A teenage girl, awkward in her track uniform and wearing a large pair of glasses, runs with great effort. Only her father cheers for her from the stands. She is the last to finish the race, and all the other runners look at her with a combination of bewilderment and disgust. Her great effort, heroic to her father, is merely holding them up.
Hulu’s limited series, The Dropout, opens with a montage centered around this scene. In it, young Elizabeth Holmes symbolizes everything that Americans love. She is the underdog who won’t be held down. Her diligence and willpower embody America’s most prized virtues. A sequence like this might have set Holmes up to be an iconic screen hero, a high-tech Rocky Balboa, riding her virtues to the top and changing the world along the way, as she dreams of doing. Instead, she becomes a classic tragic figure, those very virtues twisting her into a monster.
Our world is bursting with cautionary tales. The news is filled with stories of corruption, greed, and cruelty. We can’t help but be aware of humanity’s sorry state. Even as darkness rises, however, it is met and confronted by those who wish to do good in the world, to change things for the better. Against every evil, there is a counterforce for good, though the line between those forces is frighteningly thin.
Against this political backdrop, the sad story of Elizabeth Holmes and her great Silicon Valley con, Theranos is more than timely. The Dropout offers a compelling paradox against which we might consider how good intentions, tangled up with an obsessive need to excel, can go bad.
Its portrayal of the Yoda-quoting Holmes (performed with brilliant specificity and complex nuance by Amanda Seyfried) shows the tragedy of a woman brought down not primarily by her worse angels, but rather by her better ones. Everything we might identify as virtuous about Elizabeth Holmes was what compelled her compounding acts of deception, leading to her ultimate downfall.
The Dropout, and indeed the real-life saga of Theranos, is an endless well of potential takeaways. The institutional sexism of Silicon Valley. The predatory nature of venture capitalism. The willful ignorance of many elites in our systems of meritocracy. The exploitation of labor in corporate America. The irrational exuberance of tech startups. The unsuitability of the “move fast, break things” entrepreneurial mindset to healthcare. And the list goes on.
Here, I will simply focus on a core moral failing that The Dropout explores: Elizabeth Holmes (along with her board members, investors, and media enablers) settled for the appearance of virtue over the actual work of virtue.
The Many Virtues of Elizabeth Holmes
Cards on the table. I hate having blood drawn. I am cursed with the deep-seated blood vessels of my father and even the most skilled and experienced phlebotomists struggle to find my veins, leaving me to endure multiple jabs. Eventually, most technicians settle for a small vein in my left hand that provides almost enough blood to test. It’s a brutal experience every time.
Therefore I, more than most people, wish Holmes and her invention were not a fraud. Her idea, on its surface, might have helped many people like me with their healthcare, not to mention the promised revolutionary feat of diagnosis.
Holmes’ spunk and grit are laudable. Seyfried’s performance is at its most magnetic in those moments when Elizabeth Holmes shines under incredible pressure. In each episode, Theranos faces a daunting challenge and the enterprise appears doomed. Just as the deceptions are threatened to be revealed, her poise and determination repeatedly save the company.
But her achievements aren’t simply due to willpower and people skills; Holmes is highly intelligent and savvy. Blessed with an innovative mind, she repeatedly invents brilliant strategies to evade trouble, often on the fly. Her wit, instinct, and communication skills are a marvel – exemplified most clearly in the scene in which she convinces the board not to fire her after they learn of many of her failings. Her cunning in that moment is epic.
Unfortunately, her gifts are employed not to help people with her invention intended to help people, but to prop up her false persona, the Silicon Valley genius. It’s almost as if she were born straight from the head of Steve Jobs himself.
The Looming Specter of Steve Jobs
More than one religious tradition employs a prohibition on making graven images of the given deity. The general idea is that reducing that which is infinite and indefinable to something material and ephemeral cheapens the spirit of God, confining the deity to our limited imagination. In short, it makes it easy to worship an image of the Thing rather than the Thing itself.
Among Silicon Valley tech-types, Steve Jobs is a deity. His legacy of innovation and entrepreneurial disruption is worshiped by those wishing to follow his footsteps through the sand (and surely much of his legend is fabricated mythology). His face and distinctive fashion sense have been reduced to a graven image for his acolytes. Throughout the series, Holmes reverently gazes at a portrait of Jobs, usually in moments of crisis. In these moments, she seeks inspiration, often in a posture of prayer.
The fact that Holmes adopts Jobs’ wardrobe for her power-persona is entirely predictable. She wants to be Steve Jobs.
But here is the root of her mistake: she mainly wants the status and reputation of Steve Jobs; the work of “saving lives and changing the world” is incidental to that goal. She takes on the form of Jobs, caring not for the content. All of her virtues – and they are many – are aimed at this shallow end, and this is her tragic flaw.
A Fake Feminist
A key virtue that Holmes perverts in The Dropout is her righteous desire to break into Silicon Valley’s exclusive men’s club. The virtuous persistence of that awkward girl on the track drives her journey to startup CEO here. Holmes innately understands that for a woman to shatter the glass ceiling in that industry, she would have to work harder and be more resilient than her male peers.
An early example is seen in her semester in China, between high school and her first (and only) year at Stanford. Her peers use the time as a party opportunity, while she stubbornly insists on learning Mandarin. As in her track days, this focus puts her at odds with her peers, who laugh at her efforts. Undaunted by the peer pressure of her privileged classmates, she maintains her serious commitment to her goals.
This is the same drive and focus that allows her to talk her way, as a Freshman, into a graduate-level lab at Stanford, a key first step in her life as a tech entrepreneur. Her subsequent courage in approaching powerful venture capitalists and government figures to serve on the board of her fledgling company also springs from a desire to be a trailblazer in the field, to shatter the glass ceiling.
However, Holmes’ interactions with Dr. Phillis Gardner (played with blunt intensity by the always great Laurie Metcalf) reveal her apparent commitment to feminist goals to be a facade, a mere performance to enhance her carefully constructed image. When Dr. Gardner flatly tells Elizabeth that her invention idea cannot work, it marks the first time that someone has told her “no”. Holmes’ dogged persistence shows itself and she, for lack of a better phrase, “plays the feminist card” to try and persuade Dr. Gardner. Gardner, a true feminist, is insulted and harshly ends the encounter.
“Breaking the glass ceiling” is merely a utilitarian portion of the image Holmes constructs, not a sincerely held commitment. She is an image of a feminist, not a feminist. Sadly, the media and her board of directors were satisfied with that image.
Image Over Actuality
Author David Foster Wallace, another figure whose image harshly contradicts some unpleasant realities of his personal behavior, comes to mind as I think about the portrayal of Holmes in The Dropout. A recurring theme in Wallace’s work is the struggle for authenticity. His 2007 short story, “Good People”, is a perfect example of this literary obsession.
The story is narrated through the internal monologue of Lane, an evangelical youth group kid, who has conceived a baby out of wedlock with his girlfriend from the youth group, Sherry. Lane is torn because the religious beliefs of his community dictate that aborting the child is a sin, yet he wishes to do so out of concern for his personal freedom. The story is silent about Sherry’s thoughts on the matter, we only read of Lane’s selfish imagination of what he wishes she would say. His concern is achieving the appearance of virtue while living his life primarily for himself.
This is the cultural problem at the center of The Dropout. Seyfried’s Holmes is driven toward “success,” primarily to achieve notoriety as a “successful” person. Her core value is not a belief or commitment to her idea of transforming healthcare with her hopelessly fraudulent machines. Her idea is merely an instrument to achieve acclaim and status. She is looking for something, anything, to “disrupt”. In her world, that alone defines significance.
Silicon Valley and the halls of elite power in media, government, and corporate America were a perfect setting for Holmes to run her con. In those circles, the appearance of virtue is preferred to its reality. Holmes thrived in a world desperate for something to market as virtuous. It comes as no surprise that this culture accepted her hollow, generic responses to questions – that is all they really wanted anyway. The Dropout shows how Holmes is merely a symptom of a larger disease; a culture that worships the image of the thing, rather than the thing itself.