The Hulu series The Dropout spends very little time exploring Elizabeth Holmes’ childhood in Houston beyond showing the superficial trappings of a privileged upbringing: wide driveways, sun-filled kitchens, private school uniforms. Unlike other recent media about scam artists, most notably Netflix’s Inventing Anna, about fake socialite Anna Delvey, this series doesn’t seem to be all that interested in unraveling the mystery of an elusive, unknowable person. Maybe that’s because in the world of The Dropout, which marks time by the launch of Facebook and the release of the first iPhone, nobody needs to wonder how any young person would want to become a billionaire and change the world, in that order.
In The Dropout, the young Elizabeth (Amanda Seyfried) lacks soft skills in the way that we’ve come to expect in depictions of brilliant men. In the brief time we spend with Holmes before she leaves Houston, she is blunt and impatient. Watching her argue with neighbor Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy) in an early scene, one is reminded of nothing so much as Jesse Eisenberg playing Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Only when she gets ready to leave home does the narrative diverge. During a doctor’s visit, her mother tells her to be careful around men, especially potential sexual partners; the confusion and disappointment on Seyfried’s face are palpable. This moment, which takes place before she leaves for Stanford, signals the beginning of a theme carried throughout the series: Elizabeth Holmes is many things, but in Silicon Valley, she’s a woman first.
The Dropout seems to contend that gender is the factor that distinguishes Elizabeth Holmes from her peers: the thing that makes her an outsider in a place that professes to love outsiders. It’s an odd recalibration for the viewer to make, especially those of us who have spent the last few years forming Holmes in our minds as an eccentric, uniformed supervillain. But in the boy-genius Disneyland of Palo Alto, eccentric CEOs aren’t unusual. Women CEOs are (As of 2021, women made up just 10.9% of tech company CEOs; that number is an increase from 3% in 2020).
In one montage, Holmes visits a series of (mostly male) venture capitalists, all of whom display specific aesthetic choices from Wall Street cosplay to teenage skaters. In other scenes, Theranos board members like Larry Ellison are presented as bombastic madmen who own boats they don’t know how to sail. The Dropout shows that in Silicon Valley, everybody has a ‘thing’. It’s a place where it’s far better to be memorable than relatable. Elizabeth Holmes is portrayed as socially awkward, money-hungry, self-important to the point of delusion. So is everyone she idolizes. So is everyone she meets.
In Inventing Anna, Julia Garner’s Anna is remarkable for her chameleonic ability to be whatever is most impressive to whichever snob is in front of her, and for her strange, unimpeachable confidence. Seyfried’s Holmes isn’t adaptable, and she never quite fits. By virtue of her gender, she will always be a novelty in her world. And, unlike Anna, who possesses a con artist’s attention to detail and appearance, Elizabeth seems totally unaware of how others perceive her. The viewer is not.
‘She needs adult supervision,’ says one board member to Theranos investor Don Lucas (Michael Ironside), more than once, a phrase which Lucas later repeats. It is one of several moments in the script where the sexism is thuddingly obvious, which struck me as both unsubtle storytelling and faithful to reality, where sexism is usually thuddingly obvious.
What is the effect of centering misogyny in a story about a person who scammed the world with the promise of saved lives and affordable healthcare? For one thing, it helps explain something that has always seemed difficult to comprehend in the glow of hindsight: why so many people believed Elizabeth Holmes in the first place. As New York Times reporter Erin Griffith put it: ‘everyone wanted the next Steve Jobs to be a smart young woman so badly that a lot of them overlooked obvious red flags.’
The gender disparity that seems to stoke Holmes’ resentment in The Dropout is also what allows her to keep the con going. To ignore it, one must conceive of Holmes as a next-level mastermind, able to hoodwink practically anyone – the type of manipulator that only seems to exist when powerful men are the ones being manipulated. As The Dropout points out, there are other factors at play here: for one, there’s Lucas, who seems to think of her more as a daughter than a colleague; for another, there’s Holmes’ employees, who don’t seem to take her or the company all that seriously until they’re already in too deep.
The most uncomfortable viewing experiences I had during The Dropout came during the scenes where I began to feel indignant on Holmes’ behalf. This is, after all, a story about a person who took advantage of a desperate country’s reliance on the private sector to improve a broken healthcare system. But maybe the discomfort is the point, the realization that she seems to be driven more by a lack of control than complete tyranny.
Constantly we see the diminutive Seyfried engaged in heated conversations with men twice her age and size. In one fascinating scene in the third episode, she refuses a green juice that her boyfriend-turned-COO Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) offers her; enraged, he turns briefly violent and spills the drink all over her hair and shirt. A straight-backed Holmes marches unaffected into the bathroom, where she promptly breaks into tears. These moments, where Holmes is confronted with the limits of her power, form a pathology that is both familiar and not.
After all, women are constantly asked to work through toxic situations, through abuse. In male-dominated environments, they are asked to endure the continual crossing of physical, professional, and emotional boundaries (I am reminded here of software engineer Susan Fowler’s viral blog post about the culture of sexual assault at Uber from 2017). Seyfried’s Elizabeth Holmes deals with her feelings in a way that is deviant by most standards but perfect for Silicon Valley, where humanity is a weakness to be innovated away. Each new indignity she faces only fuels her commitment to project the image of successful CEO at all costs.
The Dropout potentially oversells the impact of gender on her life and crimes, but it is far from absolving Elizabeth Holmes. One of the most stomach-turning scenes so far shows a callous Holmes administering her non-functional prototype to terminal cancer patients. But it does seem to be expressing a larger concern about the leaders we’ve come to lionize in American culture and the broader influence of Silicon Valley on the culture at large.
While watching it, I frequently thought of Anna Wiener’s memoir Uncanny Valley, about her experience working in the rapidly expanding tech world in the 2010s. Wiener writes: “I understood my blind faith in ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs as a personal pathology, but it wasn’t personal at all. It had become a global affliction.” This ‘affliction’ is what allows us to view companies like Uber and DoorDash, with their exploitative and depressing mundane labor practices, as titans in the world of modern convenience. It excuses the continued influence of rampant misinformation on our elections as an unfortunate consequence of a social networking site. It is what has allowed erratic men to run their companies like cults.
As Allison Stewart writes in her review of a recent book about WeWork founder Adam Neumann: In 2010’s startup culture, “innovation and disruption were ascendant and critical questions were often dismissed as obnoxious cynicism. Investors looking for the next Steve Jobs saw founders as rock stars to be indulged, not rational-minded adults with balance sheets to scrutinize.” This is born out in The Dropout: “It’s a startup,” says Jay Rosen (Alan Ruck) by way of explanation when a colleague questions the strange behavior on display during a visit to the Theranos offices. When it comes to eliciting blind faith from people in power, Elizabeth Holmes seems, unfortunately, to have broken a glass ceiling.
I don’t think that The Dropout is invested in redeeming the real Elizabeth Holmes (which, at this point, would likely be an impossible task). What is crucial to its project is reminding the audience that all the same incentives remain for others. We live in a world that has come to prize the maverick over the expert, that has learned to ignore common sense in favor of exciting ideas like lightning-quick blood tests and self-driving cars.
Some might feel that The Dropout goes too easy on Holmes. But it contains a refreshingly clear warning not to ignore the forest for one fascinating tree. The New York Times wrote after Holmes’ fraud conviction this January that “Theranos, which dissolved in 2018, is likely to stand as a warning to other Silicon Valley startups that stretch the truth to score funding and business deals.” Maybe so, but what about “stretching the truth” to the American public, which continues to look to charismatic billionaires to solve every problem from cooking dinner to climate change? The Dropout never elides the fact that Elizabeth Holmes, and her crimes, stand alone. But its most daring assertion is that she is only the beginning.
Wiener, Anna. Uncanny Valley. 2019.
Chen, Brian and Pinto, Maya. “Uber’s New Gig Worker Bill Is the Same Old Trick: Deregulation and Special Treatment for Exploitative Companies”. National Employment Law Project. 2 June 2021.
Fowler, Susan. “Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber.” 19 February 2017.
Griffith, Erin and Woo, Erin. “Elizabeth Holmes Is Found Guilty of Four Counts of Fraud“. The New York Times. 3 January 2022.
Liu, Jennifer. “15 of the top companies for women working in tech“. CNBC. 28 September 2021.
Mundy, Liza. “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?“. The Atlantic. August 2017.
Stewart, Allison. “The details of WeWork’s unraveling are stranger than fiction“. The Washington Post. 22 July 2021.