You May Have Seen the Headlines about Rachel Williams Suing Netflix.
Rachel Williams, a former Vanity Fair staffer, is suing Netflix over their depiction of her in the series Inventing Anna.
Williams says that the depiction of her was unfair, and that after the show aired, she received lots of threats and crazy online abuse. The Vanity Fair article includes this statement by William’s lawyer:
“We filed the case because Netflix not only included false facts in Inventing Anna to make Rachel appear like a horrible person, but also because they used her real name and biographical details for the character. We don’t challenge Netflix’s right to include a lying, sponging, cowardly snob in their series, but they should have given the character a fictitious name and made sure that no one thought it was Rachel. Instead, her reputation has been devastated because viewers believed that they were watching how the real Rachel behaved. The abuse she received has been truly awful. This lawsuit seeks to vindicate her reputation and to remind creatives that they cannot create hate figures and give them real people’s names.”
Creatives Cannot Create Hate Figures and Give Them Real People’s Names
I watched Inventing Anna and enjoyed it. But, I also thought the treatment of William’s character seemed unfair. From the start, the depiction of Anna Sorokin/Delvey was clearly meant to inspire a certain type of respect from the audience. I felt urged to believe that while Sorokin/Delvey stole money and acted unscrupulously, that her crimes were mostly victimless, and if there were victims, they were rich white guys who landed on their feet. Anna Sorokin/Delvey could almost be seen as a hero. And Rachel Williams? She was a wannabe poser who sold out her friends.
That never seemed fair.
Yet, at the time, I did not the ethics of the whole thing, at least not from a writer’s perspective. So much about writing and creating characters is subjective. I mean, how does one “create a hate figure”?
But I can see William’s point. And I agree, they should have changed her character’s name.
What if You Change the Names, But it’s Still Clear Who You’re Writing About?
This question weighs on me, because that’s what I did in Favorite Daughters. There are characters clearly inspired by Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump. And, the Ivanka Trump character is pretty duplicitous at times, and her marriage is a lie. Is it okay that I did that? I do state at the beginning of the book that it’s a work of fiction and yada, yada yada.
But at the end of the day, my reach is a fraction of the reach that Netflix has. Most likely, neither Chelsea nor Ivanka will ever become aware of my little book.
And if one of them did, well, there might be some issues. But if that happened, it would mean I’d gone viral, so I’m willing to take my chances.
I also wrote a short story, called “That Damn Selfie” (published on MetaWorker Lit Mag) that was based off the murder of Jennifer Cave, and told from the POV of accomplice Laura Ashley Hall. I also changed the names on that one. But, I guess I like to write fiction that’s inspired by real-life situations.
Is that bad?
I never thought so before, but maybe I’m looking at it wrong. Still, I don’t think I’m hurting anyone, so for now, I won’t worry too much.
Besides, Other Authors Get Away With It
These novels have clearly taken real-life, living people, and used their true stories to inspire some closely matched fiction.
Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper by Hillary Liften tells the story of a celebrity marriage that clearly mirrors Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is speculative fiction that uses real names, and poses the question: what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?
Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois is a fictional version of the Amanda Knox case, and it tries to assign a motive for turning a cartwheel while being a murder suspect.
Ultimately, it seems widely accepted that novelists can write about whatever they want, as long as it’s not slander and they slap their book with the “fiction” label. But “Inventing Anna” started each episode with the disclaimer, “This whole story is completely true. Except for all the parts that are totally made up.”
Does that make Netflix more or less culpable for what happened to Rachel Williams?
It’s a question that every “fiction” writer ought to be asking themselves.