Inventing Anna: Gaslighting through the other fakery
Updated: Apr 8
by Alline Cormier
Inventing Anna, Netflix poster
Inventing Anna is a popular new Netflix miniseries produced by showrunner Shonda Rhimes’ company, Shondaland. On February 25 Forbes magazine reported that “Inventing Anna has planted itself on top of Netflix’s English language charts since its debut, and does not appear to be going anywhere…” Deadline (an online daily for entertainment industry news) reported on February 22 that the show “was watched for 196M hours between February 14 and 20. This is on top of the 77M hours that it secured last week, having been released on February 11.” As of this writing (March 21), according to Netflix the show has spent 38 days on both the US and UK’s Top 10 watched list. In Canada it currently occupies the fourth spot, third in the US, second in Germany.
The series is entertaining, well-crafted and has much to offer female viewers. It revolves around two female protagonists and there are several significant female characters, many named female characters, congeniality and affection between women, and assertive women who stand up to men. Women speak to each other throughout. The female characters are nuanced, not one-dimensional as they so often are in film and TV. Women stand up for other women, and they are praised, including for their business savvy. Men’s inappropriate behaviour toward women is portrayed disapprovingly. Both misogyny and the necessity of lifting up female entrepreneurs are mentioned. Sexism in business and the film industry is discussed. The series includes a female judge and a female doctor. Anna says things like, “All men underestimate women” and “Every day men do far worse things than anything I’ve allegedly done. And what happens to them? Nothing. No consequences, no fallout and definitely no jail time.”
For these reasons, Rhimes has created a TV series that has more to offer female viewers than most. Many women, this film analyst included, will be eager to watch what she creates next for the screen—big or small. She is also the creator behind Grey’s Anatomy (renewed for its 19th season this year) and one of the executive producers of Bridgerton (another Netflix hit).
Inventing Anna’s nine episodes centre around pregnant New York magazine journalist Vivian Kent, played by 41-year-old Anna Chlumsky, and Russian-born, fake German heiress socialite Anna Delvey (née Sorokin), played by 28-year-old Julia Garner. The story, inspired by a New York magazine exposé by Jessica Pressler (the journalist Vivian’s character is based on) and written by Rhimes, follows Vivian’s attempts to uncover and make sense of Anna’s grifting schemes, primarily in New York city, to obtain her own exclusive club for her eponymous arts foundation—an article Vivian desperately needs to rehabilitate her tarnished career. Rhimes explores Anna’s meteoric rise as a socialite (and con artist), her successes (and failures) in swindling upscale hotels, members of New York’s high society and powerful financiers. The narrative also focuses heavily on Anna’s friends Neff (played by Alexis Floyd), Rachel (played by Katie Lowes) and Kacy (played by Laverne Cox, né Roderick Leverne Cox).
As the story advances and Vivian interviews Anna’s women friends they become friendly. In a way, Vivian joins Anna’s group. Vivian and Neff spend time in each other’s places of work and Vivian comes to care for Anna. Rhimes creates numerous opportunities for the female characters to speak to one another, opportunities that are still too rare, although the situation tends to be better in TV series than in feature films.
Creating opportunities is clearly something Rhimes values. She also seems to value determined female characters. According to a Shondaland.com article by Valentina Valentini, “the women at the center of [Rhimes’] projects are part of a through line of sorts: They go after what they want, and they aren’t afraid to need what they need… these are women who are determined to drive their own path no matter how complicated, bumpy, or messy things (or they) might get along the way.”
Rhimes has said of Inventing Anna, “We were exploring what it meant to feel failure and the need to feel redeemed or seen for both of those characters — Vivian and Anna… Anna really needed to be seen. She wanted to become something, was determined to be somebody, to be whatever famous was or meant, to be a big deal, even though she didn’t necessarily have all the goods. And Vivian was really determined to redeem her career, to turn herself into something, to be seen for what she should be or what she believes she should be valued for.”
In Rhimes’ recounting to Valentini of how the story first caught her attention she says, “And I found the world of a concierge [Neff’s character] interesting and the world of scam artists interesting; why we believe the scam artist, what it is that makes us dive right in. I was fascinated by that. The essence of a scam artist, really, is that they reflect you back to you… What I’m saying is that I learned why a scam artist can take somebody in — they can reflect whatever a person needs to see in the mirror for themselves.”
Rhimes said that she never met the real Anna because she did not want to get “drawn in”, to be scammed as so many others were. She did not want to get involved and feel sorry for Anna and risk slanting the story one way—or decide Anna was a reprehensible person, slanting the story another way. On whether or not Rhimes thinks Anna is a bad person, she had this to say: “I don’t think anybody’s just a bad person unless they’re like an actual sociopath. But I don’t think she is. I think she’s a young woman who tried to get over in a world in which we celebrate getting over. We celebrate it when people do it and do it right. The Instagram image of your life is the life you’re supposed to be leading. And we celebrate the people who can get it… The fake-reality version of your life was what we were all supposed to be doing. Fake it till you make it was important and expected.”
Irrespective of how factual the series is, it is about fakery—an in-depth exploration of Anna’s fakery as a German heiress. Each episode begins with the often imaginatively placed caption: “This whole story is completely true. Except for all the parts that are totally made up.” Within this story about fakery lies another fakery: a man faking he is a woman. The first fakery is openly discussed in every episode, whereas the second is never so much as alluded to. Here 49-year-old actor Laverne Cox, a man, plays a woman: personal trainer and life coach Kacy Duke.
Inventing Anna frame capture (Kacy, Anna, Rachel and Neff)
Cox is a head taller than his female co-stars (he is 5’11’’). In a picture of Kacy, Anna and Rachel his belt is on level with the women’s breasts. And yet, it is never acknowledged that he is a man posing as a woman. Anna is called numerous names, including the following: bitch, manipulative narcissist, sociopath, psycho, fucking dick (and fucking cunt), huge dick, etc. Her lawyer (Todd, played by Arian Moayed) even says to her, “But you’ve also got balls. Big fucking rhino balls.” Vivian says of Anna, who is in jail, to Todd, “It feels dangerous to tell her anything. There are as many days as I think she’s Hannibal Lecter [a fictional serial killer] as there are days I think she’s just your average twenty-something.” Cox, on the other hand, plays a character who is feminine, wise, treated respectfully and quoted. For example, Kacy calms an upset woman by saying to her, “The past is your teacher, but the present is your creation” and Anna says to Neff, “What does Kacy say? Leap and a parachute will appear.” Female viewers may resent the fact that the role presented as a western version of a yogi, a teacher of both physical and spiritual things, was given to a man. After all, it happens so rarely in film and TV productions that female characters look up to women.
Inventing Anna frame capture (Kacy and Neff)
Not so long ago, people decried the dearth of roles for black actresses. So it is surprising to see a man take a role away from a black woman here, especially a role that does not cast her as a slave, a maid or a prostitute. Traditionally, filmmakers especially have limited black women to these roles. It was partly for this reason that Hidden Figures (2016), based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, was so exciting: black women were cast as NASA mathematicians. In 2014 American actress Viola Davis said black actresses were still relegated to marginalized roles. When Octavia Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2012 for her role as a maid in The Help, Davis, who was also nominated, said, “Of course I had trepidations [about taking a role in The Help]. Why do I have to play the mammy? But what do you do as an actor if one of the most multi-faceted and rich roles you've ever been given is a maid in 1962 Mississippi?”
It wasn’t until 2002 that a black woman won a Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar (Halle Berry) and no other has won this award since. Only three black women have won a Best Actress in a Motion Picture Golden Globe and just three black women have won a Golden Globe for best actress in a television series (drama). Has the situation improved so dramatically for black actresses that it doesn’t matter if men take roles away from them?
Moreover, the Kacy Duke role called for an older actress as Ms. Duke is in her mid-sixties. It is a well-established fact that roles for older actresses are thin on the ground. In 2015 Time magazine reported that actresses get fewer and fewer roles after they turn 30. Time found that “… female actors reach their professional pinnacles at age 30, according to a TIME analysis of the careers of over 6,000 actors and actresses. And things aren’t getting better in the film industry: Women today who are the age of 60 are seeing the number of roles they are cast in decline faster than their older peers once did.” The seven black actresses who won the awards mentioned in the previous paragraph were all in their thirties, except for the 2016 Golden Globe winner (TV), Taraji P. Henson, who was 46. Casting a man in the Kacy Duke role deprived an older black woman of a rare opportunity—not to mention the fact that Cox looks a decade too young for this role.
Ironically, in the past Cox has expressed frustration over male actors taking roles away from men who claim to be women. In 2014 he told The Independent’s Sarah Hughes, “As an actor I get it, and I’m never going to say an actor shouldn’t take a role, but given there are so few well-rounded trans female roles out there, of course you would like the chance to play them.”
Cox was a child growing up in Alabama, known for its regressive attitudes, when he realized he was gay. He has spoken publicly about being bullied every day and assaulted because of it and attempting suicide at the age of 11. Could it be that he had internalized homophobia as a child and decided to protect himself from the homophobic bullies of Alabama and New York city—he moved there in his late teens and has said the harassment continued there except at night when he performed on the stage of a drag club and was celebrated for it—by dressing up as a woman, then getting plastic surgery to make himself look “feminine” and perfect the illusion?
The harassment and assaults were apparently so bad in Alabama that Cox has said he will not live there again. He also said that although his mother allowed him to take ballet lessons she did not want him to. A 2021 article in The Guardian by Eva Wiseman reported that Cox knew he was different because everyone told him so and when he was eight his teacher told his mother, “If you don’t get your son into therapy right away, he’s going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress.” He told Wiseman, “I think perfectionism will keep me from being judged, or harmed. It’s self-protection.”
Rhimes chose Cox to play Duke. Shondaland.com also hosts the audio podcast The Laverne Cox Show (since January 2021). Cox has a list of firsts to his credit as a man who openly identifies as “trans” including: first on the cover of Time magazine (2014), first nominated for an acting Emmy (2014, for the popular TV series Orange is the New Black), first waxwork in Madame Tussauds San Francisco (2015) and first on the cover of British Vogue (2019). The Shondaland.com article mentioned above points out that this was a “first-of-a-kind character,” which may explain Rhimes’ curious casting choice that deprived an older black woman of a good role. Remember, Rhimes said: “We celebrate [getting over] when people do it and do it right. The Instagram image of your life is the life you’re supposed to be leading. And we celebrate the people who can get it… Fake it till you make it was important…” Cox has been faking it, “getting over,” his fakery celebrated for years. The series explores and questions society’s celebration of fakery while presenting a fraud as the genuine article.
Valentini writes that it is ironic that that Cox often “felt a lot of joy in making Inventing Anna” considering the show “depicts a New York City con woman who swindles some of her closest friends and allies, including Duke.” Valentini fails to make the connection with people who identify as “trans” here. Given that they pretend to be something they aren’t it makes sense that Cox, a man who does his best to con the world that he is a woman, would feel joy in playing this role in this particular narrative. No one confronts him about his fakery, whereas everyone confronts Anna. For instance, when her boyfriend Chase (played by Saamer Usmani) discovers that she lied about her name he asks her, “What else are you lying about?” No one seems to be asking Cox this question even though he has admitted to lying about his age until 2019.
In this Shonadaland.com article Cox is quoted as saying of Kacy Duke: “In most of her public-facing things, like on YouTube, she’s motivational, she’s inspirational, she’s a little coquettish and sexy. And I wanted to kind of get underneath all of that to see if there was some darkness.” He also says of Duke: “She really wants to bring the best out of people, and that was deeply sincere for her… She wasn’t grifting, she wasn’t using anyone, she didn’t do anything wrong, so it’s totally different than the other characters.” One can see why a man trying to convince everyone that a fakery isn’t one (i.e. that he is a woman) would want this role.
Cox also weighed in on Anna, saying, “she might have some sociopathic tendencies. Her behavior suggests that something’s a little off psychologically. There’s definitely a lack of empathy, which suggests narcissism or some kind of sociopathic tendencies. Which is all so fascinating.”
There is a lot of gaslighting going on in this series. A man pretending to be a woman (Cox) has been cast in the role of the character who “wasn’t grifting,” “wasn’t using anyone,” “didn’t do anything wrong.” He also gets to point the finger at a woman and say she is the one whose “behavior suggests that something’s a little off psychologically” that she lacks empathy, that she may be a narcissist or have “sociopathic tendencies.” Small wonder Cox finds it “all so fascinating.” To perfect the illusion, he is filmed in ways and doing things that are typically reserved for female characters—for instance when he appears in a silk dressing gown making tea, or when he is shown straddling his boyfriend in bed. Male characters have spent much less time in the kitchen and when we see them on top of a female character in bed they tend to be horizontal, as the boyfriend is in the above mentioned bedroom scene.
Similarly, the series contains many ironic moments that may displease female viewers given the recent erosion of women’s rights, courtesy of the gender identity ideology lobby. For example, when Kacy discovers that Rachel has profited financially from selling her story about Anna and says to Rachel: “I feel used—by you. Thinking you’re some kind of victim in all this. Taking care of you” (men who pretend to be women often claim to be victims. Here such a man gets to stand on the moral high ground and accuse a woman of claiming victimhood undeservedly). When he says to Vivian, “These girls are toxic—all of them” (a growing body of evidence shows that men pretending to be women are harming women and children). When he says to Rachel: “You have let Anna take too much” before encouraging her to “flip the narrative” (men pretending to be women constantly “flip the narrative” and have taken too much from women and girls). When he tells her to “be kind” (an order constantly given to women by those who would breach their boundaries). When he says to Vivian about Anna hinting that she was suicidal to force Kacy’s hand: “She knew that would affect me, throwing suicide around like that” (gender identity ideologists are always saying that children will kill themselves if they are prevented from “transitioning” to the opposite sex). When his boyfriend urges him to “[s]et some boundaries” (about Anna)—a man pretending to be a woman is the one encouraged to set boundaries while women around the world are speaking up about men disregarding their boundaries. When Kacy says to Neff, “Anna Delvey doesn’t exist. That person in Rikers [prison] is somebody else. Someone who was pretending to be Anna Delvey. We don’t know her. You don’t know anything about her… She may be your friend Anna or she may be a total stranger. Do you really wanna go down there… and find out the person you thought was one of your closest friends was just a made-up character?” This speech is from a man pretending to be a woman, a man who, in a very real way, is a made-up character (Laverne replaced Roderick).
Because Cox is a famous man who claims to be a woman some of his lines in the show can come across as a PR campaign to promote gender identity ideology. For instance, when Kacy says to Rachel: “It is time to stand in your power… You have to claim your power back. You have to take up space and demand what you need. It’s time for you to love yourself and put yourself first” and “Stand in your truth, fortified by kindness and tell your story…” Many people know he is a man pretending to be a woman—beginning with the show’s creators. Are they attempting, through the series, to convey the message that people who “identify” as the opposite sex should stand in their power, take up space, demand what they need, put themselves first, etc.? Or are these things the real Kacy Duke commonly said? As viewers, we do not know how accurate these portrayals are. So now some people are wondering if Kacy Duke identifies as “trans.” She does not, but rumours that she does have led to speculation addressed in articles.
It also happens more than once on the show that a man walks into a women’s restroom and characters act as if this is normal behaviour—further normalizing demands by gender identity ideologists that men and boys should be allowed into women and girls’ single-sex spaces. For example, in episode nine when Lou (played by Jeff Perry), Vivian’s co-worker, enters the ladies’ room at work to speak to her there is no reproof. When it happens in the fourth episode and Vivian’s co-worker Barry (played by Terry Kinney) says, “Gender is an outdated concept. Urine is universal” Vivian’s female co-worker says nothing and neither she nor Vivian say anything about a second man walking in on them.
A month after Inventing Anna first aired Kacy Duke said in an Entertainment Tonight interview about Cox being cast to play her, “I think Laverne did a great job… She’s so beautiful, and she’s so gracious” and “This is so right. It’s so now, it’s so fresh. It’s so… it’s so, it’s what we need to see, you know? non-traditional casting. This is a beautiful woman. This is a wonderful actress… And I am incredibly proud that she is portraying me.” In this interview Ms. Duke comes across as a very kind, positive, hopeful person who, in her own words, “likes[s] to see the greatness in people.” In an article on Shondaland.com she is described as “a consummate optimist.”
However, on February 10, on the eve of the show’s premiere, Duke told Bevy Smith on Radio Andy that English actress Naomie Harris (who plays Eve Moneypenny in 2012’s Bond film Skyfall) was her first choice to play her. She also had Halle Berry and Beyoncé on her list. Duke said that when Rhimes, who had complete creative control of the show and was not obligated to consult with her, asked her how she felt about Cox playing her, her initial reaction was, “Wow. Okay” at which point Rhimes told her to “just think about it.” Ultimately, she decided Cox was a good choice because, said Duke, “She had been through things, and I had been through things.”
Women should be sympathetic to Cox’ struggles in the homophobic society he grew up in. However, they will likely be much less sympathetic to his dismissive attitude about women’s legitimate concerns over their safety in their single-sex spaces, as well as opportunities stolen by men and boys pretending to be females in women and girls’ sports divisions. Last year he said “a myth has been created that women’s spaces or sports are threatened by the presence of trans women. It’s a brilliant example of divide and conquer. It’s really deep that these feminists find themselves aligned with right-wing ideologies.” But the women who have been fighting the erosion of their rights for years, as well as men disregarding their boundaries around single-sex spaces and males entering their sports divisions, say they are politically homeless as both the left and right have abandoned them in favour of woke virtue signaling. Even the mainstream media, which has mostly avoided covering the erosion of women’s rights for years, has slowly begun reporting on women’s (and men’s) growing anger.
Last weekend Twitter exploded over a man who identifies as a woman, Lia (né William) Thomas, winning a national women’s swimming title. His win deprived Emma Weyant of her rightful first place on the podium, Erica Sullivan of her rightful second place win and Brooke Forde of her rightful third place win—not to mention Tylor Mathieu, the woman who was bumped out of the race to make room for Thomas. Many news outlets covered the ensuing public outcry, much of it from women championing the rights of women and girls to fairness in sport, including The Economist, Fox News, and National Review among others. The New York Post published a letter by the parents of five Ivy League schools’ female swimmers about the unfairness of allowing Thomas to swim in the women’s division.
Given that the world allowed young, white, presumably well-off (Ivy League tuition isn’t cheap) women to be gaslit by a mediocre male swimmer, what chance do black actresses have? The other fakery in Inventing Anna merits much more discussion than it currently elicits.