The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.
Wednesday night, Trevor Noah hit the bubble bath. On TV. Producers on The Daily Show, apparently, thought it would be the best way to explain the GameStop drama that has consumed the financial—and extremely online—world. The gag was good; he was basically a floating head on the body of Margot Robbie recreating the scene in Adam McKay’s 2015 film The Big Short where the actress describes mortgage bonds and how to “short” them. Considering that the entire GameStop fiasco revolves around stock traders on Reddit trying to stick it to the hedge funds shorting the brick-and-mortar video game retailer, the implied analogy between this week’s reality and the movie (which was also based on real life) could not have been more apt.
One of the big drivers of the fight over GameStop’s stock price has been the fact that retail investors—individual investors, not institutions—on the subreddit WallStreetBets have turned GME (the company’s stock ticker symbol) into a meme. Suddenly everyone was talking about “stonks.” GameStop went viral, a narrative emerged. The hedge funds trying to short America’s beloved mall video game retailer were the villains; Redditors and others buying GME stock to drive up the price and “squeeze” the short, were the heroes. There were similar efforts to rally around the stocks for the AMC theater chain and Dogecoin. On Thursday, Robinhood and TD Ameritrade, two services often used by retail investors, restricted trading on GME (and other stocks) after its price shot toward $500 per share. Elon Musk weighed in. So did Twitter’s new favorite commentator, Dionne Warwick, and, inexplicably, Ja Rule. The whole thing has been manic, to say the least.
It’s no surprise then that The Big Short would become a reference point. Social media—and regular media (hello!)—have been awash in references to the film as well as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, about stockbroker Jordan Belfort. Considering that McKay’s film opens with a line about how “a few outsiders and weirdos saw what no one else could … saw the giant lie at the heart of the economy,” it’s easy to see the parallels. Everyone wants to screw the big-money players who always seem to be screwing average folks. But there’s more to it than that. The Big Short isn’t just about trying to get one over on Goldman Sachs. It’s about the culture that allowed it to happen.
Take Margot Robbie in the tub. That scene wasn’t about finding a glitzy way to do some exposition. The point was to make people pay attention to the thing they’d been ignoring (a volatile market built out of subprime mortgages) by having it recounted by the thing that had been distracting them (celebrity). When the housing market—the market that Michael Burry (Christian Bale) shorted in McKay’s movie—crashed in 2008, it happened while America was absorbed in Britney Spears, Facebook, and iPhones. Also, the elite language of banking made it hard for average Americans to keep up, so they ignored it altogether. McKay, when he made his movie, aimed to flip that with the understanding that people could grok the economics—if it was provided in the right form. So that’s why he had people like Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez explain the basics. The premise of The Big Short, he told me back in 2015 as the movie was hitting theaters, was to “take this 24-hour pop culture machine that tells us what Kim Kardashian is up to and then say, ‘What if that machine told us real information?’”