Death of a salesperson: Reflections on ‘American Murder’ and multilevel marketing

I have a running joke with friends who are aficionados of the true crime genre that goes like this: ‘Hey want to watch/listen to/read this horrifying story about a woman who was tortured/assaulted and how the authorities arrested the wrong person and twenty years later they still haven’t found the actual perpetrator?’ There’s nothing entertaining about true crime. The details are macabre and the answers are few and far between. So, no thank you.

Trailer for American Murder via Netflix

Be that as it may, last weekend, I found myself immersed in American Murder: The Family Next Door. Consisting entirely of ‘found’ footage (police body cam footage, Facebook videos shot and shared by Shanann Watts, one of the victims), it is a soul-deadening deep dive into one family’s tragedy and the senseless brutality of family annihilation. I went into the film knowing that at least one of the major mysteries surrounding this story had been solved: Christopher Watts confessed to murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters. I had also read that the family of Shanann Watts gave the director their blessing. Both of these facts made me feel less like I was participating in a culture that enjoys picking women apart, in life or death.

In spite of all that, there is a certain trade-off involved in consuming these stories. Sure, we are bearing witness to something awful and we are looking right at the truth of who we are as a society. But the fact remains, a woman and her three children died horribly, and the grim details of their deaths are being parsed for entertainment.

Complicating this story somewhat is the fact of what Shanann Watts did for a living. She was involved with a company called Le-vel that seems to be one of those ‘direct sales’ schemes that lure women into complex pyramids and place them in financially precarious positions. The multilevel marketing (or MLM) world has been the focus of recent media attention, with the implosion of companies like LulaRoe and Herbalife highlighting the murky ethics involved in these businesses. At their heart, MLMs take advantage of two fundamentally human drives: our need to connect with one another and our need to be in control of our lives. They promise you a community of other people just like you, selling a product they believe in and sharing in your success. They also promise you a job that you can do from anywhere, on your own schedule.

For women like Shanann Watts, who are juggling small children and managing a household, these are extremely attractive promises. By all accounts, her involvement in her MLM connected her to women with whom she had a lot in common. Many of her close friends are also involved in Le-vel sales. She was also able to be at home with her kids, and be the kind of mother she wanted to be. The MLM sales pitch has, in recent years, picked up on the things certain groups respond to. Herbalife, for example, exploited the lack of access to the formal economy that migrant workers experiences and promised them something they could do to earn money without a green card. Companies like Young Living (essential oils) and Le-vel have a keen understanding of the health concerns of women who are often marginalised and ignored by mainstream healthcare services. Shanann suffered from lupus and other health concerns, and it is easy to see why a company that promises non-invasive supplementary health products would appeal to her.

It is easy to stand outside the MLM world and ridicule it. So many of the claims they make about their products and about the lucrative nature of their businesses are absurd. The organisational structures are so obviously pyramid-shaped, and some of the products are so much snake oil. Lately, though, the ridicule of these kinds of schemes has not been aimed at the sources. It has been heaped upon women like Shanann, who are participants in these companies. I’ve seen meme after meme poking fun at the MLM ‘huns’ who reach out to their online communities in attempts to recruit others and maximise their profits.

A comic mocking MLM participants

While the content of the ridicule has a point, the way it is directed not at the very top of the pyramids, but at those struggling up from the middle or near the bottom, seems to be missing the point. If MLMs have made their millions by exploiting the dreams and desires of vulnerable people, the online hatred against them has gained traction by ridiculing those dreams and desires. For example, a common joke lobbed at ‘huns’ is the absurdity of how they all hold titles like ‘district manager’ or ‘regional vice president’. Attacking their titles feels a little bit like trying to take these women down a notch or two. Furthermore, attacking the people who have fallen prey to the schemes offers us an easy out. We can ignore the inadequate parental leave, expensive childcare and gender pay gaps that draw women to MLMs and pretend that they are simply not as smart as we are, or they are out to make a buck at our expense. It’s easier to assume individual fault than to take a long hard look at the toll of women’s unpaid labour.

In a lot of ways, Shanann Watts’ story carries all of the scars of our women-hating world. Le-vel’s promises of better health and a flexible schedule were the answer to the misogyny she may have encountered in the healthcare system, and the so-called mom gap she experienced professionally. Luckily, Shanann was a master at marketing through social media and excelled in direct sales. This may have been what made her vulnerable to that other relic of the patriarchy: the male ego. In the film, almost all of the family home videos and images were taken by Shanann. She was the chief cinematographer and archivist. In the images and videos her husband captured with his mistress, he is behind the camera. He is directing those shots. If Shanann’s independence and her storied dedication to her hustle bear the hallmarks of a successful ‘hun’ whom society seeks to tear down slightly, just to keep women in their place, then these very same factors unwittingly opened her up to her partner’s small, mean, male spirit. He gaslighted her while she was alive, withdrawing affection and attention at will, essentially abandoning her emotionally, before annihilating the family life she worked so hard to build and maintain.

In the final analysis, Christopher Watts, garden-variety woman-hater, confirmed what we know about misogyny. There is a reason that women are more likely to die at the hands of their male partners. The patriarchy is never more deadly than when it is lying in wait beside us, in the hearts of the men we love most in the world.

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