Good and Bad Fathers as Moral Rhetoric in Wall Street

By Jordan, John W. | Fathering, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Good and Bad Fathers as Moral Rhetoric in Wall Street


Jordan, John W., Fathering


This essay reads the narrative dynamics between the "good" and "bad" father personas in Oliver Stone's Wall Street as arguments seeking to persuade audiences about the morality of the father/son relationship. Specifically, the film develops an argumentative logic advancing one patriarchal ideology above, and at the expense of, others. An analysis of the film on the theme of fathers and sons reveals how contemporary ideas about what it means to be a "good" father are made culturally sensible and desirable.

Keywords: fathers, masculinity, film studies, patriarchy, rhetoric, Wall Street

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Oliver Stone's Wall Street opened in December of 1987, just seven weeks after the "Black Monday" stock market crash and shortly after the director's father, a Wall Street stockbroker and inspiration for the film, passed away. These sad coincidences provided gravitas to Stone's film about two crisis points in modern America: family and money. As the "old guard" faded away, concerns about how to safeguard the next generation's moral sensibilities emerged and continue to be of concern (Jeffords, 1994; Jenkins, 2006). Stone's Wall Street entered this scene as a moral parable about generational conflict, masculinity, and fathers. The film tells the story of Bud Fox, a young stockbroker who initially rejects the teachings of his good and true father, Carl Fox. The son is seduced and betrayed by the corrupt father figure of Gordon Gekko, and ultimately is redeemed by accepting Carl's ideology. Thus, Wall Street provides an opportunity to examine how masculine familial relationships are employed as moralistic rhetorics for film audiences, and their significance to our larger cultural perspective on patriarchy. The film's enduring popularity and the frequency with which such "paternalistic choice" narratives appear in popular media makes deciphering the rhetoric of Wall Street an important task for understanding representations of fathers in the media.

In the sections that follow, I engage Wall Street's cinematic and social significance, situating it within a broader understanding of paternalistic masculinity and the media. Following this, I analyze the film and its related discourse to reveal the ideological thrust of the film's paternalism and how it encourages audiences to view father-son relationships. Critiquing the film's representations of fathers as symbolic rhetoric calls into question the narrative purpose behind playing "bad" and "good" fathers off each other as a means for conveying moral principles, and enhances our understanding of how popular narratives work to help audiences negotiate ideological crises. Ultimately, the film is more effective in explaining to the audience why the "bad father" is bad than why the "good father" is good; thus providing audiences with a clear sense of the difference between the two, but a far less clear accounting of the good father's moral virtue.

The Paternal, Masculine and Cinematic Contexts of Wall Street

Wall Street is a typically blunt Oliver Stone film, meaning that it is all but impossible to miss the father-son connections in the narrative. Not only are Bud and Carl Fox played by real-life son and father actors, Charlie and Martin Sheen, but Stone dedicated the film to his father and cast his own toddler son in the film. Both at the time of its release and on its celebrated 20th anniversary, Stone emphasized his father-centric focus, citing his own father as his "main motivation" because he wanted to "tell a story that would resonate" with him (Demos, 2007a; see also Garcia, 1987; Neumeister, 2007). Stone's paternalistic message in Wall Street is embodied by the film's father-figures who represent the ethical choices confronting young men today (Demos, 2007a). Viewed in this light, Bud Fox's cinematic journey reflects Stone's own arguments about the choices fathers and sons must make to safeguard the American family and society in general. …

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