Operation Varsity Blues has riveted America’s elites. The college admissions scandal has exposed a marquee of frantic efforts and situational ethics among world-class glammies to game college admissions.
As parents and coaches spill the beans and plead guilty, they expose to what lengths the One Percent will go to circumvent rules that apply to ordinary people. Caught in a media glare of her own making, Felicity Huffman, a self-righteous advocate of “women’s health issues,” illustrates how illiberal and corner-cutting the One Percent can be in private. Television station owners, real estate developers, hedge fund kings, self-help authors, shipping executives, and oncologists, not just Hollywood actors, are among the desperate parents.
In circles where glossy children are all-important family accessories, college admissions are fraught with drama. Dad prepares to pony up vast sums for full-freight tuition. Mom wonders what college decal might someday go on the Lexus. Everyone agrees that Amelia’s or Cooper’s academic pedigree will be a life-changing badge and calling card, and in status-obsessed America, this is not unrealistic. In the quest for the grail, no hook or connection is off the table—and if things go right, in deo speramus, it could be Brown University next March.
Everyone has heard about helicopter moms and dads, full of anxiety should their children go sour or underperform. Snowplow parents push away obstacles. Low-income Tiger parents claw their way out of non-academic metro schools and vocally protest racial preferences in admissions that disadvantage Kim. Now we have Pussyhat Moms in the mix. White, rich, and ardently liberal, these highly educated, accomplished women have spent their lives breaking glass ceilings, imagined and not. As alpha-mothers, they bring to Amelia and Cooper the obsessive energy and ambition they formerly brought to Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. or NBC.
Many Pussyhat parents—mere millionaires, the truth be told—are eager that their children grow up close to Celebrity and Billionaires, no questions asked about the taste, morals, or lifestyles of their children’s fast companions. Unlike Tiger Moms, Pussyhat Moms crave cool kids, cool schools, cool jobs, and cool ideas. Style comes before substance, or even, in a pinch, true achievement. Operation Varsity Blues kicks over a rock, and what crawls out of the nation’s richest, most admired circles? Louche Olivia Jade Giannulli, 19, a social media celebrity who pitches makeup, fashion, and manners to some two million YouTube and Instagram followers.
A putative University of Southern California freshman, Olivia had hopped on a private yacht for spring break in the Bahamas with the daughter of Rick Caruso, flamboyant Los Angeles real estate developer and president of the USC board. Cozy! Then all hell broke loose when the world learned that her television actress mom and Target fashion designer father had arranged to buy off a USC school coach to get her admitted.
Thanks to diversity initiatives and shifting privilege, however, Tiger children and affirmative action claimants are elbowing out Amelia and Cooper. Top schools can’t deliver sought-after admissions as readily as they once did. As private school college counselors will affirm, outwardly polished, charming parents can turn into monsters when don’t get what they want. Sidwell Friends’ head of school this year warned parents by letter to desist “the verbal assault of employees” and defamation of students. Those who seek access to money, power, and celebrity can’t process that time-honored backups like USC and New York University might be a reach. And Columbia? Don’t even ask.
Dalton and Sidwell Friends parents almost universally applaud diversity, immigrants, exotics, and first-generation dreamers, but these admissions priorities are not to Amelia’s or Cooper’s advantage. Top schools have likewise hollowed out their Anglo-European core and values for two generations. Parent and child have read their Howard Zinn. No one but no one in these circles—that is to say, the nation’s metro elites—is an American nationalist.
Multiculturalism is religion, but vast assets and private security forces keep the rabble distant. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Spike Lee or Lani Guinier shows up at Andover for hefty speaking fees, headliners to celebrate the day in the right spirit of high-toned shaming. Brentwood School holds a festive Soul Food Lunch for Patagonia-clothed children from Bel-Air.
From Pacific Palisades to Cambridge, incensed alpha-moms flew to Washington, D.C. the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration to let the Pussy Grabber in the White House know that “women’s rights are human rights.” Meanwhile, two generations of privileged legates—parents and kids—disdain the ministers and farmers, builders and industrialists, jurists and patriots, everyone and everything that bestowed upon them their vast wealth and security.
For Pussyhat parents, it’s not my son or daughter the doctor, not very often anyway, since America’s reality is increasingly Dr. Kim, not Dr. Smith. Cardiology is demanding, and Amelia just hates libraries and memorizing. But that’s all right—healthy in fact—says her therapist, who subscribes to the concept of multiple intelligences. Amelia is creative. Crunching numbers and technical skills? Boring! Physiology and organic chemistry? I’m a concept person, not a fact person! While Kim travels economy Group 4 redeye to clinch a sought-after hospital residency, Amelia and Cooper hang out at The Grove.
By college graduation, Mom and Dad have spent a lot of money on Amelia and Cooper. They want a return on their investment, but not the payoff that crude Tiger Moms demand from Kim. Some high-flying children, of course, score big, as they are as bright and charming—or ruthless—as their parents. After four years at Duke, Arlo is a junior associate at Goldman, trading energy credit derivatives and giving high fives. There were some opened doors, sure, thanks to Dad’s connections—very different doors from those opening over at Human Resources. Still, double wow.
Unlike Tiger Moms, Pussyhat parents want production assistants at Lionsgate, not high school teachers (losers) or systems supervisors (robots). Cooper thus keeps getting help, possibly into early middle age. “It’s a good investment,” says mom sincerely, when her 31-year-old baby is shopping that super screenplay (“Godzilla Goes Gay”) and living with roommates in an Echo Park group house. Thanks to a direct deposit, Clarissa is busy in her snappy WeWork Cambridge office developing a vegan-friendly marketing app. “Clarissa has seed money from Door Key Capital in Menlo Park. Watch out, Elizabeth Holmes!” Dad used to brag—but has recently dropped that line.
Connections or not, talent usually wins in the long run, and open doors close for slackers. Nonetheless, for Pussyhat children, cool never has to end. Ten years after Oberlin, Zack is doing sound healing and hot yoga in Brooklyn. Not a problem! For Pussyhat parents with a stoner dud, if it’s avant-garde or artsy, it’s a pass. Amanda announces she’s a pet psychic and no one blinks. She’s pushing equestrian therapy for autistic kids, and her live-in boyfriend is making artisanal gelato. Far out! (It’s considered bad form to ask: who’s paying for this folly?)
Two generations, parent and child, are accustomed to watching others do manual labor and tedious paperwork. Accounting and orthodontia, ringing up items as a cashier in a big-box store, digging ditches, and building freeways are things others do. Others fight global wars. Worker bees sit in dreadful cubicles, put on ties, and must meet monthly mortgages, poor things.
And here’s where Kim comes in. Tiger Moms see an opportunity tree ripe for their children’s picking, enrolling in test prep programs and schools that function academically. They do not want Kim to become an art handler, digital marketer, or fashion photographer, but an architect or accountant, a dentist or attorney. Tiger Moms want Kim to make money, to live in clean, suburban Westchester, and, if need be, to take care of her and the family. With a surfeit of tough love, Kim triumphs, possibly the nation’s best chance to stay on its rails in the 21st century.
Time will tell if Amelia and Cooper will be able to pocket their inherited assets or use their colossal fortunes to throttle merit around them. They are not as secure as their smug certitude might suggest. In an anarchic future, if reparations or resource shortages get ugly, as did Marie Antoinette and the French court in 1789, they might not know what hit them.
Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.