Dhe new series The Dropout on Disney+ follows this year’s trend of docu-series about glamorous con artists like Anna Sorokin in Inventing Anna and mean imposters like Simon Leviev in The Tinderswindler. However, the story of Elisabeth Holmes and her company Theranos depicted in “The Dropout” is more in the vicinity of large-caliber fraud icons such as investment fraudster Bernard L. Madoff or Wirecard CEO Jan Marsalek.
The title “The Dropout” plays with an ambiguity. On the one hand, the main character Elisabeth Holmes is one of Silicon Valley’s famous dropouts, who have made a huge career even without a school diploma – like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter inventor Jack Dorsey. On the other hand, she founded a company that has set itself the goal of being able to carry out standard blood tests using a single drop of blood, for which you would normally need several tubes of blood. Born in 1984, high school dropout Elisabeth Holmes is awaiting her verdict in the fall, where she faces a sentence of up to twenty years in prison.
The school dropout phenomenon seems sympathetic at first glance. These talented tech geniuses don’t need a standardized degree like mere mortals, because their creative thinking has to defy convention. In the case of Holmes, who ran a medical biotech company, the lack of a degree led to technical incompetences that she successfully concealed with business talk and a startup company culture. In addition to the criminal energy of their fraud, it also shows a deficit in research.
For research you need money and for the money you need an idea. But you can’t research the idea if you don’t have the money. That’s why Holmes needed investors. There is always research in healthcare that goes nowhere. The series confirms – based on its trial, which ended in January of this year – that at one point Holmes knew it had failed – and then really got down to business with the scam. Holmes defends herself by saying that she lied when she was under pressure to attract investors in order to be able to do research successfully, but that the project itself could actually be successful. You just need time.
At the height of her career in 2014, Holmes, traded as the next Steve Jobs, managed to make her company worth nine billion dollars. But the invention turned into a sham. It became public what only the employees knew until now: The newly invented technology and the results of the blood tests were flawed. At that time, the machines were already running in pharmacies and destroying human lives. This scam was revealed in 2015 by journalist John Carreyrou, who later published the process in his book Bad Blood. The series is based on Rebecca Jarvis’ podcast, The Dropout, in which she chronicles the rise and fall of Theranos.
There is a fascination with fraudulently selling an empty promise and mocking those who believe the scammers. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the scammers accuse the emperor of simply not being able to see the innovative, modern and novelty of these clothes, which do not exist in reality. Fearful of admitting his inability, the Emperor does not trust his own judgment, but plays the game.
Feminism under false pretenses
But it’s not just the stupidity of the investors or the emperor that comes to light here. But also the manipulative game of the scammers who try to use psychological pressure to force their opponent to believe them through targeted insecurity. For example, attorney Reed Kathrein, who is representing Theranos investors in the lawsuit, compares Elisabeth Holmes to Bernard Madoff. Madoff was a large-scale financial fraudster who was only exposed in 2008 with damage in excess of 51 billion euros. Both have the three qualities needed to cheat: They are “smart, charming and bullies”. Holmes was certainly smart and charming, but like Anna Sorokin, Holmes was primarily a tyrant who used violence and tried to eliminate any doubt about his own intentions through skillful gaslighting and psychological pressure.
Above all, the series is similar to the series “Inventing Anna”, which appeared on Netflix in February, in its thematization of faux feminism – a feminism under false auspices. Both Holmes and Sorokin keep playing the empowerment card. In this male-dominated world, women have to learn to assert themselves. And while that’s true, of course, empty accusations open doors for them. They use feminism as a discursive weapon against disadvantage to give themselves an advantage in selling their empty product.
At the height of her cheating, Holmes sits on a podium at her former Stanford University and says, “We as women need to start believing in ourselves.” The theme of the “girl boss” is dealt with more subtly in “The Dropout” than with Anna Sorokin. From Ke$ha’s Die Young to Missy Elliott’s We Run This to KT Tunstall’s Suddenly I See, it’s the soundtrack that plays the biggest role. Fueled by motivational anthems like Katy Perry’s “Firework,” you’ll see decisions being made about the music. In the series, men are also influenced by the idea of the girl boss personified in Holmes, who swims against the tide, and they discover a feminine side to themselves.
Although Holmes repeatedly tries to portray herself as having been lured into cheating by circumstances, financial investors and venture capital firms, the series convincingly shows the opposite. The Dropout plays on all the usual Hollywood clichés of the misunderstood genius, only to pull back the curtain to reveal that Holmes is not only clumsy, but stupid, mean, and embarrassing. There is something very self-destructive about Holmes in her obsession with winning, which makes the series almost like a horror film like The Black Swan.
However, there is also a tendency to humanize and ridicule the criminal Holmes. Against the background of her fall, which was announced at the beginning of the series, the foreign shame for Holmes’ self-confident demeanor runs like a red ribbon through the series. The actress Amanda Seyfried serves these different aspects. Her performance is masterful and the supporting roles are very well cast.
As a true crime story, The Dropout is better than Inventing Anna. Nevertheless, the series is not entirely satisfactory. Unfortunately, the rise shown is a bit tough, the plateau phase, on the other hand, is very exciting, and the final downfall of the Theranos company is neglected. In the end you ask yourself: Couldn’t she have made it after all?