“Our hearts will be free and open, and we will own a helicopter”.
This, the promise Travis Stubbs, (Alexander Skarsgard) pledges to his wife, Krystal, (Kirsten Dunst), seems, on the surface, like a clumsy attempt at marrying religious fervour to wealth accumulation. It’s an absurd sentiment, until we remember it is the nucleus of the American dream – the God-given right to be rich. It’s an idea as old as the protestant work ethic and it’s on vulgar display in the dark comedy, On Becoming a God in Central Florida.
Creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky originally set out to make a series about cults, but when they looked into the (now illegal) pyramid schemes of the 1990s, stuffed full of money-sucking exploitation, and the misguided belief in manifest destiny, they realised the biggest cults were these schemes. So they invented FAM, a cultish pyramid organisation that sells household products.
It’s not a spoiler to say that when FAM member, Travis, is unable to move stock and enlist other members, (the latter being the only way to make money in a scheme) he experiences a breakdown, and it soon becomes Krystal’s responsibility to take over a business she never liked in the first place in order to keep herself - and her baby daughter - above water.
In On Being a God in Central Florida, the pyramid scheme is a metaphor not just for sinister religion, but the idea that late 20th century capitalism is a fair and achievable path to success. It’s Krystal who first wisens up to the short shrift she’s been given, working overtime for little pay, and no available childcare, at the local pool while trying to make good on her husband’s debts. And so it’s Krystal who decides to beat the schemers at their own game.
The pyramid scheme is a metaphor not just for sinister religion, but the idea that late 20th century capitalism is a fair and achievable path to success.
Women who are fed up with the fiscal status quo sounds like the name of a niche protest group, but it just so happens to be a trend in pop culture right now.
Good Girls, a series about three housewives, who followed all the rules – both socially and economically – only to find themselves bankrupt, either through lying spouses, healthcare, or the mere fact of raising a child on one income, discover a solution in money laundering. It’s a desperate and depraved situation, but just like Krystal, it’s but one they’ve been forced into to stay alive.
Ozark began as a series about a mild mannered accountant, Marty (Jason Bateman) who gets entangled in a drug cartel which soon engulfs his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney).
But when Wendy is faced with the horrifying enormity of what her husband has gotten their family into, she’s forced to make a choice. By the end of the most recent season, she’s become a sort of Lady MacBeth / Hillary Clinton hybrid – and the heart of the entire (illegal) operation.
Hustlers, the movie – based on real events – about a trio of strippers who find themselves impoverished after the GFC hits in 2008 – is also ostensibly about women getting even, not just with the business that exploited them, but the demigods of capitalism itself: Wall Street guys.
It’s women who have wisened up to the cult of capitalism, and how it intersects with patriarchy to ensnare men and destroy them.
In 1991, Thelma and Louise were rebelling against the confines and criminality of the patriarchy. The message then, felt keenly by women, was that the only way out is death. That capitalism holds the same fate has already been illustrated by Arthur Miller in 1949’s Death of a Salesman.
But in these last few years, it’s women who have wisened up to the cult of capitalism, and how it intersects with patriarchy to ensnare men and destroy them. It’s women who want out– and instead of dying, they’re thriving.
And despite what every motivational speaker, cult leader or Wall Street viper says, ambition is not and never was the engine of success -- that dubious honour goes to unpaid labour. Human capital in the bodies of slaves, and underpaid immigrants and wives and mothers. On Being a God in Central Florida touches on all these demographics, exposing the unthinkable horror at the core of every system that seeks to justify keeping huge amounts of money in the hands of the few: the necessity of human sacrifice.
Natalie Reilly is a freelance writer. You can follow Natalie on Twitter at @thatnatreilly.
On Becoming a God in Central Florida airs on Thursday November 21 on SBS On Demand, and on SBS with a special double episode at 8:30pm. Remaining episodes will air at 9:30pm weekly thereafter.