Sleaziness is the central condition of our age, the predominant aesthetic of our epoch. The word might initially evoke a certain shag-carpeted, feather-in-the-fedora pimpiness of the 1970s, but that is tempered by the lens of the present. It is the graininess of the Times Square reimagined in David Simon’s The Deuce more than it is Times Square itself. Sleaze is the golden-paneled presidential apartment; it is the biceps lifting the assault rifles on NRATV, the nasal Chicago accent of the newly politically powerful custom pillow salesman. But our sleaziness is hardly limited to politics. Sleaziness is also the ersatz Super-8 of A24’s Zola, which at once makes us glare in horror at the de facto kidnapping of a young dancer and celebrate the first film “inspired by a Twitter thread.” Twitter is itself one long perpetual motion rehearsal of sleaze, more so under the guidance of Elon Musk, purveyor of sleaze from faked self-driving Tesla videos all the way to the outer atmosphere. Sleaziness is every selfie profile Twitter photo. (Mea culpa, I’ve got one.) Sleaziness is the celebrated return of Juliette Lewis in full-body fishnet on Showtime’s Yellowjackets, a self-conscious reboot of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies; it is the excruciating rapping of Kendall Roy on HBO’s Succession. In the dictionary, sleaziness is the “immoral,” the “unpleasant,” the “socially unacceptable.” There is nothing more sleazy than the hair-clippings-and-Elmer’s-glue beard on Senator Ted Cruz’s face—it grabs the rhyme at hand with greasy, and clutches tight. Sleaziness is just innocuous enough to convince, but paper thin enough to cripple a culture. In our lives, it is everywhere. We live in the age of sleaze.
While the definitive etymology varies, the word itself almost certainly comes from a mangled pronunciation of “Silesia” in the mid-seventeenth century. Silesia, in eastern Germany, was at the time the source of cheap sheets. It was the MyPillow region a century before the Declaration of Independence. In 1640, the word meant something like “downy, fuzzy” or “flimsy, insubstantial.” In The Conduct of Life, published the year before the outbreak of the Civil War, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes: “A day is more magnificent cloth than any muslin, the mechanism that makes it is infinitely cunninger, and you shall not conceal the sleazy, fraudulent, rotten hours.” In the OED, synonyms come in at depraved, sordid, disreputable. The word itself seems to be hemmed in by rhymed association with a handful of similar but different words: greasy, skeezy, easy. It half-rhymes with flea, brings to mind the trochee fleabag. In our mouths, it feels oily, slippery, oleaginous, corrupt, fraudulent. But etymologically, all those words move past sleaze itself, which pushes far more on a lack of ethics, the insubstantial nature of a certain variety of human behavior. Ours are undoubtedly fraudulent, rotten times, and their sleaze is worn on our sleeves. Sleaziness is four shirt jackets on America’s pock-faced sad excuse of a Che, spewing fascism on a podcast; it is all of reality television; it is (sorry not sorry) Queer Eye and highly produced baking competitions as much as it is The Bachelor.
It is no coincidence that the onslaught of sleaziness arrives at moments of deep corruption of our political and social norms. Think about those Nixon days when the Oval Office was facile and conversant with anti-Semitism, racism, de facto autocracy, and Spiro Agnew corruption. Think about the post-Access Hollywood ascendance of Donald Trump. His sleazy bragging about sleazy behavior turned the attraction of every partner in America against the other. This was true at least until the proliferation of COVID-19, which made previously self-imposed sleaziness almost an afterthought. Two years of avoiding physical contact made even the idea of sitting in a room indoors without your face covered appear sleazy. The sleaziness of a bare nose peeking out above a cloth mask. Many Americans learned the subconscious feeling of sleaziness inherent in waiting in line behind a man with his face naked to the virus-spewing breath of the public: fraudulent, contagious, rotten. If having a president who was a self-proclaimed sexual assaulter had not been enough to enshrine ours as the age of sleaziness, the wet markets of Wuhan made the aesthetic widespread.
In the earliest days of radio technology, towers sent out signals that reached only local listeners. By the early 1920s, radio towers began to produce signals that could cover an entire region—even cross borders. One of the first to take advantage of the most powerful towers in the country, outside Kansas City, was a quack named Dr. John R. Brinkley. His broadcasts had enough range to reach not only Missouri and Kansas, but also well across the southern border into Mexico.
Brinkley became one of the most notorious early pioneers of the medium. In the years just prior to his broadcasts, capitalizing on a slew of patients he gained by making house calls during the height of the Spanish flu, he’d opened an eighteen-bed clinic in Kansas, where he popularized a practice of replacing men’s testicles with goat glands. He claimed that doing so would make men more virile, and he used early radio technology to convince men to undergo his procedure. Brinkley had gotten his MD from a diploma mill; in the mid-1920s, in part because of his attempted move into the larger radio market of Los Angeles, the Justice Department went after him and other fake doctors with fake MDs. He was able to beat the rap in court. He was a charlatan, a mountebank, a pre-Mehmet-Oz—but after winning his case, he was emboldened. Advertisements of the “first goat-boy” appeared in newspapers, celebrating the virility of the men who underwent his procedure. By the 1930s, Brinkley had ventured into local politics, running twice for governor of Kansas, and eventually becoming a Nazi sympathizer.
Charlatanism doesn’t necessarily require sleaziness, but the two have a bearing on each other; where sleaziness is unethical for thinness of mode and purpose, charlatanism requires that its thinness parade as girth. It enshrines thickness. Barely a decade after Brinkley’s quackery, a young political hack in Weimar Germany also recognized the power of radio to get into the minds and hearts of the populace. “The radio will be for the twentieth century,” Joseph Goebbels declared in a speech on August 18, 1933, “what the press was for the nineteenth century.”
Now, not quite a century later, podcasters and internet personalities operate with a similar brand of charlatanism. None went on house calls in the days after COVID or acquired fake MDs. They didn’t have to. Alex Jones needs only to appear with his barrel chest, or Joe Rogan to make hay of his success at Taekwondo as a teenager, to appear virile and trustworthy to broad swaths of the (mainly) male public. Our age of sleaze runs thinner, ninety years on, than did that last great era of its proliferation. But the means rhyme. Where Brinkley sold his goat gland grafts, Rogan and Jones sell nutritional supplements. (Brinkley himself started out on his grift by selling “tonics” meant to appeal to men’s masculinity in the 1910s.) According to a profile in The New York Times, Rogan “makes market-moving recommendations for dietary supplements, CBD-infused beverages.” In the early days of his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, he was buoyed by advertisements from a sex toy company selling a product called the “fleshlight.” He moved on to shilling for a company called Onnit, whose most recognizable product, “Alpha Brain,” claims on its label to “help support memory & focus.” Rogan is a majority shareholder. This in addition to his having sold his podcast for a reported hundred million dollars to the streaming service Spotify and its principal Daniel Ek. In the age of sleaze, the entire history of music is owned and meted out for $9.99 a month by a man with the least musical last name possible.
Not unlike those who benefitted from diploma mills before they were foreclosed on, the charlatans of our day exploit weaknesses in Food and Drug Administration regulations to make wild and unsubstantiated claims about the efficacy of their nutritional supplements. Since 1958, there has been a loophole called the “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, exemption, so the nutritional supplements that enrich Rogan are not regulated in any way. Brinkley came close but did not become the governor of an entire state. Dr. Oz, a mountebank with an actual MD who has also grown wealthy selling GRAS dietary supplements, came dangerously close to becoming the junior senator from the state where the Constitution was drafted and ratified, which is also where I live. One entire Lydia Davis short story, called “PhD,” reads: “All these years I thought I had a PhD. But I do not have a PhD.” Because this will not be a sixty-thousand word essay on the age of sleaze, I will not here utter words like “George” and “Santos.”
The last great post-pandemic moment in America codified a not-so-different profusion of sleaziness. The Spanish flu moved from pandemic to endemic virus between 1919 and 1920 and, for a handful of years afterward, left the American public wary, if susceptible, to come-ons like Brinkley’s. The first great work of American literature to follow was The Great Gatsby, the gaudy parties and sleazy sidewalk puppy-purchasing and mid-afternoon drunken parties in the Plaza. Published in 1924, Gatbsy first came to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mind in the summer of 1922, when the widespread fear of Spanish flu was still near to mind. Fitzgerald sent an early draft of the novel, then called Trimalchio, to his editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins.
“I would know Tom Buchanan if I saw him on the street, and I would avoid him,” Perkins wrote to Fitzgerald after reading the draft. He noted the deep sleaziness of all the major characters, from Gatsby to Meyer Wolfsheim to Daisy, whose avowed love for the thinnest veneers of Gatsby’s wealth—“it makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts,” Daisy Buchanan cries upon opening his closet for the first time—has a depth she covers over with sleazy jokes and palaver.
Part of Perkins’ genius in helping his author turn Trimalchio into the novel it became was in calibrating the level of sleaziness in each character. In early drafts, Perkins felt he couldn’t quite “set his eyes” on Jay Gatsby, who needed something more to distinguish him. So Fitzgerald multiplied and multiplied that great iteration of sleaze, Gatsby’s “old sport” dialogue tic, until it came to represent something ineffably insubstantial. Because these were the days just after the Spanish flu, those notorious Gatsby parties became an expression of a newfound openness after the social distancing of the previous years, years of a kind in which we find ourselves again. In a party scene that Fitzgerald would later cut, his characters show up “dressed as ‘village constables’ … Daisy buttoned into a tight Provencal peasant costume.” Rather than the opulent scenes of Art Deco glitter depicted in Baz Luhrmann’s lurid film adaptation, Fitzgerald had imagined a sleazy themed party in which, amid their conspicuous wealth, Tom, Daisy and Nick came dressed as poor people. When, early in the sequence, we see “a negro dressed as a field hand serving cider,” we’re reminded of the most nefarious aspects of the Buchanans, aspects that go far beyond sleaziness into outright racism and fraud—the way Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim’s “nose flashed,” and Tom Buchanan reads a book called The Rise of the Coloured Empires. The Great American Novel takes pains to remind us how quickly sleaziness tips over into something more like corruption, more like evil. It’s hard to remember or even to imagine now, but the book received near universal pans when it was first published. Sales were horrible. Fitzgerald said he’d never publish so short a book again, feeling its brevity—just under fifty thousand words—contributed to the reception. Edmund Wilson, the most noted critic of the day, called it “little more than a glorified anecdote.”
In a time of overweening sleaze, it is valuable to note what is not sleaze, or not exactly. Bernie Sanders can be disagreeable, but he is never sleazy. Dianne Feinstein is far too old to be sleazy. Euphoria is lurid, too slick by half, and borders at times on the pornographic, much worse in its third season than in its first. But the beauty of its visual presentation is too overwhelming to be sleazy. Sally Rooney’s novels, while erotically charged, are not sleazy. Fleabag should be sleazy given its name, but it is not at all. While Newt Gingrich might be sleazy in other ways, as a politician who most directly deserves blame for setting off the three-decade cycle of warfare in our party politics, he is never merely sleazy but outright corrupt.
The foremost aesthetic avatar of entertainment in our age of sleaze is the reboot, the franchise, the Intellectual Property universe. At one time, a mere sequel alone appeared to our culture sleazy, throwing bad money after good. Jaws is a popular masterpiece; Jaws II is borderline unwatchable. Now the sequel is the way of things. Nine of the top thirty grossing films in cinema history are movies from the Marvel Universe (or were until the second of infinite Avatar sequels arrived late last year, billions of dollars grossed by the avatar of Avatar). The eighth Fast & Furious movie, barely distinguishable from the first seven, grossed over $400 million—in China alone. And that doesn’t even touch on Ghostbusters: Afterlife, more Sex and the City under a new name, new versions of everything from The Wonder Years to Saved by the Bell to 21 Jumpstreet arriving as the thinnest possible ways to grab an audience, to make ersatz art.
Not so fast. Or furious. Let’s linger for a moment on the most egregious example: the Marvel Universe. No single corporation has done more to milk its Intellectual Property (IP) than have the principals at Marvel. After making its surprisingly successful film version of Spiderman with Toby Maguire and Kirstin Dunst in 2002, executives at Sony Pictures bemoaned the fact that “all we have is the spider.” So in 2008, Marvel began its domination of big budget spectacle with the first of three Iron Man films. Marvel was subsequently bought by Disney in 2009, which also purchased the Star Wars franchise in 2012, setting the stage for the omnibus juggernaut Disney Plus. This past year, nine of the ten top grossing movies in the United State were comic book films or franchises.
“American comics have shaped wars and inspired movements,” Jeremy Dauber writes in his definitive American Comics: A History. “They’ve provided ethical edification and provided moral scandal and, bluntly, they’ve conquered pop culture.” They’ve also opened the door to a culture dominated by thrice-told tales and fantasies. QAnon followers might seek in vain for a reboot of the JFK franchise, awaiting their savior in JFK, Jr. But when they and their madmen brethren began advancing, armed, on the United States Capitol, not even the National Guard was there. Bringing back the deus ex machina as a plot device has had no tangible effect on the advent of a real-life deus ex machina. No small part of the sleaziness of the Marvel Universe comes in the overbearing singularity of how it adapts its source material. Marjorie Garber writes of Shakespeare that “every production is an interpretation: world events and brilliant individual performances alike have shaped and changed these plays.” There have been three Spidermans in the past two decades, but the role is hardly updated; in the most recent iteration of the franchise, all three actors appear on screen at once. I would ask you to imagine Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson, and Orson Welles on stage as Macbeth together, but then—no, I wouldn’t. Even I wouldn’t do that.
Marvel’s IP might be overbearing mainly in its ubiquity as property, but it’s hard not to perceive a distinct sleaziness built into the intellectual side of the equation as well. Stan Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber, took the fledgling Marvel into prominence by using its artists and writers—and then putting his name to the product. When the legendary Jack Kirby left for DC after years of frustration over the provenance of his books, he created a character based on Lee in his Mr. Miracle series. As Stephanie Burt details in The New Yorker, that character was an “ever-smiling sleazy entrepreneur [named] Funky Flashman,” a transparent Stan Lee avatar. Lee brought the corporation near financial ruin in the 1980s, but while he no longer owned the IP that’s overwhelmed film and television for more than a decade, his grinning face appears in every one of the Marvel movies, a sleazy Alfred Hitchcock reminding us who killed the middle-budget movie.
“Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are,” Martin Scorsese said of the films, “with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.” A Shakespeare theme park, one guesses, wouldn’t have quite as much financial success. But then one visits London and finds, restored, The Globe.
While it has nowhere near the cultural reach of the Marvel Universe, the most critically lauded television show of the age of sleaze is the HBO series Succession. We eagerly await season four this spring. Depicting the excesses and deep sadnesses of the Roys, a media empire loosely based on media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s family, Succession is a morality play that’s essentially a mirror of all the sleaziness of mid-to-post-Trump-era America. On its surface, the life led by the scions of Logan Roy would appear to be the very opposite of sleaze—the family spent the end of season two on a luxury yacht that forced the show’s ostensibly satirical hand, nearly tipping over into outright wealth porn. The unethical sleaziness of each of the Roy children increasingly becomes the main subject of the show. In the opening season, we see Romulus Roy unable to perform sexually with his girlfriend in a hotel room; in season two, he’s unable to woo the much older Gerri Kellman, his father’s lawyer, in a hotel room. On the night before their wedding, Shiv Roy and her fiancé Tom Wambsgans get in an epic fight, over Tom’s unwillingness to have a threesome, in a hotel room. Shiv has an affair with her ex-boyfriend, now chief advisor to a powerful senator, in a hotel room. When at the end of season three the family company, Waystar Royco, appears to be on the verge of fully imploding and selling to a new-media tycoon—who appears loosely based on (wait for it) Daniel Ek—we see Logan and his lawyers prepare the paperwork for a merger in a hotel room.
While the present-tense drama around the Roys and their business is about the Lear-like potential inheritance and control Logan’s grown children will receive, almost all of its drama takes place in transit, in travel, on the way to meetings, in limos, taxis, helicopters, in Ubers and on yachts and in wooden boats. Were any of the characters to stay put long enough, to sit in their burnished apartments and self-reflect, all they would see would be their shabby behavior, their back-biting, their overwhelming sleaziness. So they’re ever on the move, always away, always running running running from themselves. There is opulence, but it is undergirded by the ephemeral sleaziness of the transience that is all money can purchase.
Much has been made of the Lear-like conceit at the heart of Succession, and one might be tempted to argue that in its own way, it’s a kind of Shakespeare reboot—or interpretation, depending how charitable one is feeling—but through three seasons, the comparison is little more than superficial. Sleazy. There is no Cordelia, just Edmunds everywhere. (And okay fine, the way characters in Lear, Edmund above all, misrepresent their identities is positively GeorgeSantosean.) Cousin Greg, Logan’s grandnephew and a sleazy hanger-on, is the closest we come to meeting a Fool, watching him stoned and puking out of the eyeholes of an ersatz-Disney mouse theme park costume. It might feel apt to suggest that Kendall, Shiv, and Rome are all Gonerils or Regans, but frankly they’re Edmunds at best, all conniving for power. When Logan has his one scene of brief madness in season three, he’s hardly pontificating on the heath; instead he’s at a conference center, in need of cranberry juice to clear up a UTI. The gods could hardly be bothered to kill these wanton flies for sport—or otherwise. They’re too sleazy for the gods to so much as sneeze.
In what might appear to be the sleaziest move of all, Roman snatches defeat from the jaws of victory in the penultimate episode of season three, when he accidentally sexts a pic of his penis to his father. We see the member itself and share in Logan’s shock. But this jumps far past sleaziness; there’s pathos all over the scenes that follow. Logan immediately asks Rome if he’s sick, if he has a problem. The obvious answer is, Yes, indeed he has a problem. His father isn’t capable of loving him, or anyone—only money and power and their rapacious capitalistic pursuit. At the end of the next episode, this is made almost pornographically explicit when, as his children make a move to take the company from him (inevitably, they fail), Logan asks Roman what he wants.
“Your love?” Roman says. It’s not sleazy anymore; it’s pathetic, heartbreaking, full of meaning and depth.
“The power of King Lear,” Garber writes, “and its place in our cultural imaginary depend above all, at least for a modern audience, upon its depiction of a human story of love, suffering, and loss.”
It is a tradition in Shakespeare studies that in the historical record, there would have been a clear motive for King Lear to ask each of his three daughters to profess publicly their love to him at court in Act 1, Scene 1. With their husbands present, it would be a kind of power play in which they would be forced to say they loved their father most, planting a poison pill in the first moment of Lear’s abdication of his throne. But part of Shakespeare’s genius, as it pertains to Lear and to Cordelia, is that his most beloved daughter has not yet chosen between France and Burgundy for marriage, so they are not in the room to hear her answer; her unwillingness to say she loves Lear best arrives because it feels sleazy—thin, full of ulterior motive—to be forced to say. In Succession, characters are driven by hunger for power, by avarice and … well, by avarice. With the exception of Roman’s pleading with Logan, and the shame Tom feels about his relationship with Shiv, there’s virtually no talk or evidence of love. There’s not even a whiff of the capability to love in Logan. He can’t evince any emotion at all—other than disappointment and competitiveness, which are not properly called emotions, I don’t think,and (in season three) pride at having bedded his far younger assistant. Sleazebag. And yet if The Sopranos was the lasting dramatic work of the Clinton and second Bush presidencies, and Hamilton of the Obama era, there’s an argument to be made that Succession may just be the signature effort of the Trump Era. When it’s to be found, the depth of the show comes from a feeling that each of the grown Roy children has been emotionally damaged by the pathology of their father, although as in regard to the Trumps themselves, it’s unclear whether the source of that damage is anything more than greed, shallowness, and sleaze. Rather than a retelling of King Lear, it might be more accurate to say that Succession is as far from Lear as a story can get.
The sleaziest, most consequential, and ubiquitous development of the era of sleaze is the rapid encroachment of surveillance capitalism on all aspects of our lives. On social media, Facebook and Twitter grow billions in market cap from harvesting every imaginable thought we’ve ever had about Succession, and when and where we’d be likely to buy Joe Rogan’s nutritional supplements. We are always under the scrutiny of Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes, now with more range than Brinkley ever could have imagined. As Harvard professor and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff explains in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power, corporations large and not quite as large now vie to invade our privacy by every means available. The goal is to steal and then to sell our “behavioral surplus”: every bit of information that can be gathered about all of us.
“Surveillance capital,” Zuboff writes, “cannot keep from wanting to go as deep and far as it can go,” into every aspect of our lives. It is Logan Roy minus the human to fuck it up. In the years since the book’s 2018 publication, TikTok has amassed the largest collection of information on human movement in history. While it makes and remakes fortunes through advertising, it also deals with researchers, including those at American universities, to surveil us and predict our behavior, sleazily profiting from even our children’s dance moves.
In a horror movie, the only logical next act would be murder, concealing the evidence. But in the age of sleaze, the evidence is everywhere, in plain sight in our pockets, on our desktops. The actions of Cambridge Analytica in scraping personal data of millions of Americans from Facebook during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election are too well-documented to revisit; Zuboff’s book highlights the intrusion of corporations into almost every aspect of our daily lives, most insidiously through the “internet of things.” We’re being watched by our vacuums, our refrigerators, our microwaves; Alexa is Mata Hari times a million. Zuboff reiterates all the ways Google and Facebook in particular have made billions of dollars not merely by selling advertising but also by creating the largest repository in the history of human data. By the end of her book, Zuboff makes a convincing case that we are all essentially living in Skinner boxes of Silicon Valley’s devising, snuck into our lives through the computers we all now carry in our pockets. B.F. Skinner, when alive, was a kind of nemesis of hers at Harvard, but Zuboff lands on a clear claim that his predictions about human behavior and the marketplace have come true beyond his wildest imaginings. Our phones are, little by little, sleazily stalking us not just to sell us things, not only to capitalize on sharing our proclivities with corporations—they’re changing the very way we behave. It grows harder by the day to rebuff this only as sleaze.
As I was reading Zuboff’s book, I received a phone call from my auto insurance company. Would I like to sign up for the new pocket computer application, their representative asked? I could save a substantial percentage on my monthly fees.
What would this application do?
Oh, not much—it would simply track every aspect of my driving, from when I used a turn signal to how hard I hit the breaks on the highway.
“But don’t worry about all that,” the representative went on. “It mostly just tracks when you drive—like if you don’t drive at night, after midnight, that’s like a huge part of what will save you money.”
Money, I thought, she didn’t say, I could be spending on goat glands, on HBO Max.
“Are you suggesting you want me to download an app to my pocket computer that will surveil me while I’m asleep?” I asked.
“So I guess you don’t want to take advantage of the app’s savings plan,” the representative said.
As Zuboff asks, when considering what might get us out from under this surveillance: “Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?” The choice in our time seems to go again and again in the direction of: Whomever has the least sense of shame.
Who is left that isn’t sleazy? Politicians? That seems less likely by the news cycle. Billionaires? They are the chief hucksters in this era of hucksterism. To the sleaziest go the spoils. This is one of the central themes of Succession, and before it, of King Lear.
Oh, and The Great Gatsby.
By the end of Lear, Cordelia is dead. Throughout the play, her sisters sleazily squander the kingdom they have inherited from their father due to their own legerdemain.
“The replies of the elder two daughters,” Garber writes, “Goneril and Regan, to [Lear’s] love test have a rehearsed quality, a smooth deceptive flow.” The words “sleaze” or “sleaziness” weren’t available to Shakespeare in 1604. Instead we have what Cordelia refers to as “that glib and oily art.” Close enough. The damage caused by humans drawn to greed, motivated by power and profit, has always been right in front of us. In the words of Gloucester: “We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our grave.”