How apt for Emmy-winning actress Felicity Huffman to borrow a phrase from Scooby Doo when confronted by a hitch in her cartoonishly nefarious plan to bribe her child into a prestigious university. Months later, when her words surfaced in an email in the ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ sting, the whole conspiracy had taken on a highly theatrical quality: a former Desperate Housewife, facing the flashbulbs in court rather than on the red carpet, wobbly-lipped at the prospect of time behind bars.
News of William Singer’s multi-million dollar scheme to ‘unethically facilitate college admission’ for children in more than 750 families produced just as much amusement as shock when it broke in March this year. The stereotypes that the principal characters of this drama embodied were at once familiar and distant: here were the picket-fence matriarchs of the small screen, and their yacht-owning, chino-clad husbands, flinging cash about to get their dimwitted progeny into a big-name college, with an audacity that seemed hilariously incongruous with the modern educational system. Entertaining and convenient as this narrative may be, it reduces the sobering reality to a superficial drama played out before the cameras by a handful of Insta-friendly scapegoats, potentially detracting from real action on the issues exposed by the indictment.
Huffman and her fellow Hollywood indictee, Lori Loughlin, have been central to a media narrative that emphasised the fantastic, and blurred the line between reality and drama; they have been the main, or in some outlets, the exclusive focus of an investigation which incriminated over 50 people. This was a case of life imitating art in spectacular and highly marketable fashion. 56-year-old Huffman embodied the apparently vanilla, suburbanite lifestyle of the show where she made her name: having served her time on Wisteria Lane, she had been peacefully receding out of the public eye since Desperate Housewives ended, via some forgettable philanthropic endeavours and an even more forgettable mothering website. And her crime, a perfect combination of criminality and largesse, could have come straight from a plot arc on the show. Determined – nay, desperate – to get her child into a ‘good’ college, this thin-lipped WASP had resorted to funnelling bribe money through a fake charity.
Aside from adding another federal charge, the nature of the money laundering added a further layer of cinematic villainy to the saga. Bribery? Enough to get some clicks on a Buzzfeed listicle, sure, but not that spicy. The fake charity, on the other hand, was the first in a series of twists in a tale whose outlandishness beggared belief. Here was the sweetheart of middle-aged, middle-class America, dishing out $15,000 to an organisation that used its mission statement – to help disadvantaged and deserving kids get into college – to do the exact opposite.
Meanwhile, Singer’s ‘Key Worldwide Foundation’ and ‘Edge College and Career Network’ went to equally brazen lengths to provide for their clients. Students were photoshopped into stock photos of athletes to strengthen applications for sports scholarships; $400,000 bought a football recruitment at Yale for a a student who didn’t play the game at all. An equally risible image- and lucrative media angle- was provided by the revelation of a 36 year old Harvard grad being shipped in to take SATs on behalf of Singer’s teenage beneficiaries. Mark Riddell would be flown in to one of the testing facilities that Singer boasted of ‘controlling’, either to take the test in a hotel room – after a $5,000 bribe to the exam administrator – or to pass students answers in the exam. Prosecutors begrudgingly admitted that his ability to achieve a precise score which would boost an application without arousing suspicion was due not to prior knowledge of the questions, but to his being “just a really smart guy”.
The internet watched with glee as more details spilled out of the investigation and into the glamour magazines. Loughlin’s daughter Olivia – whose admission into the University of Southern California by way of its rowing team cost Loughlin $500,000 – had carved herself a hard-earned niche as a makeup vlogger on Youtube, a platform which would provide lashings of schadenfreude in weeks to come. “I don’t know how much of [USC] I’m gonna attend.. but I do want the experience of like game days, partying. I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know,” she mused in a now-deleted video. It later emerged that the budding beauty guru was reportedly on a USC trustee’s yacht when the college admissions scandal broke.
Social media has made gossip into a spectator sport. Influencers win fans- and thus sponsorships- by fostering a sense of intimacy and emotional investment. This is often done by sharing ‘intimate’ details about their lives, or ‘opening up’ about personal hardships, but perhaps the most effective way to engage an audience is by involving them in digital mob justice. So-called ‘cancel culture’ sees Youtube personalities release 40 minute attack videos on each other, which can in turn reduce follower counts by millions in a matter of days. The focus on media-friendly figures in the college admissions scandal has dragged it into this superficial and petty realm, where ‘justice’ can be meted out in a way that grabs attention on Facebook but does little to address the actual problems.
Loughlin’s daughter lost lucrative endorsements and had her social media influencer persona-cum-career-path yanked from under her feet, while her mother and Huffman have been pulled from upcoming film projects. But while this public humiliation may be a satisfying conclusion for those refreshing the Cosmopolitan ‘admissions scandal timeline’ on a weekly basis, it is not an adequate response to the issues brought to light by Operation Varsity Blues. Huffman will pay a $15,000 fine and potentially serve four months in prison; a token reprimand for the public face of university corruption.
But the case has also demonstrated just how easy it is for rich people to get into an elite college without fraud. Most top-100 American institutions give a boost to ‘legacy students’, and can be led to view an applicant more favourably through donations. Singer also described the practice of exploiting accommodation for learning disabilities: “All the wealthy families figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.” Gossip-column attacks on washed-up cable actresses will not remedy this. In a case motivated strongly by a desire to maintain appearances, the public would do well to look past the superficial conclusion of the scandal, and seek reform at the less glamorous and more effective level.