White-collar crime is one of the most polarising trends in pop culture in recent years, with films like The Wolf of Wall Street drawing popularity and controversy in equal measures for the way they depict fraudulent criminals.
But just how does pop culture portray white-collar crime? Is its portrayal commensurate with white-collar crime’s consequences? And how can this portrayal affect public perception?
What are the consequences of white-collar crime?
Our fascination with white-collar crime stands in stark contrast with our disdain for petty crimes committed by low-income people, who are in many cases just trying to get by.
Yet in many cases, white-collar crimes can have more devasting and far-reaching consequences. Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of med-tech startup Theranos, fraudulently raised $700 million from investors – including Eileen Lepera, a secretary who lost a significant chunk of her life savings.
Yet the effects of white-collar crimes can extend well beyond individuals, ruining businesses and even disrupting economic markets – potentially affecting the entire country. For instance, Crypto markets crashed in 2022 after FTX founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, was charged with stealing more than $10 billion from customers.
To make matters worse, even though investigations into white-collar crimes are thorough and effective, sentencing is typically extremely lenient on the criminals.
How is white-collar crime portrayed in pop culture?
Throughout pop culture, white-collar crime is portrayed as being glamorous and victimless. The criminals are typically depicted as attractive, stylish people enjoying exciting and glamorous lifestyles, while the devastating effects on their victims are downplayed or omitted altogether.
For example, the biographical drama The Wolf of Wall Street, which tells the true story of financial fraudster Jordan Belfort, who ran stock market manipulation schemes. The film was criticised for focusing on his hedonistic and criminal lifestyle without adequately addressing the impact on his victims.
Similarly, the Netflix series Inventing Anna about fraudster Anna Sorkin, came under fire for portraying for portraying her as a feminist girl-boss, while painting the wealthy socialite victims she swindled $275,000 from as gullible and idiotic.
How does this influence public perception?
Although pop culture is often seen as innocuous, it plays an important and potentially dangerous role in shaping public opinion.
It’s only natural for people to associate white-collar crimes with the stories they hear and see about them. The more films that portray these crimes in an alluring and glamorous fashion without fully exposing their impact on society, the more these crimes will be accepted by the public.
The perpetrators of white-collar crimes tend to have high status and come from crime-free backgrounds but this doesn’t mean that they’re any less guilty than petty criminals. And while the effects of white-collar crimes are harder to track, that doesn’t mean they’re any less devastating.
It’s time we held pop culture accountable for the way it portrays white-collar crimes. Future films and television series need to do more to document the impact on victims and focus less on glorifying the lifestyles of the criminals.