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The 99%: Villainy and the Very Rich on Revenge

Emily on Revenge, a white woman in a red dressThe Count of Monte Cristo is a classic tale, with everything you could want in an epic adventure story: false imprisonment, daring escapes, hidden treasure, assumed identities, a trio of villains, and—most importantly—slowly plotted, mercilessly delivered revenge.

It's also a story of class and social climbing. (Count was written by Alexandre Dumas, the grandson of a French nobleman and a black Haitian slave, whose family was impoverished after the defeat of Napoleon. If there was ever a writer with something to say about class, race, social mobility, and colonialism, it was Dumas.)

On ABC's Revenge, the story is uprooted from the Second Empire in France to the modern-day Hamptons.  The heroine is Amanda Clarke turned Emily Thorne, who seeks revenge on her old neighbors after her father was wrongly convicted of a terrorist plot, leading to her placement in foster care and, ultimately, juvenile detention. When she turns 18, Amanda learns her father made a few well-placed investments and inherits unimaginable wealth.  And—like Dantes becoming the Count of Monte Cristo—she morphs into Emily Thorne, returns to the Hamptons, and strategically destroys the people who did her wrong.

Understandably, when telling a story in a different historical moment, and changing the genders of the protagonists and villains, and removing any of the original political context, you end up with something quite different.  What endures, though, is the connection between wealth and villainy. 

In many revenge stories with good guys and bad guys, the villains are typically rich, or at least richer than their victims. (There was a small uproar last week on Fox News because the villain in the new Muppet Movie was a corrupt oilman named Tex Richman.)  This makes some sense, because having wealth is a way of securing power and you have to have power of some sort to inflict damage.  On Revenge, for the most part, the more money you have, the more evil you are.  The wealthy Graysons—the apparent pinnacle of Hamptons society—were the primary actors in the plot against Emily's father.  The characters with less means, namely Emily's childhood friend Jack, are the good guys to some extent. To a larger extent, though, they simply don't factor in.  They aren't major players.  They don't really matter.

Yet, if the villains need money to have power to inflict damage, so do the protagonists to enact their revenge.   Emily's plans require spending millions of dollars for each enemy she wants to destroy.  She buys a building to install security cameras to get dirt on one; she invests $50 million in a rival hedge fund to destroy another.  Without her wealth, Emily might be bitter, but she wouldn't be able to do anything about it.

Even though they are the heroes of the stories, there's a darker side to both Emily and the Count of Monte Cristo. Their pursuit of vengeance disrupts and destroys the lives of innocent people along the way.  We sympathize with them and, viewing their stories through their eyes, can see this harm as an acceptable level of collateral damage—but we aren't sure if we like them.  Part of their transformations comes not just from their understandable embittering, but their attainment of unimaginable wealth—both times in ways that are nearly tangential to the primary plot.   (It's worth noting that Amanda/Emily was always rich. Part of becoming Emily is buying back her old family house, and, symbolically, returning to the life that could have been hers.  Still, because of her alienation from this life, we root for her as a socially mobile outsider.) It's hard to resist the inference that the money plays a corrupting role in their new outlook.

The most frequent explanation for the preponderance of wealthy people on television is escapism, a fascination with how the wealthy live and what we imagine might be attainable.  And this might very well be true about Revenge. When most of us are wronged by very powerful and corrupt people, we have no recourse. Perhaps the enjoyment viewers derive from watching Emily's vengeance is a different manifestation of the same frustration protestors feel towards the wealthy, powerful, and corrupt people on Wall Street? Of course the concerns of protestors are much more serious than the issues dealt with on a fictional primetime soap opera, but maybe they come from the same sense of being wronged that has permeated our culture.

Previously: Fixing the 2 Broke Girls, What's Funny About Being Poor? Roseanne and Working-Class Humor

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Comments

3 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Different perspective

I've always interpreted the "wealthy=villian" trope as a direct result of the "poor=good" trope. Basically, the right kinds of poor people are hardworking, (usually) religious, respectful of authority, and, most importantly, look with reverence upon the wealthy. This creates a dynamic where the wealthy are allowed to take advantage of the poor, because while the poor are not as intelligent or crafty as the wealthy, they are morally superior in a "simpler" way.

And it's the "wrong" kinds of poor people that just screw it up for everyone - criminals, drug dealers, "white trash," and, most of the time, people of color in general.

The "wealthy=villian" trope always bothers me particularly because it sets up a narrative that is basically telling everyone, "sure, you may be poor, but the better person! You may never be validated for it, or receive any reward whatsoever, but...you know, Jesus and stuff."

wealthy =/= villian

Plus, it paints all wealthy people as villains, evil, money-hungry, etc. My parents are fairly well-off but they have some friends who are worth millions of dollars. They also happen to be some of the most down-to-earth, humble and nice people I've ever met. One couple has a particularly sad story, it's his second marriage, and he has four kids, and one day his wife simply left. They haven't heard from her in probably 20 years. His second wife had cancer when she was 16 and almost died. They own a multimillion dollar company, have a beautiful custom-built home with all of the bells and whistles imaginable, and probably among the 1% but they're so down-to-earth and nice and caring. I could name several other families as well. And I've only met a few people who are wealthy who aren't so nice, but they're not villains. They would never falsely accuse someone of a crime, or act like they do on the Real Housewives, Revenge, or Gossip Girl. It's a fabrication. I'm sure that there are some wealthy people who are villains, but they are so few and far between.

Shows like this are pure escapism but they unfortunately stick to negative stereotypes about class and the rich and poor.

Are you sure about that?

Then again, though, why are these people so wealthy? One of the points of the wealthy = evil thing is that it is really hard to become rich (and I mean millions of $ rich, not dentist-rich) without exploiting other people (artists may be an exception). Also, if you stay wealthy, you are basically expressing that your family having a third summer home in the Carribbean is more important to you than the countless lives of people who aren't as well off that you could improve by for instance giving to charity.