Column: ‘The Dropout’ exemplifies modern obsession with scamming


Jessica Xing

Hulu’s “The Dropout” is yet another instance highlighting society’s obsession with the scammers. The recent series details the turbulent story of Elizabeth Holmes, who connived the world with her company, Theranos.

Juliana George, news staff

Inventing Anna.” “The Tinder Swindler.” “The Puppet Master.” In just the first three months of 2022, three Netflix original productions have revolved around major scams. In each, a master con artist drains their victims of large sums of money through pure charisma and wit.

Hulu’s “The Dropout,” starring Amanda Seyfried, is the latest scam show captivating audiences. The series recounts the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes as a Stanford University dropout to an inspiring success story to a national disgrace.

Holmes founded Theranos, a health technology company, in 2003 with the goal of inventing an at-home device that could test a single drop of blood for disease, technology that is currently impossible. In 2014, Forbes named Holmes the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire. 

In 2015, the company’s credibility was called into question by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou, who noted many cases of faulty test results and laboratory malpractice at Theranos. Carreyrou’s continued reporting on mistakes at Theranos coincided with the company’s rapid deterioration, and the company permanently shut down in September 2018. By that time, Holmes had been indicted with multiple charges of wire fraud for misrepresenting Theranos’ accomplishments to investors, and she was found guilty in January.

Our obsession with scamming isn’t new. Heist movies have been a cultural staple since the release of John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” in 1950. Ever since, blockbuster movies centering on con artists like Jordan Belfort, who committed stock manipulation in New York City during the late 1980s, and Frank Abagnale Jr., who used his skills as a forger to become a fraudulent doctor, lawyer and pilot, have fascinated viewers.  

Audiences love to root for heroes that challenge the establishment, especially when they have witty catchphrases and ridiculously intricate master plans.

Holmes was less adulated for her fraud because unlike other high-profile con artists, her company put people’s health at risk, not just their bank accounts. Despite knowing that Theranos’ blood testing machine, the Edison, was not yet fully functional, Holmes allowed the devices to be placed in 45 Walgreens wellness centers around the country and tested on patients. 

Jia Tolentino, a feminist essayist and writer for The New Yorker, explored the idea of the contemporary fascination with scamming in her 2019 essay “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams.” She described scamming as an endeavor fundamental to the American ethos. 

“The con is in the DNA of this country, which was founded on the idea that it is good, important, and even noble to see an opportunity to profit and take whatever you can,” Tolentino wrote. 

But Seyfried’s frazzled, naïvely idealistic portrayal of Holmes in “The Dropout” isn’t that of a cold-blooded scammer, at least not at first. In the first few episodes of the show, Holmes is a hopeful, if slightly odd, visionary who wanted to invent a device that could help people by revolutionizing blood testing. 

The surprising amount of sympathy afforded to Holmes’s character dwindles as the show progresses, but it doesn’t feel as though it winks out entirely until after the suicide of Ian Gibbons, Theranos’ former head chemist, whose death was likely triggered by the stress he endured while working at Theranos.

The generous depiction of Holmes illustrates the strange idolatry of scammers in the modern era. Although Holmes’ actions are morally egregious, viewers can’t help but try to pathologize her actions with narratives that explain her ethical missteps. 

Holmes exemplifies the increasingly prevalent “girlboss” archetype. 

“Girlboss” is a term coined by Sophia Amoruso, the founder of Nasty Gal, a clothing retail brand that filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and has since been sold to The word has an ambiguous definition, but “girlboss” is often used to ironically praise women of the corporate world, especially those with questionable ethics. 

Despite its semi-sarcastic application, there’s a reason the word “girlboss” gained traction in the first place. 

The fourth episode of “The Dropout” entitled “Old White Men,” is a dramatized retelling of the events that led to Theranos’ partnership with Walgreens. The fictionalized version of real-life Walgreens executives are laughably gullible throughout the episode, and in the end they choose to invest in Theranos due to a fear of being left out of Silicon Valley’s sparkling new world of start-ups and CEOs in their 20s. 

“The Dropout” makes it abundantly clear that part of the reason Holmes was able to gain the attention she needed for Theranos to succeed is that the industry was in desperate need of a change. 

Perhaps that’s the reason that scams are so alluring; for a moment, before the scammer is revealed to be pathologically selfish and unsympathetic, they almost look like they’re going to play the role of Robin Hood.

Holmes got famous for her claim that her invention would increase health care accessibility. With financial support from excessively wealthy investors like Rupert Murdoch and Larry Ellison, in theory she would literally be taking from the rich and giving back to the poor. But, of course, it didn’t turn out that way. In the end, Holmes prioritized branding over safety, and as a result Theranos collapsed in scandal. 

“Silicon Valley has always seen itself as an outlier, a place where altruistic nerds tolerate capitalism in order to make the world a better place,” Erin Griffith wrote for in 2016. “Suddenly the Valley looks as crooked and greedy as the rest of the world.” 

The appeal of Silicon Valley startups like Theranos is also their undoing: ideas have to be backed up by capability, and faster is not always better. 

At the core of scamming is the desire for self-glorification, not community empowerment. This is why “girlbosses” like Holmes are not the answer. Change is never accomplished from the inside.

“The absurd length of time that it took for Holmes to be exposed illuminates a grim, definitive truth of our era: scammers are always safest at the top,” Tolentino said in her essay.