Escaping The Cult of Personality: How Documentaries Give Us the Heroes We Need

Written by Luna Malloy.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.

Leaving Neverland.

Surviving R. Kelly.

The Inventor.

Abducted in Plain Sight.

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.

The Bundy Tapes.

Evil Genius.

Perhaps you’ve watched any number of these recent documentaries. Maybe you’ve seen them referenced in the media, or in the case of Fyre, lampooned by some tragic Evian water memes. Varying wildly in subject, tone, and format, these films and series don’t have much in common at first glance. However, the thread which intertwines all seven is a crucial one: the presence of an enigmatic and powerful figure, who uses their charisma to deceive, manipulate, and harm others. Their appeal may lie in fame, intelligence, wealth, or personal charm, earning them a cult following– not of religion, but of personality. More specifically, theirs is a personality so absorbing that it eclipses rational caution or suspicion. These leaders are revered for their untouchable image and admired for their apparent relatability. As we see time and time again, this often makes it harder for the people they hurt to come forward and be taken seriously.

As I was bingeing these works over spring break, I wondered why. Why are these stories coming to the forefront of entertainment and pop culture, most notably in the form of documentaries and docuseries, right now? Incidences of manipulation and abuse by powerful figures are hardly new, and have been detailed in documentaries and articles for decades. Moreover, many filmmakers and documentarians who try to expose such phenomena are often silenced and stonewalled. However, the explosion of stories in the past two years which deal with deception and manipulation within a “cult of personality” is truly remarkable, and indicates the deep tremblings of disillusion within our own socio-political structure.

Although often applied to political contexts, the term “cult of personality” may be repurposed for the social, cultural, and psychological realms as well. According to Thomas A. Wright, author of “What Is Character and Why It Really Does Matter,” a cult of personality blooms when “one is able to manipulate others based entirely on the influence of public personality.” If we strip away the political backdrop commonly associated with these cults, we are left with core ideas of public personality and manipulation which ring eerily true to figures such as Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Holmes, R. Kelly, and Billy McFarland.

Deception, manipulation, and resulting disillusion play key roles in the narratives which unfold in these documentaries. This manipulation often takes one of two forms: gaslighting, in which the abuser manipulates their victims into internalizing blame, and firehosing, in which the abuser bombards others with blatant lies presented as fact, relying on their status to crush any opposition or doubt. Something which particularly struck me from HBO’s The Inventor was a quote from Ken Auletta, a New York Times writer who sought to explain tech mogul Elizabeth Holmes’ bold-faced fraud. “She was a zealot,” he said, “and a zealot is such a true believer in what they’re doing that they deny what’s happening in reality.” In recent months, the American public has been bewildered by similar tales of people who so thoroughly bought into their own constructions of reality that their abuse, exploitation, fraud, and crimes became the norm for themselves and their victims.

Talk of warped reality, manipulative personalities, and alternative facts may prick the ears of many readers. At this point I should also mention that I arrived at the conclusions in this article after a week of intense binge-watching, and am by no means a sociologist (or even a sociology major!), so my words should be taken with a hefty dose of salt. Data, meanwhile, indicates that Americans have lost a historic amount of faith in political institutions and authority figures. According to the Atlantic, only one-third of all Americans trusted the government “to do what is right” last year. Trust in the media has dropped from forty-seven to forty-two percent (Friedman). Faith in the police is deeply split, with no more than forty-five percent of young people, people of color, and liberals proclaiming trust. Meanwhile, trust in the police amongst older, white, and conservative people has climbed into the sixtieth percentile (Lopez). Donald Trump’s approval rating currently stands at thirty-nine percent (Gallup). America is in the midst of deep divide and disillusionment. That’s nothing new. However, not only are we experiencing divides between parties, classes, racial identities, religions, and ideologies, but also between reality and fabrication. Buzzwords like “alternative facts” and “fake news” have never been so central to political discourse as they are now.

This divide becomes mirrored in the media we consume and seek out. Although there is no one cause resulting in the recent fascination with tales of people who manipulate reality for their own benefit, we can guess at some. The explanation I keep coming back to is that these narratives are testaments to the fact that those who firehose, gaslight, manipulate, and harm can be brought to their knees. While all of the documentaries mentioned detail how these people destroyed lives, they also show how their deeds were eventually dragged into the spotlight by a persistent and courageous commitment to reality. Perhaps we want to see these stories on our TVs more than ever because we need to see people reclaim that reality. At a time when we find ourselves struggling to find our most basic turf as informed citizens, our heroes are the whistleblowers, truth-tellers, and silence-breakers.

While “cult of personality” makes for a more attention-grabbing title, I think a more complete summation of what these documentaries mirror is the “Triple P Cult.” This recent slew of films and series shows how the ones with personality, power, and privilege decide what constitutes the truth. The cases of Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) and Billy McFarland (Fyre) in particular demonstrate how readily we connect “whiteness and wealth” with “trustworthiness,” even when the white, wealthy “innovators” in question possess no genuine charisma, qualifications, or planning skills (and have bizarre obsessions with Yoda). In addition to white privilege, these people cash in the privilege of their youth. America loves the glossy, feel-good tale of young entrepreneurs who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We also love stories of pop stars, cultural icons, and business moguls; they invite us into the shoes of modern American heroes, the ones who’ve “made it.” In recent years we’ve shown our love, and perhaps our need, for stories in which those heroes are exposed and brought down. They force us into the shoes of the whistleblowers and ask us: Would you have done the same? Now, as our society reaches a fever pitch of firehosing, and hypotheticals are long behind us, the question pitched to the viewers at home becomes will you?

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