Girlboss, Gatekeep, Gaslight, Scam: The Gender Bias of TV's Con Series

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Girlboss, Gatekeep, Gaslight, Scam: The Gender Bias of TV's Con Series

It’s the era of Peak Scam TV. Jumpstarted by HBO’s McMillions, but definitively ushered in by the explosive success of both Netflix and Hulu’s documentaries of the Fyre Festival’s epic implosion, TV viewers either can’t get enough of scam TV these days or can’t avoid it. Inventing Anna, The Dropout, WeCrashed, LuLaRich, Tinder Swindler, Bad Vegan: open up a streaming service and scam stories serve themselves up at the top of the list.

The fun of this new genre stems from knowingly residing on the safe side of the story; we are (likely) not one of the scammed, and thus able to laugh or revel in the grandiosity of the plot—maybe even admire the audacity of the scammer’s ambitions. The turn of the scammer’s knife doesn’t have to hurt the viewer. However, the knife sinks into the skin differently when the scammers in question are women.

While the initial rollout of the scammer stories focused on men, like Billy McFarland, the tone remained condemnatory with a hint of admiration. The documentaries and shows depicted their actions as morally reprehensible with a pinch of finesse. The framing suggested that the scale of their crimes deserved a certain gravitas: not just anyone could fool so many people so easily, now could they?

With women’s involvement within scams, the shape of the story shifts in a variety of ways. In the recent WeCrashed on Apple TV+, the contrast between the two title characters, Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) and Rebekah Neumann (Anne Hathaway) underscores this point. Leto’s character propels the lion share of the scamming within the show, where he is depicted as a truly gifted and ultra-charismatic storyteller within the world of the elevator pitch. Rebekah Neumann receives less praise. While she works in a capacity as a spiritual advisor-cum-brand officer for Adam, quietly brainstorming the key ideas that drive the engine of the operation (the name of the business, the lifestyle brand, the emphasis on feeling over hard metrics) the concept of exceptionality evades her within the story of WeCrashed.

In short, Rebekah becomes an easy character to hate. Obsessed with high fashion and interior design, Rebekah chases down her own opportunities for prestige with little success. An embarrassing stint in acting, even her backstory lends itself to scorn. Vignettes designed to humanize (her own father’s tax fraud story, a rough breakup) feel lacking, and plot points deviating from her life story about sabotaging one of her only friend’s careers at WeWork paint her as insufferable. With the cookie cutter outline of an entitled rich woman—the cousin of Gweneth Paltrow, no less—Rebekah Neumann is reduced to a very small human.

While both Neumanns should receive heaps of scorn, there is a disproportionate ridicule afoot. While Adam demonstrates ridiculous behavior, and most of the responsibility for the true financial crimes at WeWork—signing leases, leading investors awry—the show’s appraisal of his overall talents skew positively. Adam still is depicted as a man with a sort of hard-to-reproduce special sauce. The solution to Neumann’s imbalanced portrayals isn’t that Rebekah needs more praise or Adam more of a muted shine. It’s an overall handling of humanity, where male eccentricities continue to be accepted in stride, like Adam Neumann’s perennial barefootedness, whereas Rebekah’s vanity stems from a place of almost reasonable self-obsession—a hyper-awareness of how women of her echelon are perceived and given opportunities on appearance alone. Their behaviors deviate due to different pressure points, and one of them is more understandable than the other.

Hulu’s The Dropout continues this trend in its own way. With Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes constantly being compared and contrasted against her idol, Steve Jobs, it’s hard not to wonder about the difference in treatment between shady female and male entrepreneurs. To its credit, The Dropout does a better job at explaining Holmes’ faltering social fluency through personal backstory. But placed against another narrative of a sketchy collegiate dropout attempting to score big, like the The Social Network, it’s easy to see where masculinized ineptitude or skullduggery is perceived as aggressive ambition, while its feminized counterpart reads more as patently unacceptable or disgusting. While Zuckerberg’s product worked and the idea was more-or-less stolen, Holmes’ idea was original and the product inoperational, thus Holmes deserves her infamy. It is worth pointing out that Zuckerberg’s crassitude and penchant for unflattering clothes could not be adopted by Holmes at work—that kind of fallout is already made very clear in The Dropout.

This argument isn’t to say that women scammers should not be held to the same account as the men (even though Inventing Anna oddly tries to excuse Anna Delvey). In true feminist form, equality between the genders should also look like equal opportunity to villiany, as women are human, just like men. But, the angle many scam stories are taking—the unconscious biases toward rewarding male behavior for any kind of talent, behavior or morals aside—greatly reveals itself. The awkwardness with which women characters in the wrong fixate on their personal presentation, from Inventing Anna’s designer clothes to The Dropout’s Holmes’ deepened voice, all point one direction: that the barrier for entry for good and bad pursuits in this world lowers itself in both the private and public spheres for men. It’s already a scam for women to participate in many aspects of modern life. It’s uncomfortable to realize in the realm of scamming, that scam never leaves.

Katherine Smith is Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her musings on popular culture, politics, and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith

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