The Perpetual Scam
Joanne wants you girls to know that she’s a real messy bitch: a liar, a scammer. “I love robbery and fraud,” she drawls with scandalized bourgeois affect, flipping her blonde wig with a vigor that threatens whiplash. “And I’m a messy bitch who lives for drama.”
For the last two seconds of the video, Joanne teases us with an inviting smile. The space seems to fill with domestic gray noise, perhaps emanating from an air conditioner or an open refrigerator. Her widening eyes never leave the camera.
From this twelve-second Instagram clip posted in 2015, Joanne the Scammer was born. Smoky-voiced and amply stubbled, Joanne is a self-described “Caucasian” woman portrayed by a half-black man—a comedian named Branden Miller. If her robust social media presence is to be believed, Joanne spends her days making men cry, infiltrating Paypal accounts, and hosting guests in opulent homes that don’t belong to her.
Joanne describes herself as “iconic,” and her six-figure following seems to wholeheartedly, rabidly agree. Her frank accounts of embezzlement and identity theft are greeted with cultish enthusiasm, reverberating through the Twittersphere with thousands of reposts, eliciting worldwide cries of “YAS QUEEN” and the rare “SCAM ME MOMMY.”
Donning a sumptuous white fur coat—presumably loot from one of her scams—Joanne is the id embodied, a unilaterally dishonest, mal-intentioned personality. To Joanne, duplicity comes as naturally as breathing does. She gets out of bed to deceive as one might get up to use the bathroom, and she documents her trickery on Twitter, each heist as mundane as a load of laundry.
Woke up to tell a lie. Going back to bed now.
12:09 PM - 9 Sep 2016
I’m in the middle of being fake, let me call you back.
10:40 AM - 20 Sep 2016
She lies. She cheats. She calls new girlfriends of ex-lovers in the middle of the night, cooing in tones that toe the precipice of goodwill: “Hi, hi! I, I just wanted to remind you that I’m better.”
Her unflinching malice surprises us, although it probably shouldn’t.
We don’t remember days, we remember scams.
8:46 PM - 12 Oct 2016
Each morning, the sun rises, and with it Joanne awakens, snatching her latest victim’s credit card as she bolts for the door. Although the messy bitch lives for drama, there is little suspense in Joanne’s life of prolific scheming. The central drama of Joanne’s hijinks sits, not in her repertoire of drained PayPal accounts, but in the performance of her identity—Miller’s imitation of white womanhood. From the hyperbolic vocal fry to the plastic yellow hair, Joanne’s trappings of whiteness stand out like thick brushstrokes on an Expressionist canvas. The actor’s dark stubble contrasts the straight blonde hair on his character’s head. We’re made to laugh—problematically, perhaps—because we’re accomplices in Joanne’s scamming, and because we think, at some level, that we too are being scammed.
Joanne’s assertions of her “Caucasianness” are startling, uneasy. “White” is conversational; “Caucasian” is scientific. Joanne’s use of the latter term undermines itself, betraying a cold, darkly humorous unfamiliarity with whiteness. One of her most famous videos, titled “Caucasian Living,” shows the fur-clad con artist answering the door of a Los Angeles mansion, welcoming us to her “Caucasian home.”
“This is how I live,” she says nervously, shiftily peering at her surroundings. She fumbles with a chrome coffee maker. “Seriously—it’s all me, all this, yes.”
The term “Caucasian” as we understand it today dates back to the 19th century, when racial “science” flared and bubbled like a sore. An acclaimed physiologist named Johann Freidrich Blumenbach posited that the region surrounding the Caucasus Mountains was the homeland of phenotypic whiteness. Circassian women—who were indigenous to the region—were mythologized as the most beautiful, godlike women in the world. By inventing the Caucasian racial category, Blumenbach codified white supremacy in an empirical “scientific” vocabulary.
Blumenbach’s demarcation of a white homeland, a project meant to extol racial purity, was doomed by geography. Myriad ethnic groups and religious traditions thrived in the Caucasus, a region that bordered the ostensibly-separate Christian and Muslim worlds. The legendary Caucasians were, to the surprise of many, a rather heterogeneous people.
In 1864 New York City, circus tycoon P.T. Barnum staged showings of “Circassian Beauties,” racially-ambiguous women from the Caucasus area. The storied region promised fair-skinned divinity, and the Beauties—some of whom had kinky hairstyles and dark skin tones—posed a visual quandary for ogling audience members. As Sarah Lewis posits in a New Yorker essay, “the idea of whiteness itself was a curiosity worthy of the stage.”
Sorry, but you’ve been evicted from my Caucasian home.
3:50 AM - 17 Aug 2016
Joanne the Scammer’s affectatious, stageworthy whiteness is not an invitation for scientific scrutiny—it’s a cutting exposition of the anxiety embedded in the idea of “Caucasian living.” Joanne is particularly of our moment, and not simply because of her blue-screened ascent to fame. She seeks to lay claim to a Caucasian home, a mission that ensnared the imaginations of 19th-century Americans, a project that re-emerged and simmered menacingly in the year leading up to November 8th.
Perhaps those who have clamored for harsh bans and tight borders see themselves as the proprietor of the home Joanne invades, the fair-skinned homeowner whose presence banishes the cowering brown-skinned imposter. Yet that forceful assertion of ownership is also rooted in territorial nervousness, the spiraling anxiety that Joanne shows so acutely. Her whiteness becomes all the more stageworthy as she demands that the cameras stop rolling, as she confronts the homeowner who disrupts her cinematic montage: “How dare you ruin this for me!” With darting eyes and stuttering bravado, Joanne lays claim to the West Hollywood mansion, stroking her stolen mink as if the walls of her Caucasian home are about to collapse.