Wong: Netflix documentaries elevate problematic figures

Emily Wong, Op-Ed Contributor

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I like Netflix originals as much as anyone else, but I never really understood the hype over their documentaries until I watched Fyre. Recently, I read a DJ Mag article that said Billy McFarland is planning to hold a second Fyre Festival, which makes me rethink how done with this disaster we really are.

The news, even if only a rumor, has made me reconsider the effects of placing a scandal like this at the center of the public’s attention. Both Netflix and Hulu released documentaries about the catastrophic attempt at a music festival, to relative success.

Although the portrayal of McFarland in both documentaries was overall negative, their success still boosted his name recognition. There are limits to the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but is there still some truth to the adage when it comes to people like McFarland, whose success relies more on attention than trustworthiness?

In addition to the possibility of a second attempt at the Fyre Festival, DJ Mag reported that McFarland plans to release memoirs that he’s been writing from prison, currently titled “Promythus: The God of Fyre.” According to the article, he intends to use the revenue the memoirs raise to pay back money he owes from Fyre. The editor he reached out to turned down the business offer, but I’d be surprised if this deters the wannabe-entrepreneur from continuing with his plan.

While there would be value in McFarland selling his memoirs, especially since the interest surrounding Fyre has reached levels high enough to make the stories very profitable, his venture would not be good. The American public purchasing and reading McFarland’s writing would make him into a celebrity of sorts, building off his fame from an act of fraud and exploitation. After watching the documentaries, I don’t know if I believe that McFarland acted out of evil motives in planning the festival, but his crimes and abuse of power should not be rewarded.

I faced a similar dilemma with documentaries about notorious people earlier this year when I tried to watch the “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” on Netflix. Not to liken Bundy’s gruesome murders to McFarland’s acts of fraud, but I found him to be similarly portrayed as an elevated character, even if he was the villain in the story. Much of Bundy’s consists of him describing his life in idealized detail, as if his biography should be documented — Stephen Michaud, the journalist who recorded him, said in the first episode that Bundy seemed to have a “celebrity bio” in mind in participating in the interviews.

While Bundy has died since, and will not ever benefit from me hearing his testimony, a part of me still feels like listening to his perspective is another form of giving him what he wants. Although I don’t believe McFarland deserves nearly as strong of a condemnation, America obsessing over his motivations in creating Fyre by reading his books and rewatching the documentaries about him would unfairly benefit him as well.

Emily Wong is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at emilywong2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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