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The Wolf and the Slave

By Justine Toh - posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014

"It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's," Lupita Nyong'o said upon receiving the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for portraying slave girl Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. Nyong'o's tribute to the real-life Patsey feels especially satisfying given that if slavery was bad for men, it was often worse for women since female slaves were reduced to sexual objects owned by men.

Though the transatlantic slave trade is over, there are continuities between the way it traded in human flesh and the way our market society operates today. Just watch Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall St whose 'hero' Jordan Belfort similarly regards women as objects that attract a particular worth and value. There's his trophy wife Naomi, a cool blonde upgrade from his first spouse, to the prostitutes Belfort ranks according to their value as stocks: 'pink sheets' are the trashy streetwalkers compared to the 'blue chip' ladies who sell love while decked out in pearls and expensive finery. Belfort persistently links women, sex, and things-and all to satisfy male appetites.

Without minimising the differences between The Wolf of Wall St or 12 Years a Slave, or the wildly divergent eras they depict, both share a hellish vision of the market society where everything attracts a price, human life is reduced to a commodity, and everyone, in the end, is either a buyer or that which is bought. That the buyer-bought relationship is often split along male-female lines is depressing but comes as no real surprise given age-old inequality between the sexes.


In such a world it's difficult to fault women for taking matters into their own hands and being the ones to sell themselves, since they are looking to simply survive in a system where the odds are stacked against them. I think of the half-terrified, half-exhilarated expression on the face of Belfort's assistant in The Wolf of Wall St-whom he pays $10,000 to shave her head so she can afford a boob job. Or 12 Years a Slave's Mistress Shaw, a slave who married her former master, who notes that putting up with her husband's "pantomime of fidelity" is "a small and reasonable price" to pay to keep her from picking cotton along with the rest of the slaves.

Perhaps something of Mistress Shaw's pragmatism can be found in the real life stories of women selling themselves in order to get by. A Duke University freshman recently outed herself as a porn star after being harassed and bullied for funding her education through starring in adult films. Given the mountain of debt that the average U.S. college student graduates with, and the low wages she earned as a waitress in high school, you can understand her choices-even if they appal more than they appeal.

But if, for whatever reason, the trade-off made by any of these women doesn't sit well with you, no answers can be found by appealing to the morality of markets, for they are decidedly amoral on this point. As Harvard University Professor Michael J. Sandel writes: "If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is 'How much?'" since "markets don't wag fingers". Markets tend not to concern themselves, in other words, with questions of human dignity.

In fact, market thinking seems a perfect fit for a Darwinian universe. If humans are nothing more than the sum total of unguided evolutionary forces, and all of this life is a scrabble for competing resources that the strongest or most adaptable are destined to win, it seems overly sentimental to speak of human dignity. Women, as the 'weaker sex', just have to make peace with their lot in life-and find a man who can protect and provide for them.

And yet we do hold to such a belief in the inherent dignity of people. Perhaps it's a cultural hangover from a time when the biblical claim that every human is made in the 'image of God' was better known. Such a status bestows upon women and men an untold worth that isn't tethered to their function, ability to meet a need, or value in a system of exchange. Rather, they are simply valuable in and of themselves. Though the Christian faith is passé for many today, you can detect traces of its high regard for humanity when we speak of the preciousness of human life, or the inalienable rights of people.

Upon receiving the Oscar for Best Director for 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen said, "everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live." His words resonate powerfully with that biblical vision of humanity, but they are fast losing purchase in a world where the dominance of the market, and its encroachment into all areas of life, might signal a return-assuming, of course, we'd ever left-to that 'survival of the fittest' world where you must adapt or die.


But even if the market has become our politics-and for women particularly, our means of survival in a world that often reduces us to our bodies and our sex-McQueen's words and Nyong'o's tribute to the real-life Patsey suggest that we were made for something more than this.

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About the Author

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.

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