Scammers on the Small Screen

In recent years, TV shows about scammers have been popularized from the myriad adaptations of Elizabeth Holmes story to the Netflix documentaries White Hot and Bad Vegan. Mackenzie Manley takes a look at why these are part of the zeitgeist.

Scammers on the Small Screen
Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout (2022)

by Mackenzie Manley

The #Girlboss is dead. Popularized by entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso’s 2014 memoir, the tagline emphasizing the success of women in the corporate sector now mostly elicits eyerolls. No story shows the fracturing of this trend better than that of Elizabeth Holmes, the green-juice loving and Steve Jobs-obsessed former CEO of blood testing company Theranos.

Holmes’ story has been chronicled by HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood and an ABC News podcast, which became the basis of new limited Hulu series The Dropout. Starring Amanda Seyfried, the latter takes viewers through the rise and fall of the Silicon Valley startup, which promised to revolutionize medical testing by detecting diseases like cancer using just a single drop of blood. That’s not the last of Holmes’ life on screen. Jennifer Lawrence will star as the infamous blonde in Adam McKay-directed project Bad Blood.

The Dropout isn’t the only scammer series having a moment. Netflix’s Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives and Inventing Anna also center on charismatic, quirky white women involved in grifting schemes. WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn and The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch share common ground, covering companies with micromanaging CEOs, bad business practices and toxic workplaces that led to massive fallouts with investors and consumers. These businesses’ and fraudsters’ public unravelings — and our collective fascination with them — reveal a deeper trend in America’s growing disillusionment with “the grind.”

A woman takes a selfie on a plane
Julia Garner as Anna Sorokin in Inventing Anna (2022)

The 2000s saw not only the rise of influencers and promising startups that attracted venture capitalists, but also half-baked ideologies bent on individual success. Cut to 2022: We’re currently amid what many outlets have called the “Great Resignation,” which saw an unprecedented number of workers quit their jobs at the end of 2021 due to unsatisfactory pay, benefits, workplace environments and more. In recent months, several workplaces, like Amazon, Starbucks, Conde Nast, etc.,  have fought for unionization. The pandemic has exacerbated skepticism of corporate mores. Being a #Girlboss is no longer the holy grail but a myth that never held true for most women.

It’s no wonder, then, that scammers and disgraced CEOs have become a recent fixture on our small screens. Anna Sorokin, the subject of Inventing Anna, conned the New York socialite scene by pretending to be a wealthy German heiress. Her Instagram is full of polished looks, polaroids, swanky hotels and restaurants. Set between 2013-2017, her grift coincided with the golden age of influencer marketing. While most of Sorokin’s cons took place offline, she curated her way of speaking, dressing, dining and traveling to wedge her way into a notoriously exclusive society. Her story is a compelling study in the growing distrust of online celebrities. As the public becomes more aware of scandals, bot technologies and inauthentic personalities, more media is taking the smoke and mirrors of such subcultures to task.

The Dropout’s Holmes left Stanford in 2004 and began building what would become a multi-million dollar company with board members like US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George P. Schultz.  Holmes, then 31, topped Forbes’ list of richest self-made American women in 2015 with a net worth of $4.5 billion. Later that year, The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou published an investigative piece concerning the company’s secretive workplace environment, faulty testing and  misleading messaging. Holmes was found guilty this January of defrauding investors. She awaits sentencing in September.

The Dropout leaves viewers with an image of Holmes running into Theranos’ former lawyer, Linda, as she cleans out the now-empty offices. She smiles, tells Linda about her new boyfriend and pets her just-as-new dog. Even in Theranos’ demise, Holmes still plays pretend. It’s only when Linda shouts, ``You hurt people!” that Holmes sprints out of the building. For a brief moment, her facade cracks as she screams into the bright Silicon Valley sky. Airpods in, she quickly composes herself before climbing into an Uber. Holmes runs away from truth to the very end and, instead, projects the reality she chooses.

The Dropout (2022)

Like WeWork’s Adam Neumann, Holmes’ wielded language to her favor. She sold a world-changing vision to investors, leading them to believe they’d found the next Uber, Apple or Facebook. Like the music Holmes’ hyped herself up to scene after scene in The Dropout, the mid-2000s was full of optimism for how technology could shape the next decade. People wanted to believe in someone like Elizabeth Holmes, a young female college dropout with messy hair and a penchant for Yoda. She modeled herself after Steve Jobs, going as far to create a capsule wardrobe of black turtlenecks and plain slacks. Holmes also adopted a low, baritone voice and TED Talk-way of speaking. That is, Theranos wasn’t only selling a revolution in medical testing, but also Holmes as a modern tech figurehead. As she once said: “This is what happens when you work to change things, and first they think you're crazy, then they fight you, and then all of a sudden you change the world.”

Similarly, Inventing Anna’s Sorokin is a self-proclaimed genius and Bad Vegan’s Sarma Melngailis helmed an award-winning upscale restaurant in New York City. All three women were at the top of their game and fell from grace during roughly the same period. Pre-pandemic, the American public was already becoming fatigued by buzzwords, overly contrived PR campaigns, and workplaces that functioned as “families.” The illusion, magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, has all but evaporated.

Shows like The Dropout speak to the fallout of that newfound skepticism. The latter half of the 2010s have been decidedly cynical. In the age of disinformation, many of us are wary of those who position themselves as leaders––even in our personal circles. Elizabeth Holmes, and similar mavericks, put these fractures into focus. It shows a world where so-called visionaries are liars and the real heroes are the whistleblowers beneath them.

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