The rise of white privileged scammer storylines on television
Do we love watching white, privileged people fall? Or do we relish them getting away with their crimes?
American viewers’ obsession with white, entitled characters in recent television shows is no secret. From “Succession” to “The White Lotus,” 46.8 million domestic HBO Max subscribers can watch the Roy family bickering over their patriarch’s will and White Lotus residents doing the same over thousand dollar hotel rooms.
Still, the past five months have brought a notable evolution in this genre. With the release and subsequent popularity of biographical limited series like “Inventing Anna” (Netflix), “The Dropout” (Hulu) and “WeCrashed” (AppleTV), a fresh subcategory of white, privileged television has emerged: white, privileged scammers.
“Inventing Anna” tells the story of Anna Sorokin, a woman who masqueraded as a German heiress, ultimately conning her friends and business associates out of $275,000 while defrauding many in the process. “The Dropout” details the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, whose company Theranos claimed to have invented sophisticated blood-testing technology. She was ultimately charged with 11 counts of wire fraud. “WeCrashed” features Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork, and his eccentric personality and drug abuse that led to his resignation and the company’s devaluation.
To tie all three together with a common thread, Twitter user @MiaRahman_2021 explained, “Been watching too many shows based on real life and I’ve realised as long as you’re white, you can scam rich people into believing your idea is worth billions… #InventingAnna #WeCrashed #TheDropout”
While grounded in impressive acting performances, the scammer shows pose an important question: do these television shows address how their characters ultimately weaponized their privilege to commit crimes? The glamorization of crime points to no. However, given the plots portrayed are based on real events, a fair judgment requires further analysis.
First, the fake German heiress turned courtroom fashion icon Anna Sorokin was sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison after her various cons. She was released in February of 2021 for good behavior. Netflix paid Sorokin $320,000 to turn her escapades into a limited series, helmed by creator Shonda Rhimes and her production company ShondaLand. Throughout “Inventing Anna,” Sorokin, who went by Anna Delvey to conceal her Russian origins, is portrayed as stylish, ambitious, demanding, and savvy. Before her imprisonment, she was on the verge of receiving a $2 million loan to fund her social club, the Anna Delvey Foundation.
Actress Julia Garner quips as Sorokin in the show, “I work for my success. I earn my accomplishments. Pay attention—maybe you’ll learn how to be smart like me. I doubt it, but you can dream.” Following the jury’s decision, she affirmatively says the following, “Those people in there. They saw me. I was dangerously close, and they saw that. Now the world will know that I am not an idiot. I’m not some dumb socialite. I’m a player.”
While Sorokin is truly a faceted character, both in real life and on-screen, there is an overwhelming subtext of girl power coded within her portrayal. Twitter user @TiffanyMarkham tweeted the following, “I can’t believe I’m quoting #InventingAnna but… Anna Sorokin is right about this: ‘Every day, men do far worse things than anything I’ve allegedly done. And what happens to them? Nothing. Men fail upwards all the time.’”
This quote is certainly valid, and a powerful sentiment, yet Anna’s criminal actions diminish it. Her character is also revered by her peers, even the ones she scammed or ditched. There is a constant fascination with her persona and allure. Until she is finally indicted by the jury, there seem to be no consequences for Anna. Even following her imprisonment, the payout from Netflix certainly softened the blow.
The designer wardrobe, expensive hotel rooms, and constant vacations in “Inventing Anna” ultimately glamorize and perpetuate power structures grounded in white privilege. @Switdifferent comments, “If [there’s] any take away from #InventingAnna & #TheDropout is that white women can get away with anything in this world & still not take full accountability.”
However, Time Magazine writer Judy Berman argues that “The Dropout” is different and should be lauded over other subpar scammer shows. “The Dropout doesn’t exist to pile on Holmes, whose public humiliation has been ongoing since the mid-2010s,” Berman writes.
“But neither does it come across as a reclamation in the style of Inventing Anna, which attempts to reframe another famous female scammer, Anna Delvey, as a snobby feminist Robin Hood. Elizabeth is less a generic woman posturing her way through a man’s world than a misfit whose drive for professional success—the only objective her brain seems equipped to pursue—knows no bounds. Rather than embody some hollow girlboss archetype, she learns to use it to her advantage.”
Indeed, rather than sympathizing with Holmes’ isolation or bashing her for her lies, showrunner Elizabeth Merriweather frames Holmes within the context of her upbringing, colleagues, pressures, and most importantly, as a woman in a male-dominated field.
When Holmes, played by Amanda Seyfried, asks Stanford professor Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf) to advise her on her business model as a female scientist and academic, Gardner responds, “You don’t get to skip any steps. You have to do the work. Your work, other people’s work. You have to do so much work that they have to admit that you did it and nobody helped you. You have to take away all of their excuses. And then if you get anything, anything wrong, they’ll destroy you. And they’ll be so happy to do it. So, no, as a woman, I can’t help you right now.”
Even during Holmes’ meteoric rise following Theranos’s initial success, bits of dialogue hint at how her being a woman at the forefront of a male-dominated industry further complicates her actions, as she carries the weight of a predecessor to future female leaders. During an interview, a reporter asks her, “Many successful women often experience impostor syndrome, where they feel like a fraud…” Gardner and others working to uncover her conning contemplate how she weaponizes her femininity to fool her coworkers with one of them commenting, “She’s a symbol of feminist progress. She makes the men in tech and business feel good without challenging them.”
All of these sentiments manifest themselves in Gardner’s final confrontation of Holmes at a conference, before her eventual downfall.
“When this becomes a scandal… What do you think happens to all the other women who want to start companies?” Gardner questions Holmes. “Who is going to trust them?”
In this way, “The Dropout” successfully carries a biographical story while also framing Holmes’ scandal in a way that illustrates the intangible consequences of her actions. The show doesn’t demonize her any more than her own actions do. If anything, Merriweather’s writing and plot structure is a commentary on how difficult it is to become established as a woman in the male-dominated field while also not excusing Holmes’ crimes. This is where “Inventing Anna” fails.
While all three shows were based on existing podcasts covering the scammers, “WeCrashed” shares fewer similarities with both “The Dropout” and “Inventing Anna.” Israeli businessman Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) with the support of his wife Rebekah Neumann (Anne Hathaway) founded the company WeWork in 2008 with Miguel McKelvey (Kyle Marvin).
Like his fellow scammers, Sorokin and Holmes, Neumann secures funding for his “serial entrepreneur” initiatives by lying to investors and glossing over the more concerning aspects of WeWork’s business model with bravado and charisma. At one point, Neumann declares, “Find another person who can walk into a room and come out 12 minutes later with $4 billion. I’m a golden f***ing goose laying golden f***ing eggs. And I’m going to make every single one of you filthy f***ing rich.”
Vulture writer Roxana Hadadi comments that “WeCrashed,” though drawn-out, portrays an aspect of the divisive corporate world in a way that “The Dropout” and “Inventing Anna fail to do so: “Money is made up, and the ‘valuation’ process is an arbitrary echo chamber.”
While Neumann is never charged with a crime for any of his machinations, “WeCrashed” illustrates how money and success enable already immoral people. Hadadi asserts that the show rightly paints Neumann as a “wannabe cult leader” while also portraying his wife Rebekah as the driving force and brains behind WeWork and demanding sympathy for her in the process. Rebekah is notably the cousin of Gwenyth Paltrow, a stalwart vegan who routinely accepts checks from her father while preaching the value of entrepreneurship.
Significantly more exhausting to endure than the glitz of “Inventing Anna” and the meticulousness of “The Dropout,” “WeCrashed” certainly portrays the eccentricity of the Neumanns, yet never fully addresses the various scandals wrought by the couple.
Profiling real-life scammers via television is a double-edged sword. For one, some would argue that the sheer exposure of con artists’ crimes serves as cautionary tales and commentary on American capitalism. However, every story is always edited, crafted to fit into an eight-episode star-studded limited series, and despite best intentions, dramatized for viewers.
These portrayals may not appear to result in any detrimental consequences for the viewer. After all, “Succession” and “The White Lotus” viewers know how satisfying it can be to watch rich, white people miserable in their privilege, yet unwilling to give anything up. Still, when real-life scammers and criminals are portrayed as heroic or immune to consequences, not all series will be successful at accurately identifying harmful power structures. Normalizing and sensationalizing these bastions of white privilege do nothing to curb corruption.
By all means, watch any of these scammer shows. I strongly recommend “The Dropout” over the others. Whichever con viewers watch, it is important to be mindful of the unethical processes and people that continue to thrive beyond the screen.
Image edit by Isa Luzarraga.
Story originally published in Keke Magazine.