“Building Character” hones in on how women specifically were manipulated, groomed, and exploited within NXIVM.
This recap of The Vow season 1, episode 4, “Building Character”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
It’s easy to forget with all its sloganeering and self-help rhetoric, not to mention the sheer depth and breadth of its multilevel marketing, that NXIVM was, at its core, a sex cult. It was an extraordinarily complex means by which a charismatic man indoctrinated, branded, and raped women, many of whom he kept as personal pets with literal ownership brands. “Building Character” finds the show having built up to this idea across three prior episodes and having suddenly reached a point where what’s going on is known to more people than Keith Raniere would probably like.
This obviously creates many more complications for all involved. Sarah, in particular, is forced to grapple with the idea that many of the good-looking women she has personally ushered into DOS are her responsibility; she, in her capacity as uber-marketer, has essentially stocked Keith’s harem for him. Throughout the season, there has been little clarity about where a lot of this footage has come from, who exactly is leading interviews, and how the timeline works precisely, but a major constant – seen particularly here in The Vow episode 4 – is Sarah’s genuine contrition over the part she has personally played.
But it isn’t only Sarah in “Building Character”, even if she’s the most prominent. “Jane”, a filmmaker who chooses to remain anonymous despite there not being much effort made to hide what she looks like, joined DOS after becoming friendly with “Rachel”, the subject of one of her documentaries who also became her master — a Black master, no less, which is especially unusual given the co-opted slave dynamic. Their relationship is weird, like the others we’ve seen, but what’s especially telling about it is how it blurs the lines – the draconian requirements are very master-slave, but to what end? When Rachel suggests Jane will get a spanking for disobedience you can’t tell if she’s being sexually suggestive or threatening her with actual physical violence.
These blurred lines are integral to NXIVM, or at least the parts of it we’ve seen thus far, but here we begin to see the specificity with which the group’s structure and ethos are designed to exploit women in particular. And that comes with an additional implication – a man trying to help “better” men by improving their lifestyle and way of looking at the world rings very differently to a man trying to help “better” women. The buzzy self-help language is ridiculous either way, but there’s a note of comedy around the grandiose terminology that groups the blokes. With the women, it’s different, because you can see how NXIVM is organized to keep each shackled to the next, and how they are all being prepared for Keith to rape them.
That sounds too harsh and uncomplicated, but really it’s the reality. There’s a lot of deliberate obfuscation in NXIVM, but how it works on a macro level isn’t subtle at all, especially in hindsight. The concept of consent comes up now and again, but when it’s in relation to a figure as revered as Keith, and when that figure is sitting atop of mountain of literal blackmail material, any relationship with him can’t possibly be seen as anything other than abuse.
That’s from the outside looking in, though. Many on the inside, at least at the time, could scarcely see anything at all, even stuff that seems pretty obvious. India Oxenberg, the granddaughter of literal royalty, seems oblivious to everything, as if her station affords her some kind of immunity against Keith’s manipulation, even though the reality is that it makes her even more susceptible. The question is why? She’s not just willing to be involved but seemingly eager, part of an exclusive part of the chain answerable only to Keith himself. Is that the lust for power and influence, or a different kind of lust? Both?
Either way, this positions other women alongside Keith as an oppressor of women in an organization that ostensibly had the mandate to empower them. Keith obviously knows and has accounted for this, but you also get the sense that he’s so self-obsessed that he believes their devotion is entirely on the strength of his appeal and not the benefits that the structures he has created confers upon them. Nothing about him rings true except his smug belief that he’s somehow right in all he does. The episode in which he learns he isn’t can’t come soon enough.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.