This article contains minor spoilers for “The Dropout.”
Within today’s scammer TV universe — including “The Dropout” and “Inventing Anna” — it’s hard to find some semblance of humanity, or even sometimes veracity, in the storytelling about real-life female villains. But there is one moment in the Hulu drama detailing the rise and spectacular fall of Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), a self-made fraud who beginning in 2003 lied about having developed a technology that could test blood for diseases, that is a welcome and necessary reality check.
It comes when actual physician Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy) — who already has a bone to pick with Holmes and her company, Theranos, involving a medical patent dispute that she allegedly misappropriated — searches for a way to expose her. He teams with Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf), a professor of medicine at Stanford who also had an annoying run-in with Holmes, who asks why so many people want to believe in the much-heralded entrepreneur.
Without missing a beat, Richard suggests, “Because she’s pretty and blond.” Then their cohort Rochelle Gibbons (Kate Burton), the widow of Theranos’ chief scientist who took his own life after being pressured not to testify against Theranos, flatly adds that Holmes is “a symbol of progress. She makes the men in tech or business feel good without challenging them.”
Both schools of thought are true. Men, particularly the white men who dominate the tech and medicine worlds, would love to pat themselves on the back for doing the bare minimum of bolstering an unqualified woman among their ranks — then lambaste her for failing like they knew she would. But Richard’s reply, which he doubles down on in response to Rochelle’s comment (“Yeah, and she’s pretty and blond”), gets quicker to the point.
Holmes got as far as she did — including being named the youngest female self-made billionaire in 2015 — because she’s a white woman. And to be white and female is to automatically be supported.
We’ve seen this happen across various elements of culture, including with the #MeToo fallout, so this is not new information. But in the context of recent small-screen narratives of real-life white female scammers, it is blatantly disingenuous when the story goes out of its way to depict that, for instance, patriarchal barriers contributed to their transgressions. Because that, in turn, suggests to women that she could have been any one of us. And with that comes empathy.
According to “The Dropout,” which premieres Thursday and for what it’s worth is actually pretty good, Holmes uses the lack of women in tech narrative to propel herself, like Rochelle says, as 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 basically co-opt Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck look to be taken seriously.
For women, adopting male-identifying behavior or traits to gain any type of success is a familiar journey. But significantly less relatable is that Holmes is a hoax, which has nothing to do with the fact that she was patronized by men. Her well-documented story about a favorite uncle dying of cancer that inspired her so-called groundbreaking career (a still-debated anecdote to this day) is just another way for her to garner sympathy and win allies. But viewers should see beyond the obviously manipulative choices that are contextualized in the series. She was corrupt because she wanted to be, 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 about Anna Delvey (Julia Garner) in showrunner Shonda Rhimes’s “Inventing Anna” on Netflix. The Russian (or is it German?) con artist, whose real name is 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 her visa.
As the series chronicles, Anna somehow convinces her new American friends and investors that she is an heiress poised to create a premier “arts club” in her name despite showing no signs of having any actual money.
But she is assured and adamant, and she never misses a chance to pull out the “If I was a man, you’d have already given me the money for the Anna Delvey Foundation” card with a pathetic pout when she gets any type of resistance from potential stockholders. And of course it works, because no man wants to feel like they’re part of the problem — even when they are.
While Anna utilizes that patriarchal guilt for her own gain, it is her whiteness that gives the illusion that she is trustworthy and deserving of compassion — a fact that “Inventing Anna” frustratingly never acknowledges even with two Black best girlfriends in her circle. Instead, the show practically leapfrogs over that vital point in an effort to commit a much shrewder con than Anna herself could have ever concocted: persuading the audience that she became a victim while trying to do good.
To watch “Inventing Anna” is to watch whiteness at work on many levels. Anna is presented as a woman’s woman, pretending to support her friend Neff’s (Alexis Floyd) filmmaking dreams and putting together a girls trip to Marrakech supposedly on her dime. The obvious reality, though, is that when she’s not lying to them, she’s robbing them. She does exactly that to Rachel (Katie Lowes), who reluctantly puts $62,000 on her business card in the Moroccan city with the understanding that it is a loan when Anna’s card is, of course, declined.
Where “The Dropout” carefully avoids dictating to its audience how to feel about its problematic lead character, “Inventing Anna” goes out of its way to impose a very specific opinion on us. The story inexplicably vilifies Rachel for helping to organize a sting operation to arrest Anna when the latter refuses to return the loan (Read: Does not have the money to do so and never really intended to try to get any).
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 sort of repercussions for her actions when she, as the series implies, only ever tried to be a good girlfriend and get a piece of American pie. This bizarre depiction is made to seem even worse when Anna’s friends, including Kacy (Laverne Cox), ice Rachel out of their group.
It’s a frustrating storyline that only exacerbates the series’ incessant need to amass sympathy for its villain, which has sparked one intriguing theory suggesting that the real-life Rachel’s decision to sell her story to HBO made Rhimes a bit salty in the writing process. But really, as Richard states in “The Dropout,” it’s just a smoke screen to avoid saying that go-getters like Anna and Elizabeth should be given the benefit of the doubt on the basis that they’re white women — even if it means throwing others, like Rachel, under the bus.
While narratives like “The Dropout” and “Inventing Anna” are beholden to creating dimensional portrayals of their subjects — though “Inventing Anna” never succeeds — the audience should be able to discern the truth that their race and gender grant them certain allowances. That includes the very fact that their stories get the Hollywood treatment for which they are paid amply. It just underscores how deceitful yet rewarding white feminism can be.