This is the era of Peak Scam TV. Launched by HBO McMillionsbut definitely ushered in by the explosive success of Netflix and Hulu documentaries of the epic Fyre Festival implosion, viewers can’t get enough of scam TV these days or can’t avoid it. Invent Anna, The stall, We crashed, LuLaRich, rogue tinder, bad vegan: Open a streaming service and scam stories go to the top of the list.
The fun of this new genre stems from knowingly residing on the safe side of the story; we are (probably) not among the scammed, and therefore able to laugh or revel in the grandeur of the plot – perhaps even admire the audacity of the scammer’s ambitions. The crook’s knife trick doesn’t have to hurt the viewer. However, the knife digs differently when the crooks involved are women.
While the initial rollout of con stories focused on men, like Billy McFarland, the tone remained condemnable with a hint of admiration. Documentaries and shows have portrayed their actions as morally wrong with a pinch of finesse. The framing suggested that the scale of their crimes merited some seriousness: not just anybody could fool so many people so easily, now could they?
With the involvement of women in scams, the shape of the story changes in various ways. In the recent We crashed on Apple TV+, the contrast between the two main characters, Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) and Rebekah Neumann (Anne Hathaway) underscores this point. Leto’s character powers the lion’s share of the scam in the show, where he’s portrayed as a truly gifted and ultra-charismatic storyteller in the elevator world. Rebekah Neumann receives less praise. As she works as a spiritual advisor and brand manager for Adam, quietly reflecting on the key ideas that drive the operation (company name, lifestyle brand, focus on sentiment rather than harsh measures) the concept of exception eludes him in the story of We crashed.
In short, Rebekah becomes an easy character to hate. Obsessed with high fashion and home decor, Rebekah pursues her own prestige opportunities with little success. An embarrassing stint in acting, even its backstory lends itself to scorn. Vignettes designed to humanize (his own father’s story of tax evasion, a sudden breakup) seem to be lacking, and plot points deviating from his life story about sabotaging the career of the one of her only friends at WeWork describes her as insufferable. With the cookie-cutter figure of an authorized wealthy woman – Gweneth Paltrow’s cousin, no less – Rebekah Neumann is reduced to a tiny human.
While both Neumanns should receive heaps of scorn, there is disproportionate ridicule going on. While Adam exhibits ridiculous behavior and most of the blame for the real financial crimes at WeWork — signing leases, crooked major investors — the show’s assessment of his talent set is positive. Adam is always portrayed as a man with some sort of special sauce that’s hard to replicate. The solution to Neumann’s lopsided portrayals isn’t that Rebekah needs more praise or Adam needs more of a muted shine. It’s a global manipulation of humanity, where masculine eccentricities continue to be accepted in stride, like Adam Neumann’s eternal barefoot walk, while Rebekah’s vanity stems from a place of self – almost reasonable obsession – a hyper-awareness of how women of his rank are perceived and given opportunities on looks alone. Their behaviors differ due to different pressure points, and one is more understandable than the other.
Hulu’s The stall continues this trend in its own way. With Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes being constantly compared and pitted against her idol, Steve Jobs, it’s hard not to wonder about the differential treatment between female and sleazy male entrepreneurs. To his credit, The stall does a better job of explaining Holmes’ failing social fluidity through a personal story. But set against another narrative of a sketchy college dropout trying to score big, like the The social network, it’s easy to see where masculinized incompetence or deception reads as aggressive ambition, while its feminized counterpart reads more as blatantly unacceptable or disgusting. While Zuckerberg’s product worked and the idea was more or less stolen, Holmes’ idea was original and the product failed, so Holmes deserves his infamy. This East It’s worth pointing out that Zuckerberg’s grimness and penchant for unflattering clothes couldn’t be adopted by Holmes at work – that sort of fallout is already very clear in The stall.
This argument does not mean that scammers should not be treated in the same way as men (even if Invent Anna bizarrely tries to excuse Anna Delvey). In a true feminist form, gender equality should also look like equal opportunity to wickedness, because women are human, just like men. But, the angle that many scam stories take – the unconscious bias towards rewarding male behavior for any kind of talent, behavior or morals aside – is greatly revealed. The awkwardness with which the female characters mistakenly fixate on their personal presentation, from Invent Anna branded clothes at The stall The deep voice of Holmes, all point in one direction: that the barrier to entry for good and bad activities in this world is lowered in the private and public spheres for men. It’s already a rip off for women to participate in many aspects of modern life. It’s uncomfortable to realize in the scam business, this scam never goes away.
Katherine Smith is a Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her thoughts on popular culture, politics and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith
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