This article contains minor spoilers for “The Dropout”.
In today’s TV universe of crooks — including “The Dropout” and “Inventing Anna” — it’s hard to find any semblance of humanity, or even sometimes truthfulness, in the narration of real-life female villains. But there’s a moment in Hulu’s drama detailing the dramatic rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), a self-taught fraud who, from 2003, lied about developing technology that could test blood for disease, is a welcome and necessary reality check.
It comes when the real doctor Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy) – who already has a problem with Holmes and his company, Theranos, involving litigation over a medical patent she allegedly misappropriated – seeks a way to expose him. He teams up with Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf), a Stanford medical professor who also had an annoying run-in with Holmes, who asks why so many people want to believe the much-heralded entrepreneur.
Wasting no time, Richard suggests, “Because she’s pretty and blonde. Then their cohort Rochelle Gibbons (Kate Burton), the widow of Theranos chief scientist who committed suicide after being pressured not to testify against Theranos, emphatically adds that Holmes is “a symbol of progress. She makes people in technology or business feel good without challenging them.
Both schools of thought are true. Men, especially white men who dominate the worlds of technology and medicine, would like to congratulate themselves for doing the bare minimum to support an unqualified woman in their ranks – and then castigate her for failing as they knew. she would. But Richard’s response, which he dubs in response to Rochelle’s comment (“Yeah, and she’s pretty and blonde”), goes faster to the point.
Holmes has come as far as she has – including being named the youngest self-made billionaire woman in 2015 – because she is a white woman. And to be white and female is to be automatically supported.
We have seen this happen in various elements of culture, including with the #MeToo fallout, so this is not new information. But in the context of recent small-screen accounts of real-life white female con artists, it is patently dishonest when the story goes out of its way to depict that, for example, patriarchal barriers contributed to their transgressions. Because this, in turn, suggests to women that she could have been any of us. And with that comes empathy.
According to “The Dropout,” which premieres Thursday and for what it’s worth, it’s actually pretty good, Holmes is using the lack of women in the tech narrative to propel herself, as Rochelle puts it, as a an emblem of change for women. Prior to her success, Holmes was ridiculed by men in the industry who doubted her talent, leading her to co-opt Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck look to be taken seriously.
For women, adopting male-identifying behavior or traits to achieve any type of success is a familiar journey. But what’s far less relevant is that Holmes is a hoax, which has nothing to do with the fact that she was dated by men. His well-documented story about a favorite uncle dying of cancer that inspired his supposedly groundbreaking career (an anecdote still debated to this day) is just another way for her to garner sympathy and gain allies. But viewers need to see past the blatantly manipulative choices that are contextualized in the series. She was corrupt because she wanted to and got away with it as long as she did – she currently faces up to 20 years in federal prison — because she knew she could.
The same could be said of Anna Delvey (Julia Garner) in “Inventing Anna” from showrunner Shonda Rhimes on Netflix. The Russian (or is it German?) con artist, real name Anna Sorokin, was sent to Rikers Island after defrauding banks and failing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in hotel bills. She is currently in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for overstaying his visa.
As the series progresses, Anna somehow convinces her new American friends and investors that she is an heiress willing to start a top-notch “arts club” in her name, although she doesn’t shows no sign of having real money.
But she’s assured and adamant, and she never misses an opportunity to pull out the “If I was a man, you would have already given me the money for the Anna Delvey Foundation” card with a pathetic pout when she receives no no matter what type of resistance from potential shareholders. And of course, it works, because no man wants to feel like he’s part of the problem, even if he is.
While Anna uses this patriarchal guilt for her own gain, it’s her whiteness that gives the illusion that she’s trustworthy and deserving of compassion – a fact “Inventing Anna” never acknowledges, even with two best black girlfriends in her circle. Instead, the series pretty much pushes past that vital point in an effort to pull off a far more cunning scam than Anna herself could ever have concocted: persuading audiences that she’s become a victim by trying to do the good.
To watch “Inventing Anna” is to watch whiteness at work on many levels. Anna is portrayed as a woman, claiming to support her friend Neff’s (Alexis Floyd) movie dreams and arranging a girls’ trip to Marrakech supposedly at her expense. The obvious reality, however, is that when she’s not lying to them, she’s robbing them. She does just that to Rachel (Katie Lowes), who reluctantly puts $62,000 on her business card in the Moroccan town, knowing it’s a loan when Anna’s card is, of course, Refused.
Where “The Dropout” carefully avoids dictating to its audience what they think of its problematic main character, “Inventing Anna” goes out of its way to impose a very specific opinion on us. The story inexplicably vilifies Rachel for helping organize a sting operation to arrest Anna when the latter refuses to repay the loan (Read: Didn’t have the money to do it and never really intended trying to get some).
Somehow, Rachel is the villain for reporting a crime against her, while the criminal is made to look like the victim when she finally sees some kind of repercussion for her actions as she, as the series implies, never tried to be a good girlfriend and get a piece of American pie. This bizarre depiction is made even worse when Anna’s friends, including Kacy (Laverne Cox), kick Rachel out of their group.
It’s a frustrating storyline that only exacerbates the show’s relentless need to garner sympathy for its villain, which has sparked an intriguing theory suggesting that Rachel’s actual decision to sell her story to HBO made Rhimes a little salty in the writing process. But really, as Richard says in “The Dropout,” it’s just a smokescreen to avoid saying that go-getters like Anna and Elizabeth should get the benefit of the doubt on the basis that they’re white women — even if that means throwing others, like Rachel, under the bus.
While tales like “The Dropout” and “Inventing Anna” are bound to create dimensional representations of their subjects – although “Inventing Anna” never succeeds – audiences should be able to discern the truth that their race and their sex grant them certain allowances. This includes the very fact that their stories get the Hollywood treatment. for which they are highly paid. This underscores how deceptive yet rewarding white feminism can be.