On Jan. 3, 2022, Elizabeth Holmes, founder and former CEO of the defunct health technology company Theranos, was found guilty by a jury on four counts of fraud. Holmes, originally believed to be the next Steve Jobs, fell from grace after The Wall Street Journal published an article by investigative journalist John Carreyrou in 2015 that revealed the business owner hid her use of normal blood testing devices instead of Theranos’ supposedly revolutionary Edison boxes. Further investigations from multiple government agencies found Holmes to be a scammer who defrauded investors and lied to health care providers and customers about the nature of their test results. Holmes’ sentencing for her crimes is set to take place on Sept. 26.
In less than a week from now, Hulu is scheduled to release an eight-episode miniseries called “The Dropout” based on the crime podcast of the same name hosted by Rebecca Jarvis. Both follow Holmes — played by Academy Award-nominated actress Amanda Seyfried — from her gradual domination of Silicon Valley to the eventual unraveling of her world. The title of the television drama and podcast derives from the well-known fact that she dropped out of Stanford University in 2004 at 19-years-old to develop Theranos, her startup at the time. Holmes’ decision to leave college has been a foundational aspect of her public image, which is mentioned frequently by her and the news.
Other Scammer Stories
The program reflects a recent trend within Hollywood: projects centered on a scammer. One of the most recent examples includes Netflix’s limited series “Inventing Anna,” a show about Anna Sorokin, a con artist who adopted the name Anna Delvey and defrauded her New York City upper-class friends, financial institutions and hotels out of a total of $275,000. In March of 2019, Sorokin was found guilty of eight felony charges and was sentenced to four to 12 years on Rikers Island. She served two before being released in 2021. The television show, like “The Dropout,” was adapted from pre-existing material. Rather than a podcast, however, the program came from a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler titled “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People.”
These two stories are not the only ones to come about as of late. In 2020, it was announced that Jake Gyllenhaal will play author Dan Mallory, known by his pen name A. J. Finn, in a TV show about his long history of deceptions and inappropriate behavior. A New Yorker article written by Ian Parker exposed Mallory for actions such as faking more than one tumor, lying about losing his mother to cancer, fabricating a narrative about having a doctorate degree from Oxford University and possibly urinating in cups and leaving them on his coworkers’ desks. Additionally, his bestselling debut novel, “The Woman in the Window,” gained criticism for its glaring similarities to the 1995 film “Copycat” and the book “Saving April” by Sarah A. Denzil — the latter claim Mallory’s publisher denied. While the author is not a scammer in the traditional sense as he did not swindle people out of their money like Holmes and Sorokin, he crafted public and private images based on a series of extreme lies.
With the continuous green-lighting of adaptations connected to or based on a real-life scammer, a question arises: What is the greater point of these stories?
Projects like these do fit in with some elements of the current pop culture landscape. Within the past 10 years or so, multiple forms of media have become noticeably darker — with a heavier focus on inherently unlikable, flawed characters. Scammers, especially ones with excessive media coverage, are not considered to be good people, which aligns with this concept. Also, the movie and TV programs about con artists are another form of true crime, a genre with an ever-increasing popularity in America. Watching Holmes and Sorokin lie and cheat their way to the top feeds into a societal fascination with unethical humans and satisfies the same desires found in true crime media.
How These Characters Are Appealing
Some television programs and movies frame immoral individuals as sympathetic or as people with understandable motivations. “The Dropout” and “Inventing Anna” attempt to humanize two women who knowingly harmed others. Holmes repeatedly deceived investors and consumers about the reliability of Theranos’ technology. Sorokin stole money from people and various businesses for years. Both fraudsters understood their misdeeds and how they hurt those who trusted them. One of Sorokin’s former friends, Rachel Deloache Williams, published an article in Time Magazine where she expressed her frustration with Sorokin “being rewarded for her crimes” despite how she almost “ruined” Williams’ life. Also, neither scammer has conveyed any guilt for their actions. Sorokin herself admitted to not feeling remorse for her wrongdoings. In an interview with The New York Times, she said, “I’d be lying to you and to everyone else and to myself if I said I was sorry for anything.” In some ways, television shows and movies about these corrupt people give them an undeserved platform that grants them unwarranted public pity.
Diversity and Representation in Scammer Media
Another aspect to consider is that the focal points of these projects are white, straight and cisgender. Hollywood has not announced any romanticized biopics of scammers who are queer or people of color. Granted, this is not a call for a scammer of every background to be featured in a movie or TV show, but it does exhibit how Hollywood prioritizes stories of people who are not marginalized and looks at them through a carefully crafted lens. Moreover, these creations point to an additional question: Why is Hollywood making entertainment about terrible white, straight and cisgender people instead of investing in diverse stories that display positive representation? The entertainment industry has limited resources, time and money, but not enough effort has been focused on acquiring and telling underrepresented stories. Rather, narratives about a certain group of people get rehashed and oversaturated even if the main characters are based on real public figures who profit from their lack of interest in righting their wrongs.
As the entertainment industry continues to acquire film and television rights to news articles and social media posts, the kinds of stories being told, especially those based in real-life and current events, will also continue to expand. However, as seen with each aforementioned scammer, many of the narratives chosen to become full-fledged projects portray people and events that caused others pain. While some of these works set out to show a full, unbiased picture of an infamous person, they, instead, bring unwarranted attention to someone who does not deserve it. It will be interesting to see how long this fad lasts or if it morphs into something else. Until then, one can only wait and see if Holmes will be brought to justice in September.