You.  Ozioma Whenu as Blessing Ben Wiggins as Roald Dario Coates as Connie Lukas Gage as Adam Tilly Keeper as Lady...
Eat the Rich

It’s Time to Retire the ‘Eat the Rich’ Trope

From You to The White Lotus, Hollywood's many attempts at class commentary are beginning to feel a little shallow.

Things felt a little different on this season of You. Instead of presenting us with the same old moral dilemma—serial killer Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) is so hot…but also a serial killer—the show's fourth season softens the edges of its antihero and gives us a new villain: the ultra wealthy. 

The realization hit me halfway through the first episode of part one. “It even smells rich,” drawls Joe's condescending voiceover as he steps into an elite night club in London’s posh Soho neighborhood. “If a bomb dropped on this place, Britain's GDP would drop by 10%, but it might be worth it.” I had a feeling of deja vu—You is doing the “eat the rich” trope too.

The past few years have seen a slew of works that satirize the wealthy and, ultimately, relish in their turbulent, shocking downfall. You's showrunner Sera Gamble told us it's easy to see why this trope has emerged. “There’s an interesting thing happening right now with the ubiquity of information about people on social media, and the fact that there are now immensely wealthy people who don’t seem as interested in being private about it,” she said. 

Lukas Gage as Adam, an entrepreneur, and Tilly Keeper as Lady Phoebe, a wealthy socialite

© 2023 Netflix, Inc.

These forays attempt to capture and skewer the corruption that comes with (and often begets) extreme wealth. But with each new work, I can't help but feel that this method of critiquing the rich is hollow. 

The past year gave us films like Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion, and The Menu, along with HBO's miniseries The White Lotus, all of which follow the same formula: A group of oblivious and self-centered rich people find themselves trapped together in some remote location—a yacht, an island, a restaurant, and a hotel, respectively. Before long, things dissolve into manic, unbridled chaos. Almost every “eat the rich” project of the past year (except, perhaps, for The White Lotus) features what is essentially an ensemble of heightened caricatures. There's the Instagram influencer. The billionaire tech or finance bro. The actor, the model, the socialite. These are people we have all seen before; these are the ignorant, self-obsessed ultra wealthy. After seeing just how awful they all are, we sit back gleefully to watch their collective downfall. 

And now You season four is following the same path. 

After a bloody murder spree in suburbia in season three, Joe, the show's obsessive stalker and serial killer, runs off to England to start a new life (and, of course, to chase his latest obsession, Marienne). When season four opens, he is living as Jonathan Moore, a sort of Hugh Grant–esque English professor, complete with floppy hair, intellectual scruffy beard, and wardrobe filled with dusty, moth-eaten tweed. His stalking and killing days, he assures us repeatedly in his voiceovers, are behind him. Of course, that's what Joe always says. But this time it seems to be true.  

As Joe/Jonathan begins his new scholarly life in London, he becomes entrenched with a group of ultra-wealthy frenemies. In classic “eat the rich” tradition, the show keeps most of them from veering too far into three-dimensional territory. There's a layabout Eton boy turned pseudo-intellectual, a “toxically aristocratic” tabloid darling, a haughty Nigerian princess, a trendy (and fraudulent) artist, an Instagram influencer, and so on. Soon enough, members of the group start turning up dead. And, believe it or not, serial killer Joe appears to not be at fault. Instead he thinks he is being framed for each murder by the mysterious “Eat-the-Rich Killer.” Joe, in turn, becomes a sort of sinister detective.

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You season 4, part 1. Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in episode 402 of You. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

In previous seasons You's intrigue lay in its ability to confront us with our own moral flimsiness. Despite his horrific crimes, we were encouraged to sympathize with and even root for the murderous Joe. In part one, that particular moral conflict all but vanishes. For one thing, and in true eat-the-rich fashion, we are encouraged to relish in the grisly demise of almost everyone in the elite pack. As Joe's voiceover constantly reminds us, these people deserve what's coming to them. “Someone drop a bomb on this house,” comes his despairing voice during one elitist dinner party. Or, when asked if Americans all have guns, his voiceover chimes in, “I wish.”

By turning Joe from the cat into the mouse in season four, the show gives us a new moral dilemma. “Part of the fun is to squeeze him and say, ‘You’re gonna philosophically agree with the Eat-the-Rich Killer, but your job is to save the rich, and not look the other way,’” Gamble told Glamour. Sure, he doesn't want to kill them, but he also doesn't seem to mind watching them die, either. And, the show seems to say, neither should we.

Ozioma Whenu as Blessing, Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, Sophie Soo as Niccy Lin

© 2023 Netflix, Inc.

Yet the more I see of the eat-the-rich trope, the more uneasy it makes me feel. By all means, we should question and interrogate the nature of wealth—but should we keep on mindlessly eating those who have it? After all, the trope relies on the clear separation of the “wealthy people” and the “ordinary people”—but this distinction isn't always so clea- cut in the world. 

Richard Lawson, writing for Vanity Fair, suggested that these satires of the rich should “have sharper teeth” and play it less safe. Patrick Sproull took a similar line in The Face, arguing that the trope is so overdone and so uniform it has becoming boring. “There’s no valuable political use to this trend of anticapitalist satire, because these films and TV shows are never trenchant enough to seriously provoke and, frankly, wouldn’t be released if they were,” he wrote. “More pressingly, they’re all far too similar. No matter how smart a script might be, if every film is telling you the same thing—rich people bad!—in the same terms, it becomes monotonous.”

In a piece for Salon, Alison Stine suggested that The Menu's take on the eat-the-rich trope wasn't just boring; it was overly simplistic in its attempt at piercing satire. “In a world of Elon Musk and Donald Trump, a world with Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein and many more of their ilk, are these really the folks targeted for takedown? The ones the chef carefully selected for punishment? He didn't have any human traffickers or murders or child abusers on his list?” That, of course, brings us back to Joe—you know—Joe, the serial killer? When did he become the everyman that should see us through another eat-the-rich bonanza?

I'm inclined to agree with all of them. Increasingly, each iteration of “eat the rich” in the past year has felt a little more like that person at a cocktail party, the one who, while wafting their hands vaguely in the air, launches into a rant “against capitalism.”

While these storylines aim to tackle what is a complex and multifaceted social issue, they have a tendency to feel shallow and just a little self-congratulatory. Rarely do these films or shows, for example, give us much of the world that exists outside of the habitat of the elite; the world where the rest of us live. As a result, we are rarely left with any concrete sense of the real impact that their way of life has on the world and people around them. 

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you season five

It is also rare for these works to turn the lens back onto us, the viewers—the would-be “eaters.” Because in reality, the line between “good” and “bad” is rarely so definitive. After all, the way we engage with these “eat the rich” tropes suggests that we have more of a symbiotic relationship with the ultra wealthy than many of us would care to acknowledge. We lap up the stunning shots of Sicily. We screenshot our favorite designer outfits. We relish the opulence and beauty of the worlds in which these works are set, while simultaneously condemning them. 

And of course, in the real world, we have a similar relationship with the ultra wealthy. In one moment we might mock them for their extravagant lifestyle, in the next, find ourselves buying an item seen on a sponsored Instagram post. If our real aim is to critique and topple the social structure that leaves a small percentage with the vast majority of wealth, we need more than some pretty sets and costumes followed by a satisfying downfall. We need something that asks us to confront ourselves too. 

You's fourth season makes it clear that the trope is getting old. Maybe it's time we found another, more impactful way to expose the corruption of the ultra wealthy—and our own not-so-guiltless relationship to them—without doing yet another hollowly glamorous eat-the-rich satire.