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"The Tinder Swindler" Women Who Sacrificed Everything…Twice
‘The Tinder Swindler’ is the latest Netflix documentary to go viral online - and for good reason. The show features three women and their stories of being scammed out of their entire livelihoods by a conman named Leviev. The amounts lost are beyond shocking: Ayleen Koeleman, his long-term girlfriend of 14 months at the time, lent him up to $140,000. Pernilla Sjoholm, who had known him for a month, gave him $40,000. The first woman to feature in the documentary, Cecilie Fjellhoy, lent the most - she took out nine different lines of credit to lend him $250,000 in her name. These numbers have been splashed all over the internet, with netizens going wild over how much all these women have lost to the scam.
The language used in the media to describe the scam has not been kind to these women. Most writers, whether from an impartial viewpoint or a condescending one, describe the money as ‘lost’ to Leviev. Articles frequently describe Leviev as a professional scammer, criminal and sociopathic, portraying him as the active perpetrator of the crime. The women are referred to as ‘victims’ - the correct legal term for innocents in their position, but a label which also paints a picture of passive naivety. A series of cut scenes in the documentary plays on these tropes of active winner and naive loser: Fjellhoy’s recollection of the fear and hurt she felt comically alternates with flashes of a wild and expensive party. Leviev’s whole operation is packaged by the media to look like a freak accident which only happens to complete fools. This branding simultaneously feeds the egos of viewers who begin to feel superior to the stupid, passive victims.
Perhaps people on social media also feel that labelling these events as an accident helps put these women in a more sympathetic light. Instead of being labelled as idiots who willingly gave up money, these women are transformed into helpless, guileless victims. I would argue that these three women would want to be remembered differently. Instead of naivety, perhaps we as viewers should examine the role that sacrifice plays throughout the entire process. It certainly plays a significant role in these women’s motivations. In one part of the documentary, Fjellhoy reveals what made her feel deeply connected to Leviev, ‘Here’s this kind of person that you want to save.’ Of course, having noble motives of grandeur don’t make their decisions any less foolish or absurd. When I watched the show, I remember my jaw hitting the floor when Sjoholm gave Leviev her passport details…on their first date. Or when Fjellhoy revealed that she took 9 lines of credit for someone else in her own name. No amount of good intent should excuse overriding basic rules of internet safety or personal finance.
However, what is excusable, is their commitment to wanting to sacrifice everything for a partner they thought reciprocated. This character trait is one that is shared between all three women, which is unsurprising given that all three also frequently reference popular fictional romances as their frame of reference for an ideal relationship. The problem with many classic romance stories is that they often equate a character’s acts of sacrifice to a confession of true deep love - consider Jack sacrificing himself to keep Rose afloat in the Titanic, for example, or both hero and heroine in Romeo and Juliet. Leviev’s strategy of front-loading affection and attention (AKA lovebombing) didn’t help them see through his facade. His tactics relied heavily on portraying ‘sacrifices’ through extravagant gifts, constant attention, and frequent visits, leveraging on these women’s existing beliefs of sacrificial love. He then flips the script on them by asking them to prove their love in the same way - is it surprising that they were willing to lay down everything to preserve their visions of a fairytale love? The time, money, and emotions these women put into their one-way relationships with Leviev are the first sacrifice they made in this story. The second sacrifice they all made together is more striking (and even more unappreciated).
It’s one thing to willingly give up hundreds of thousands of dollars to a scammer. It’s another thing to tell the whole world about it. Of all the madness of these women’s decisions: whether to jump on planes, hand out cash, or put themselves in danger to catch a criminal, their decisions to go public with their stories are undoubtedly their most foolish and brave. Although the documentary focuses on sensationalising the action, money, and emotional drama, as a viewer, I found myself drawn to the motifs of sacrifice, particularly in the second half of the story. Fjellhoy’s initial decision to go to VG captured my heart - instead of being driven by idealisation, Fjellhoy’s sacrificial intent here is driven by a newfound determination to stop Leviev from continuing his scam. Fjellhoy’s selflessness gives up both her privacy and vulnerability - she lays bare her dignity to reporters from the largest newspaper in her country, who now have the power to spin the story any way they want. But her sacrifice saves Sjoholm - who in turn bands together with Fjellhoy to spread the story, which rescues Koeleman and leads to Leviev’s arrest.
Where their sacrifices for Leviev landed them in mountains of pain and tragedy, their sacrifices to protect other women were what ended up making these women the heroines of their own stories. I find it incredibly poetic that while looking for a relationship with a man, these three women instead found camaraderie in female friendship built upon equal parts of shared foolishness, wrath, and complete insanity. It may seem ironic, but I do think ‘The Tinder Swindler’ would have done equally well on Netflix, if not better, if the entire documentary was edited to fit the angle of a feminist comedy chick-flick. What’s more girl power than making friends for life while getting cold, sweet revenge on an irredeemably scummy guy?
Unfortunately, I don’t think most viewers of the show see the value of these nuances. At its surface, the documentary is set up to hyperbolise these women’s objectively bad decisions and to encourage ridicule: which it successfully does. For me, the most disappointing aspect of the aftermath is having to watch everybody online take away the same things from this show: which is not to be as stupid as the women who got what they deserve. It’s always much easier to extend pity or contempt instead of empathy, especially in vindictive online spaces. We instinctively jump on bandwagons that thrive on humiliation and condescension, while shying away from recognizing that the story of these women was always built on misplaced emotional attachment and sacrificial intent. But I suppose that the women of ‘The Tinder Swindler’ already knew this when they aired their stories - they knew that their sacrifice would really let them have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
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