Several Academy Award contenders like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” glorify white-collar criminals and scammers, and many reality TV shows embrace the wealthy, too. A new series, “#RichKids of Beverly Hills,” is the latest example of our enthusiasm for “ogling the filthy rich.”
Why are we so obsessed with watching the antics of the 1 percent?
Here are the blurbed versions of the respondents’ answers.
Alyssa Rosenberg, ‘writer’:
When rich people we actually envy turn out to be criminals, the idea that wealth is inherently corrupting helps take the sting out of our envy.
Farnoosh Torabi, ‘personal finance expert’:
With reality TV, I fear some viewers are falsely making the connection between the materialism and trivial plot lines and what it really means to be and act wealthy.
Evette Dionne, ‘cultural critic’:
The average black woman can live vicariously through the housewives of Atlanta, basketball wives of Miami and hip-hop lovers of New York
Bruce E. Levine, ‘psychologist’:
While many of us believe in honest work, we also see that wealth is mostly acquired via hustles and scams, and so we relate to stories that validate our experience.
Not that the New York Times asked, but here is my response.
Ninety-nine percenters watching the one-percent, even if they happen to be misbehaving, seems to have a Stockholm Syndrome flavor to it. As Wikipedia helpfully informs us,
[H]ostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them….the bonding is the individual’s response to trauma in becoming a victim. Identifying with the aggressor is one way that the ego defends itself. When a victim believes the same values as the aggressor, they cease to be a threat.
Ogling the antics of the aggressor is certainly one way to edify oneself about the values on display and to perhaps even imbibe them successfully. It also enables a defensive distancing from one’s own actual station in life, to forget about its often depressing particulars. (This is the basis of the ‘vicarious living’ answer provided above.) The roots of the often reflexive hostility toward unions, who seem to be committed to reducing the distance between the two classes, may be found here; far better to disdain them and identify with the aggressor instead.
Most importantly, all too many of the ninety-nine percent are still convinced that membership in the one percent club, thanks to their successful promulgation of their class-favoring ideologies, remains an aspirational and achievable goal for them. They continue to believe in upward mobility, despite all evidence to the contrary; they continue to believe the ‘system’ works as advertised; they continue to watch advertisements for their supposed future lives, hoping that they will learn, by careful observation, how they will be expected to behave once they get there.
Movies about the rich and the famous are indoctrination manuals; they derive their diligent audiences from these sorts of reasons.