Monday 08 August 2022

In matters of the heart, women cannot always claim to be the victims

This column first appeared in Malta Today

One of the most watched documentaries recently has undoubtedly been The Tinder Swindler, and the word on the grapevine among many women is, “you must watch this”. After doing just that, I can see why.

With so many people using dating apps to try to find love, this is definitely a cautionary tale. It is the true story of a con man who concocts an elaborate scheme by using a fake identity, pretending to be a billionaire’s son, luring women to “swipe right” by exhibiting a flashy lifestyle online and spending ridiculous amounts of money on them from the very first date. Within a few months, however he is asking them to take out loans and apply for new credit cards because he desperately needs money, as he has enemies who are supposedly after him.

As it turns out, each girlfriend is paying for the lifestyle to impress the next girlfriend (or simultaneous ones). Meanwhile, they end up in debt, while he is in the clear and has moved on to the next woman in another country. When he sends one of the women a cheque for hundreds of thousands as repayment which fails to clear, she goes to a newspaper with the full story and exposes him; after that two other women also join forces to bring him down, leading to his eventual arrest.

The general reaction has been twofold. There are those who are angry at how this man could have got away with swindling women so brazenly; when he was finally caught in 2019 he was sentenced to 15 months, but only served five months in jail and is now free. The other reaction is similar to mine as I groaned in exasperation at my TV screen: how on earth could these women have let themselves be so easily duped? They were not teenagers, but women in their 30s and yet they came across as incredibly naive and silly. Either that or they let the glitter of what looked like gold blind them and make them lose any sense of logical thinking.

It is perhaps a sign of our times that the man who called himself Simon Leviev simply had to dangle the illusion of a jet set life in front of them and they thought that they had hit the jackpot. A woman falling for a man simply because he is rich is a tale as old as time – but how did alarm bells not start ringing very loudly when he started asking them for money? Why not turn around and tell him to ask his rich Daddy to bail him out? I feel women can only claim to be victims of heartless men for so long before they have to start taking responsibility for their own bad choices, and this story is a classic case in point.

I sincerely hope many women and young girls do indeed watch this documentary, not to get angry and complain about men, but to wisen up and stop dreaming that a Prince Charming is going to magically appear on Tinder, swoop them up in his brawny arms and carry them away to a happily ever after. I hate to pour cold water on romance with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, but I feel it is about time that we stop encouraging unrealistic fantasies which can only lead to heartache. Life is not a Kardashian fairytale or like one of those romantic Turkish TV series. And while there are people who have met online and it has worked out, it is still sensible to proceed slowly and not believe everything you are told or the photos you see. Do not be fooled by a flake in designer clothes. There is a lot to be said for getting to know someone gradually, to learn about their character over time and not rush into anything. It is also imperative that the relationship develops face to face, in person, and not virtually.

It is so easy to fake a life, just ask Shimon Hayut (a.k.a Simon Leviev), born in Israel in humble surroundings who managed to create someone out of thin air who did not exist, simply by using a Tinder profile.

Women who refused to be victims

Tammy Faye, Lucille Ball, Aretha Franklin, Princess Diana, Patricia Reggiani (Gucci) – there have been a slew of films recently depicting the biographies of famous women. I find it significant that the cinema has taken such an interest in telling these women’s stories, which makes a refreshing change from constant Marvel superhero movies.

Strong, flawed, weak, intelligent, broken, fiercely talented, manipulative, cunning, naive, brilliant, gullible, the abused and the abusers – they cover practically the whole gamut of the types of women to be found out there. The one thing I noticed which they do have in common is that the trajectory of their lives was changed because of the men they fell in love with and married. Of course, as human beings, both men and women are shaped and influenced by our relationship choices, but it seems to me that women tend to be more defined by them. The dynamics of the balance of power between couples can often make or break them. But here are three examples of women who refused to play the victim despite some initial bad choices.

Tammy Faye fell in love with Jimmy Bakker, an evangelist preacher with whom she created a religious broadcasting empire only for it to collapse after he was convicted of fraud and mis-use of funds. One cannot really say she was a hapless victim, because the lifestyle they lived was too lavish for her not to realise where the money was coming from. In the film, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, she is portrayed her as someone who did not really know that much about what her husband was doing. However, as pointed out at the time by the news anchor of a local news station: “Could she have known? How could she not have known? She was wearing fur coats, she was wearing rings!”

As it turned out, it was learning about her husband’s philandering and not his financial wrongdoings, which finally made Tammy Faye divorce him while he was in prison. She eventually went on to write a series of books and appeared in movies and television.

Lucille Ball, on the other hand, seems to have been the real brains behind the duo Lucy and Ricky, known for their hit show I Love Lucy. She was the one who insisted Desi play her husband in the show, even though the studio balked at the idea of an “all American girl with a Cuban husband”. Desi was equally avant garde however, and forced ABC to accept an episode where they announced Lucy’s real life pregnancy on TV – something which was unheard of in the 50s.

Again, it was the volatile relationship behind the scenes which really reveals what made them both tick, as told in the film Being the Ricardos. She might have played the ditzy redhead on TV, but the film shows another Lucille, one who was a perfectionist almost to a fault, obsessed with making sure each comedy bit was just right. She acted tough and verged on being obnoxious to cast and crew, but was also deeply insecure about the charming Desi Arnez who stayed out late drinking and gallivanting every night after performing with his band in night clubs. Wanting to make sure that he also got credit for his creative ideas, she pleaded for him to be given a billing as an executive producer “in order to save my marriage”. In the end, after catching him in yet another lie about his infidelity, it was the final straw and she filed for divorce. She too continued with her career, creating two further successful sitcoms.

The film Respect tells the harrowing story of Aretha Franklin who was raped as a child and gave birth to her first son at the age of 12. She then had a second son from the same man and later, another two sons from different fathers. She suffered domestic abuse in her first marriage and turned to alcoholism but always managed to persevere. Throughout her life, her music pulled her through and she went on to become the much acclaimed Queen of Soul while also being a very passionate activist.

If anyone could have described herself as a victim it was Aretha, but she never thought of herself as one, and just kept pushing forward, like a force of nature, pouring her heart into her songs. In fact, the title song Respect became an anthem for feminism as well as the civil rights movement, as she explained in her autobiography: “It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”

After all, when everything is said and done, what we all want (both women and men) is just a little respect. In fact, I can think of nothing better for Valentine’s Day.

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