The Rise of the Downfall of
the Dirtbag Heiress

Chelsea Davis on a Uniquely American Obsession

At the center of the chic, prosperous, pre-9/11 Manhattan that forms the backdrop for Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) lies a pile of shit. The novel’s nameless narrator works at Ducat, a pretentious art gallery whose name appropriately evokes both money and dookie. Our protagonist doesn’t especially need the income, having recently come into a sizable sum of money from her deceased parents, and she eventually manages to get herself fired for constantly napping on the job. As a parting shot, she walks to the center of the gallery, drops her designer pants, and takes a dump on the floor.

Most obviously, the act is a comment on the inanity of the early-2000s art scene (the turd fits in seamlessly with the rest of the gallery’s “canned counterculture crap,” which includes a vile menagerie of taxidermied dogs whose eyes light up with laser beams). But it also makes literal a presumed connection between waste and wealthy women that has long simmered beneath the surface of the American cultural psyche. This same presumption has given birth to a new character type in fiction and film of the past five years: that of the grotesque and grotesquely profligate heiress.

Like the narrator of My Year of Rest, these characters are beautiful, they are young, they are white, and they have just inherited a stunning amount of money. Although their mothers and fathers are freshly dead—hence the inheritance—orphanhood serves these women not as a hindrance but as yet another form of freedom: without even a meddling family to constrain them, the slate on which they can write their charmed lives is all the more blank. Truly, anything is possible for these heiresses—and in each case, they transform that “anything” into a steaming pile of shit, then light it on fire.

Indeed, the stool stunt is only one instance among many in which My Year of Rest’s narrator deftly spins inherited gold into crap. Once rid of her gallery girl obligations, she is at liberty to pursue her true passion: launching herself into a chemically induced sleep for a year. It’s her inheritance that makes this disturbing plan financially possible, covering the rent on her swank Upper East Side apartment, her junk-food groceries, and a steady supply of sleeping pills. Through her 12-month doze, she hopes to become “a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated …. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets.”

A sincere wish for rebirth much like this one lies behind many of the deranged plans launched by recent inheritress characters. Often, it is specifically a yearning to disavow the legacy of their parents that fuels these rich daughters’ disastrous attempts at self-reinvention. The narrator of My Year of Rest longs to purge herself of the bad memories and judgmental personality traits she’s been bequeathed by her cruel mother. Likewise, Anabel Laird, the mother of the eponymous heroine of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (2015), works hard to sever all connections with her father and the lucrative meat-packing company that he runs, rebelling her way into a career as a vegan feminist artist. When Mr. Laird nonetheless leaves her billions of slaughter-stained dollars, Anabel tries to cleanse her conscience of this inherited culpability by creating an avant-garde film, A River of Meat. By slowly documenting every inch of her own flesh in video, Anabel aspires to “reclaim possession of her body, cut by cut, from the world of men and meat. After ten years, she’d own herself entirely.”

The title character of the film Ingrid Goes West (dir. Matt Spicer, 2018) also seeks to remake herself with the help of family cash and a camera. Fleeing the social fallout from a psychological meltdown that left her institutionalized, as well as the dreary Pennsylvania home that she shared with her dearly departed mother, Ingrid Thorburn feverishly stalks Instagram influencer Taylor Sloane all the way to California. There, Ingrid uses $60,000 from her mom’s estate to revamp her dowdy appearance and personality, purchasing the exact same clothes, haircut, and experiences that Taylor sports and creepily documenting her doppelgänger makeover on social media.

What seems novel in contemporary fiction is the degree to which heiresses not only fail to resist their predecessors’ excesses, but in fact surpass them, misusing money in ways that are impressively bizarre.

Among affluent daughters’ quests for new aesthetic and mystical identities, that undertaken by Kate Rumpler in Sam Lipsyte’s Hark (2019) is perhaps the most explicitly spiritual. After her wealthy mother and businessman father are killed in a plane accident, 29-year-old Kate inherits their sizable fortune, but is wracked by guilt—not only over the unconscionable magnitude of the bank account newly at her command, but also over the teenage years that she misspent as a trust-fund party girl, which included an act of manslaughter for which she was acquitted. As “a kind of penance” for having figuratively and literally gotten away with murder, Kate embarks on two ill-advised do-gooder endeavors: she funds a dubious “mental archery” cult led by scammer-guru Hark Morner, and flies around the world to hand-deliver bone marrow to patients in need of a transplant.

But ultimately, Kate’s efforts to purge the bad juju she’s accrued with the family money bombastically miscarries, as do those of Ingrid, the My Year of Rest narrator, and Anabel. The heiresses’ failures to exorcise their respective family curses manifest in ways both psychological and physical, the parents’ capitalist misdeeds resurfacing in the heiresses’ bodies in the forms of spectacular injury, illness, and death. Both of Kate’s atonement projects short-circuit—Morner is assassinated, and the heiress is dismissed from her marrow transport duties after she loses a batch of product—and she expires gorily in an aircraft crash, a bleak echo of her parents’ demises. Meanwhile, Ingrid’s obsessive mimicry of Taylor eventually leaves her more deeply isolated than she was before moving to L.A., a depressing development that spurs her to attempt murder and suicide. Ingrid carries out the latter effort with the help of her mother’s old prescription pills and ends up incapacitated in a hospital bed that closely resembles the one in which her ailing parent spent her last days.

Likewise does My Year of Rest’s pill-popping protagonist grimly recreate her mother’s suicide by pills and alcohol. Although the narrator insists that her dogged pursuit of unconsciousness is not an attempt to end her life per se, the blissful hibernation she pursues bears a suspicious likeness to the state in which her overdosed mother spent her last hours, a braindead period wherein her mom “was still pretty [but] felt nothing …. she wasn’t thinking or dreaming or experiencing anything.” In Purity, Anabel Laird’s mother also self-medicates to death with booze, a suicide for which Anabel blames her father’s domineering and philandering ways. But Anabel’s desperation to escape familial and societal patterns of masculine abuse backfires when her near-decade of film work leaves her with virtually nothing to show for it besides a severe case of anorexia. Far from offering her the control that she seeks over her own flesh and destiny, Anabel’s eating disorder instead makes her more like her submissive mother: extreme starvation brings the heiress to the brink of the physical self-destruction that her forebear enacted and reveals the insidious influence of the very misogynistic body norms that Anabel had vowed to resist.

With each heiress’s botched attempt to free herself from her parents’ shadow, these narratives suggest that it is impossible to use financial inheritance to disown one’s genetic inheritance. This notion that the skeletons in the family closet are inevitably passed down along with the family money is not a new one. Gothic literature, for instance, has always made plots of the prediction that “the sins of fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation,” as the genre’s ur-text The Castle of Otranto (1764) declared. But what does seem novel in contemporary fiction is the degree to which heiresses not only fail to resist their predecessors’ excesses, but in fact surpass them, misusing money in ways that are impressively bizarre and colossally pointless.

If anything complicates the good, clean fun to be found in watching these fortunates piss away their fortunes, it’s the all too predictably gendered valence of this second-hand sadism.

That is to say: Anabel and co. are decidedly unsexy trainwrecks, stripped even of the scandalous glamor that previous generations of heiresses like Edie Sedgwick and Paris Hilton accrued through partying and shopping their money away. Yet these more recent, more macabre narratives still manage to find an unmistakable delight in watching their rich faildaughters unravel, and (correctly) anticipate that the reader will do the same. A passage from My Year of Rest that describes the narrator’s relationship with her ever-jealous friend and rival, Reva, therefore also functions as a diagnosis of the reader’s own schadenfreude:

Compared to me, [Reva] was ‘underprivileged’ …. I looked like a model, had money I hadn’t earned, wore real designer clothing …. I had chosen my solitude and purposelessness, and Reva had, despite her hard work, simply failed to get what she wanted …. So when I started sleeping all the time, I think Reva took some satisfaction in watching me crumble into the ineffectual slob she hoped I was becoming.

Although Moshfegh’s novel is set in the year 2000, it was published in 2018, and Reva’s inability to cash in on the American Dream “despite her hard work” is a situation all the more stingingly familiar to U.S. readers who lived through the 2007-09 economic recession. It’s no accident that the years immediately following that recession gave birth to the dirtbag heiress character: this period oversaw a distinct rise in average Americans’ mistrust of the hyper-moneyed class, members of which both caused the financial crisis and bounced back from it much more robustly than did the working and middle classes. The American left’s criticisms of billionaires and the capitalist system that creates them have even trickled up to our political campaigns and presidential debates—and now, it would seem, also to our fiction, where undeserved money generates very deserved disasters in the lives of inheritors. If Americans can’t yet actually eat the rich, then our literature and film can at least provide a cathartic stage on which to watch them crash and burn (quite literally, in Kate’s case)—and now, for the first time, declines to provide these wealthy deadbeats even with the consolatory cushion of stylish hedonism to soften their downfalls.

If anything complicates the good, clean fun to be found in watching these fortunates piss away their fortunes, it’s the all too predictably gendered valence of this second-hand sadism. Depictions of ladies resolutely squandering their wealth provide convenient fictional validation of a suspicion, clasped tightly inside the fist of our culture, that women just don’t know what to do with power and money. As businesswoman Clelia Warburg Peters remarked in a recent Harper’s Bazaar article by Jen Doll, “Our country was built on the backs of men who inherited money from their fathers, but somehow a woman who inherits, she’s just a spoiled rich girl.”

Accordingly, each heiress narrative codes its wayward protagonist’s flaws as distinctly female. Anabel is a one-dimensional parody of second-wave feminism (begging her husband Tom to sit on the toilet instead of standing while he urinates, she weeps, “every time I see [spatter on the lid] I think how unfair it is to be a woman. You can’t even see how unfair it is, you have no idea, no idea”). Kate represents a different, but no less feminized, breed of irrationality. In college, we learn, she unloaded her money on the stereotypical rich-girl pursuits of high fashion, “snort[ing] club drugs[,] and pretend[ing she was] a doomed bohemian starlet.” Later, she switches out these expenses in favor of their adult female equivalents, gourmet salads and home renovation.

Ingrid’s spending patterns, likewise, are those which a thousand movie montages have taught us to associate with moneyed young women on a spree: she splurges on L.A.’s finest clothes, hair salons, and accessories in thirsty imitation of her influencer stalkee’s appearance. My Year of Rest’s narrator similarly indulges in retail therapy and spa treatments, albeit in her sleep. (Even anti-capitalist Anabel luxuriates in a dress shopping trip towards the end of Purity.)

But the heiresses’ most distinctively gendered quality is that they are, without exception, excessively gorgeous. My Year of Rest’s narrator somehow retains her “effortless beauty” throughout her year-long nap; even as she foreswears personal grooming and stumbles around with crusted drool on her face, she is continually compared to Angelina Jolie, Amber Valletta, Kim Novak. Likewise, Ingrid—played by the hazel-eyed Aubrey Plaza—remains pretty even in the lowest lows of her mental illness, garnering compliments, for instance, from a set of teenagers whom she pays to punch her in the face. Kate is attractive to a degree that becomes a burden, as she’s bombarded constantly with unwanted male attention. Anabel, too, possesses a “beauty [that] literally made my eyes hurt,” as her husband Tom puts it, a beauty that wields great power over him even as she wastes away with anorexia, deprives him of sex, and (by his account, at least) nags him to the edge of sanity.

That Anabel et al’s loveliness persists even in the face of their best efforts to ruin their looks is supremely in keeping with the ethos of the dissipating heiress. Genetic beauty serves as yet another unearned and badly used inheritance, the young female body just one more possession that someone else would likely do a better job of stewarding. My Year of Rest’s frenemy character, Reva, again serves as an instructive bellwether for the reader’s anticipated reaction to the narrator’s displays of wasted wealth and comeliness. In the face of the anti-heroine’s relentless hotness, Reva “whine[s] ‘No fair’ often enough that it bec[o]me[s] a kind of catchphrase …. ‘You look like Kate Moss. No fair.’”

The Kate Moss analogy is fitting. These narratives give the impression that their heiresses would have done much better, at the end of the day, to have put their time and money towards modeling careers—towards becoming exquisite, mute hangers for art projects rather than the masterminds creating the art itself. It’s a wish that betrays a certain nostalgia for the gender roles that traditionally dictated the female muse/male artist relationship. And indeed, as the art-world settings of My Year of Rest, Purity, and Ingrid suggest, these degenerate heiresses’ failures are fundamentally one of aesthetic mismatch: they have failed to craft a viable self to equal the stunning feminine exterior they’ve been gifted.

Despite the particularly female and particularly wealthy nature of these characters’ tribulations, however, their arbitrary ascents and precipitous falls follow a boom and bust arc that’s queasily recognizable to most anyone living in America in the 2010s, even to those who have been lucky enough to glimpse the misery only in their nightmares and newsfeeds thus far. As cautionary tales that even the richest among us are subject to random and total collapse under late capitalism, fallen heiress narratives spring from a well of collective despair regarding our own economic precarity. American capitalism is, after all, the system that has simultaneously promised to bring us ever more prosperity, ever more comfort, while instead leaving environmental, economic, and psychological ruin in its wake—so many festering turds in the middle of what had at first seemed an impossibly opulent gallery.

 

Chelsea Davis
Chelsea Davis
Chelsea Davis is a writer and radio producer living in San Francisco. She holds a PhD in English literature from Stanford University, where her research focused on literary representations of violence—from horror film, to war fiction, to apocalyptic writing, to the literary Gothic. More of her work can be found at https://chelseamdavis.net.





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