Fair Play Blames “Male Fragility” for High Finance’s Evils

The new corporate thriller Fair Play depicts an intra-office relationship gone sour — but asks audiences to relate to the relationship struggles of the 0.1%.

Alden Ehrenreich as Luke and Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play. (Netflix)

What would it look like if a female CEO of Goldman Sachs made a movie? It might look a lot like the new erotic thriller Fair Play, written and directed by Chloe Domont and distributed by Netflix. Fair Play follows the relationship of Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), coworkers at an exclusive financial firm who must keep their relationship a secret. Luke is led to believe he is next in line for promotion, but the position goes to Emily, setting off a tragic sequence of events all of them rooted in his bruised ego. The tragedy is Luke’s insecurity, and the film revolves around what Domont calls “male fragility,” the Me Too counterpart to “white fragility.” In this world of male/white fragility the worst harm is making another “feel small.”

The film tells the story of Luke and Emily and their rise (for Emily) and fall (for Luke) in the world of high finance. Despite their attempt to keep their relationship out of the workplace, Fair Play shows the impossibility of separating interpersonal dynamics from corporate ones. Domont graphically makes this point by organizing the film around three scenes of blood exchange. When the film opens, Luke is the epitome of male security — even going down on Emily while she’s menstruating. In this moment of intimacy, an engagement ring spills out of his pocket, sealing their relationship in blood — how can she say no to a guy like this?

But like every great noir, this bond is doomed to failure. There’s a rumor going around the office that Luke is up for a promotion, but it turns out that Emily gets “his” promotion. Soon enough Luke’s true colors emerge — he is, in fact, an insecure asshole. Luke’s behavior becomes increasingly unhinged as petty jealousy takes over. In a crucial scene (the second blood exchange in the film), Luke betrays Emily, offering his blood to the CEO of the firm, Campbell (Eddie Marsan), rather than his fiancée, Emily who is now his boss.

Luke, on his knees, a pathetic mirror of the opening scene of the engagement, says to Campbell, “If I had a knife, I’d sacrifice my own blood.” Luke is angling for the coveted Portfolio Manager (PM) position at the firm. Luke’s treasonous offer to Campbell is interrupted by Derek, the actual new PM, who was just poached from 3G Capital. As Campbell tells the groveling Luke, he brought in $90 million last year. Derek corrects him by saying that it was over the span of a quarter, not a year. Campbell acts surprised and whistles in glee, further humiliating Luke. We’re supposed to be impressed — these guys really rake it in. Because if this film is feminist (it’s not) it is most definitely not anti-capitalist.

Or rather, maybe it’s a different kind of feminism? “I wanted to show how ‘Me Too’ never hit the finance world,” writer-director Domont says. It is no doubt true that the world of the one-tenth of 1 percent has not gotten the message, the world where bosses might hand their workers a $575,000 bonus check but also — after a financial transaction goes bad — utter misogynist slurs.

We see this play out when Emily takes some dubious advice from an increasingly jealous Luke, losing the company $25 million in a matter of hours. Her boss, Campbell, tells her (twice) she’s a “dumb fucking bitch.” Until then, Campbell had been a hero in the eyes of Emily — but now Emily, and we the audience, know the dirty truth of high finance. If you thought that the problem with finance was that it was destroying democracy and the planet through wildly exacerbating wealth inequality, you’d be very wrong. In this film, the problem is that deep down, even the most progressive men at the top can’t help but break out in a “sudden outburst of misogyny.”

Despite the slur, Campbell really does admire Emily and, as Domont says, he “hires her because he thinks she’s a killer.” Emily gets the job because Campbell “sees her value regardless of gender.” Like CEO of JPMorgan Chase Jamie Dimon, a kind of model for Campbell, Campbell sees himself as a progressive and looks past gender when he seeks to exploit every aspect of the globe. Domont wanted to show the “duality” of finance CEOs: “There’s these male champions out there that will support you and give you the opportunity, but at the same time, you slip up, and suddenly, the misogyny is still there.” In a world where every harm is the harm of discrimination, where finance is as natural as the air we breathe, how the one-tenth of 1 percent treat each other suddenly becomes the model for everyone’s problem.

You might think that Emily would tell Campbell to fuck himself after his misogynist fit. But no, Emily comes back to show Campbell she has what it takes, she’s got the killer instinct like her male colleagues. Emily quickly learns not to take the advice of her jealous fiancé/male colleague and goes with her gut — and wins big. The $575,000 check she receives is the payout for her success. Her ability to turn it around (literally) overnight shows she belongs with the real cutthroats at the top — misogynist slurs be damned. Luke is “a trader that moves off of momentum and he’s someone that’s looking to see where the trends are already going.” Not Emily. “She’s looking where other people aren’t looking.” Go Emily, get that bread!

Without a hint of irony, Domont has said that “every woman can relate” to this story. Because in Domont’s circle, there is certainly no greater harm than “being made to feel small.” But is the real problem female workers face at Walmart or Amazon, the United States’ largest employers, the trade-off between a half-million-dollar bonus and misogynist slurs? Is it even unequal pay?

The average hourly salary at Walmart is $15 (men at Walmart make roughly a thousand dollars more than women per year). In fact, the problem at Walmart and Amazon is neither slurs nor unequal pay — it’s poverty-level wages. And yet Fair Play wants us to believe that the problems of high finance are the problems for women everywhere. “A woman trying to make her way up in any industry faces those challenges,” Domont says. But women (or, for that matter, men) who will never have a chance to lose anyone $25 million face different challenges. The Jamie Dimons of the world are their enemy — even if he never calls them a dumb fucking bitch.

According to Domont, the film is less about Girl Boss dynamics and more about male insecurities. “This isn’t really a film about female empowerment,” but more “about male fragility.” In the film, Emily is nothing but faithful to Luke: she bends over backward to help him with his career even to the point of jeopardizing her own standing; she soothes his concerns when she is expected to party late with the bosses; she coddles all his insecurities, trying to be the better person. It’s Luke that’s emotionally, and ultimately physically, unfaithful to her; he’s the small one for making her feel small. He simply cannot handle her success.

So even though Emily is just “better at the game” than Luke, that’s not really the point. It is so utterly not the point that the game where millions are traded in an instant, where lives are damaged everywhere, becomes the backdrop to slights. If you want a direct counter to the interpersonal dynamics of finance capital then watch Dumb Money, which shows the real-life effects of short selling. With the press of a button, financiers can destroy lives by undermining confidence in a company, betting on failure. And if the bet doesn’t come through, financiers actively collude to lower the value of a stock, making reality fit their portfolio. At no point in Fair Play is there the smallest glimmer of the damages caused by high finance, damages other than personal slights.

In this world, being made to feel small is the real horror of capitalism. In this world, if the male-dominated 0.1 percent could just get over their insecurities, then the hard problems would be solved.