The XX Factor

Reese Witherspoon’s Next Project Exemplifies a Certain Brand of 1-Percenter Feminism

Reese Witherspoon on Feb. 2, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

On a December night, a high-powered Wall Street financier shows up at a holiday shindig to make small talk with colleagues who go by sobriquets like “Ballsy” and “King.” She stashes her three children’s Christmas presents in a corner, hoping to avoid reminding anyone that she doubles as a mom. A few hours later, she emerges from the bathroom to find that the men have decapitated her daughter’s new Barbie and are using her head as a miniature football.

This is the first scene of Maureen Sherry’s Opening Belle, the new Wall Street comedy set in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis; Reese Witherspoon has already made plans to star in a movie based on the novel. Subtlety is not the book’s primary register; workplace sexism is its foremost theme. Since Sherry spent over a decade at the investment bank Bear Stearns, it’s hard to know whether some of the most over-the-top displays of what Sherry’s protagonist terms “Neanderthal behavior” are fiction or memoir. (In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Sherry recounted the time a male colleague stole her breast milk out of the office fridge and drank it on a dare.) Either way, it’s the first of the string of narratives set in and around the financial crisis—most recently the Oscar-nominated film The Big Short—to frame its story through a female perspective.

The book exemplifies a brand of 1-percenter feminism; protagonist Isabelle Cassidy does find out her nanny has taken on a mortgage she can’t afford, but the ethics of Isabelle’s profession are an afterthought in what is primarily a comedy. According to the Times, Sherry decided Isabelle should have an income of roughly $3 million a year—far less, it’s implied, than that of her own family—because she “wanted her to be relatable.” It seems unlikely that relatable would be the word that occurs to most readers (and eventually, filmgoers).

The most appealing parts of the book portray an uneasy alliance between Isabelle and the other women in her office, who come together in what they call the “Glass Ceiling Club” to discuss and ultimately take on the patriarchal powers that be. These are not feel-good scenes of a rising tide that lifts all boats but rather prickly and sometimes duplicitous negotiations between characters who want to advance their collective without sacrificing anything themselves. In an early scene, Isabelle is nearly kicked out of the club by a woman whom she recruited to her company and lied to about the sexist culture of the place. “Belle is a good salesperson, but a lousy friend,” the woman says. At least we know this about Witherspoon’s upcoming movie: It will pass the Bechdel test.