The political uses of the “poor little rich girl” narrative.
If you want to suffer through Hollywood at its sappiest, you could waste an afternoon watching Mary Pickford’s 1917 tearjerker The Poor Little Rich Girl and its 1936 remake of the same name starring Shirley Temple (the original source material being a 1913 Broadway play by Eleanor Gates). Both films, as one could guess from the titles, explore the difficulties of being the child of plutocratic wealth. Pickford plays Gwendolyn, the neglected offspring of a mother who prefers high society to her daughter and a father mired in moneymaking schemes. Growing up in a chilly household, Gwendolyn finds friendship in the rowdy company of the warm if ragged working class, including an organ grinder and a plumber. Temple’s suffering young princess, Barbara Barry, has only one, and a negligent, parent, a widowed father immersed in business. Like Gwendolyn, Barbara also discovers nurturing kindness in the company of the immiserated, including yet another organ grinder.
It’s easy to surmise why Hollywood executives were attracted to the “poor little rich girl” narrative in times of global war (Pickford) and economic disaster (Temple). This is fundamentally a consolatory fantasy of class reconciliation under the trite but often effective rubric of shared humanity. The majority who are not wealthy get the chance to be magnanimous, since their lives are shown to have an emotional luster that outshines the gaudy lucre of the financially well-endowed. The message is that the rich suffer perhaps even more than we do, and so can be our friends. This fellowship is a form of bridge-building that replaces nasty old class strife.
This ridiculous narrative is being revived in the 21st century—not on the big screen but in the august pages of the ostensibly serious New York Times. On February 23, the newspaper published a profile by reporter Brooks Barnes of Elizabeth R. Koch, daughter of Charles Koch, whose net worth is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $68 billion and who is far and away the largest donor to right-wing causes in the United States.
Barnes offers up a sob story that is so focused on how hard it is to be a Koch heir that it could easily be the latest reboot of The Poor Little Rich Girl. According to Barnes, Elizabeth Koch has been “driven to the brink of insanity by her last name” and her “anguish may strike you as entirely understandable. Money can be corrosive, especially for the generation that didn’t make it.”
At this point in the article, I was half expecting an organ grinder to show up. Instead, Koch’s link to the less-well-to-do isn’t, as in the films of old, roughhousing with the working class but rather indulging in New Age wellness flapdoodle. Koch turns out to be a promoter of the concept she calls “Perception Box” (a term she has in good capitalist fashion trademarked). “Perception Box” seems to be Koch’s catchall phrase for an imprinted self-conception we acquire at an early age through social interaction. Koch’s Perception Box, by her own account, was that of the privileged rich girl whom everyone hated. Now she’s promoting a self-help program so we can all step outside our particular Perception Box and be friends.
One commonality Koch shares with Pickford and Temple is the goal of reconciliation across class lines. According to Barnes, one of Koch’s associates believes the heiress is “uniquely suited to lead conversations about bridging divides.”
Barnes mentions that Koch came to his attention thanks to a pitch from a publicist named Scott Rowe. This might explain why Barnes’s article reads like a barely concealed rewrite of a public relations pitch.
The article is also similar in many story beats—and even its phrasing—to an article from 2018 written by Ephrat Livni for Quartz, which itself is also little more than a glorified press release. Here is Livni: “Sure, she knows you’re probably rolling your eyes at the idea that an heiress from Wichita, Kansas, with every advantage, struggles with existence.” Barnes: “Or you may have the opposite reaction: It must be really, really hard—eye roll—to be an heiress to one of the biggest fortunes ever accumulated, who graduated from an Ivy League university (Princeton) and is now married to a successful biotech entrepreneur.” Levni: “When she was an MFA student at Syracuse University, for example, she never admitted that she was one of those Kochs.” Barnes: “A couple of years later, she lied to classmates at Syracuse University, where she was working on an M.F.A. in fiction, insisting that her name was pronounced ‘kotch,’ no relation to those ‘cokes,’ the ones they may have read sinister things about.” Levni: ”Koch, in fact, says she is ‘apolitical.’” Barnes: “She insisted that she was ‘apolitical.’”
What is worth noting here is not so much the similarity of wording as the similarity of thinking—as if Barnes were uncritically regurgitating an existing PR playbook. Barnes is also remarkably credulous about Koch’s claims for herself. Is it really true Koch is “apolitical”? As Jacob Silverman documented, she has a history—at least up until 2012—of donating to her father’s PAC and to Republicans like Josh Mandel and John Boehner. Nor, despite what Barnes suggests, are Elizabeth Koch’s New Age and therapeutic interests incompatible with her father’s style of right-wing individualism. In fact, as the journalist Brian Doherty documented in his 2007 Radicals for Capitalism, there has long been an overlap between right-wing libertarianism and personal self-development through spiritualism and psychedelic experimentation.
In the first published version of his article, Barnes cites praise for Koch’s work on the Perception Box by Lisa Feldman Barrett, described as a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Northeastern University. What went initially unmentioned—until an editor’s note was added—was that “Dr. Barrett’s research lab at Northeastern University has received grant funding from Unlikely Collaborators, Ms. Koch’s nonprofit organization, and Dr. Barrett is now a paid adviser to the group.”
Barnes’s article emphasizes the differences between Elizabeth Koch and her father, Charles. But the two have much in common, not least a willingness to use their wealth to influence the press to launder their reputation. Like his daughter, Charles Koch has also tried to free himself from the toxic reputation of being a partisan for the far right. As the newsletter Popular Information, run by Judd Legum, noted on February 7, “Koch has repeatedly announced he was reorienting his political strategy away from far-right Republicans, including Trump—with no discernible change in his actual political activity.” In 2020, Koch told The Wall Street Journal he was forswearing partisanship and going to spend his money “building bridges across partisan divides to find answers to sprawling social problems.” This included working with liberals and Democrats. But, Popular Information reports, Koch’s political organization went on to spend “$63,401,608 supporting Republican candidates for federal office, $5,576,858 opposing Democratic candidates, and zero dollars supporting Democratic candidates.”
The lesson should be that when a Koch talks about building bridges, we should look for another way to cross the water.
As it happens, Brooks Barnes was one of the signatories of a letter from some New York Times staffers objecting to an earlier letter, largely signed by freelancers as well as some staffers, objecting to the newspaper’s coverage of transgender issues. The letter that Barnes signed reads in part, “We are journalists, not activists. That line should be clear.” The letter claimed to defend “factual, accurate journalism that is written, edited and published in accordance with Times standards.”
Based on Barnes’s risible paean to Elizabeth Koch, signatories of the Times letter objecting to activism should perhaps ponder whether this kind of centrist activism might also be harmful to good journalism. Barnes and other centrist activists salivate uncritically when anyone talks about building bridges across the political divide, are utterly gullible when it comes to the pronouncements of plutocrats like the Kochs, and see no conflict in peddling reworked public relations pitches about wealthy influencers. This centrist activism is the source of much that is wrong with American journalism.