking role in the film, and his only contribution is to describe a car used in a hit-and-run.
While the film does make passing reference to the eugenics movement, with Tom Buchanan being an open proponent of scientific racism and the domination of “inferior races” by whites, this was done mostly to cast him in the role of villain and make the viewer more sympathetic to Gatsby as the “lesser evil.” In all, this film is reprehensible for its casual racism and whitewashing of racial oppression in U.S. history
Everything Else about This Film is Terrible
As if racism and misogyny aren’t enough to condemn this film, every other aspect seems purposefully designed to alienate all audiences. Fans of the original book will loathe the butchery of Fitzgerald’s work through a combination of bad acting, a musical score that is entirely inappropriate for the time and theme of the original story, and costume design which, combined with the other factors, make this film a gaudy mess – with the gaudiness being celebrated rather than condemned.
Those drawn in by the trailers featuring grand parties and modern music will have to experience a ham performance of Fitzgerald’s original tragic love story. Fans of film will be disappointed by these two aspects combined as gaudy visuals, boring plot execution, unlikeable characters, a protagonist you strongly expect to be a sociopath and an ending far from satisfying, fulfilling or instructive make this film decidedly unwatchable.
The Great Gatsby (2013) is a waste of time and talent, and there is no audience imaginable who wouldn’t find some aspect of this film offensive.