The Dropout: Elizabeth Holmes Is an Extreme Product of Millennial ExceptionalismPhoto Courtesy of Hulu TV Features The Dropout
Watching Hulu’s The Dropout miniseries has been a little surreal. Elizabeth Holmes and I are almost the same age, and the needle drops and cultural references that Elizabeth Meriwether’s series peppers throughout its story are nearly triggering. But what I was really struck by throughout Holmes’ documented rise and fall was how she appeared to be an extreme example of what I’ll call “Millennial Exceptionalism.” Out of the halcyon days of the 1990s economic boom and Clinton era came a generation told we could do anything. Hack comedians still mine this “everyone’s a winner” mentality, but it was a cultural force at the time. Essentially, you (likely white, privileged child) could achieve your dreams by sheer force of will, by visualizing it (a la The Secret), by leaning in.
In The Dropout, this all fits Holmes perfectly. She’s a smart and motivated overachiever from an upper-middle class family who simply doesn’t understand and cannot accept failure. After enrolling in Stanford, all she sees are possibilities ahead. This also came at a moment when a generation that grew up with home computer accessibility was seeing an exponential expansion in tech and the internet, which seemed to provide an open canvas for creating anything you wanted. It allowed young people to start companies from basements and garages because they had an idea about this new frontier that most adults didn’t really understand or want to engage with. Tech was for the youth.
At least, it was for awhile. And we’ve seen plenty of examples of how fraudsters young and old took advantage of that Wild West mentality, exploiting others along the way, and mostly landing gracefully thanks to golden parachutes. But as The Dropout hammers home early on, there was something revolutionary about Holmes’ idea that a drop of blood could give you a complete health scan. Yet she was also ahead of her time; the tech wasn’t there, and as one professor admonishes her early on, she wasn’t willing to put in the work to get there.
But this was clearly more than just the idea of instant gratification, something our society continues to struggle with and prioritize over safe working conditions (yes I mean Amazon, but there are plenty of others). It was back to this idea that “you can do anything you want by sheer force of will!” Elizabeth was not able to accept that her idea couldn’t be achieved, and quickly. If you’ve never allowed yourself to fail, and have been told repeatedly you can do anything, it doesn’t compute. Plus, tech was moving so incredibly fast, and innovations were popping up everywhere. When I started college, I had a giant carrying case I put in my car that held 500 CDs, and before I graduated I had replaced it with a digital device that held 30 GB of music and was the size of a credit card. Not long after that, the iPod’s innovative “wheel” was replaced by a touchscreen. And on, and on.
That kind of innovative excitement, which The Dropout documents, was contagious. Holmes was also a devotee of Steve Jobs and his business model, so why wouldn’t she expect that she—or someone on her team—could just make it work? In a culture that worships youth and trips over itself to uplift (usually privileged) young people as “the next big thing,” is it wrong to want to get in on that?
This certainly isn’t to absolve Holmes in any way, but it’s just such a fascinating mindset to see play out. Where things take a turn is how she (in this telling of her story) begins to distance herself from the reality of failure. All around her are slogans she clings to: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Or, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” As her fame rises and her personality becomes melded with that of the company, Theranos is no longer allowed to fail. In her mind, this also justifies some of her most heinous actions and protects her from the fallout of her decisions, starting with Ian’s suicide.
Ultimately, that denial and subsequent delusion is what drives the unraveling of Theranos. The Dropout’s finale chronicles this in several ways, starting with the phone calls Elizabeth makes to board members. You can watch her face (so wonderfully portrayed by Amanda Seyfried) go from concern to absolute certainty as she convinces them—and herself—of her innocence. The lies she weaves are all in service to the delusion that she’s still the college girl who wanted to altruistically “change the world” with incredible biomedical technology, instead of a burned-out shell of a person who sacrificed everything in the pursuit of success.
Since failure was not an option, Holmes just created a reality where she won. Her brother brings up in an earlier episode how she could not accept losing when they played Monopoly as children. She also comes to realize that she never did anything for fun—everything was always about achievement and productivity. In her mind, to fail here on this kind of stage would erase her. Without success, who even is she? What value does she have? It’s a common millennial crisis.
The extension of this idea has led to the now-memed cry of “my brand!” Here, Theranos wasn’t the brand, Elizabeth Holmes was. This double-speak and focus on marketing and a courting of investors based on one person, a “maverick,” someone who is special and stands out, is what has disastrously fueled Silicon Valley for years and years. Because we’re all gifted, right? Holmes also brought novelty to the table in her femininity. Men wanted to believe her, because we were supposedly entering a new stage of gender equality where men felt they would be patted on the back for saying, ok, let’s give this girl a shot. And she blew it.
In The Dropout’s finale, there are a few key moments that show Elizabeth unmasking from the persona / brand she created. She removes her makeup, throws off the black turtleneck. She gets a dog, a younger boyfriend, and goes the Burning Man. “You’re regressing,” her lawyer says. But perhaps Elizabeth is just going back to what a normal life might have been like if she had stayed in college, been young, made mistakes, and—most importantly—put in the work. What lives would have been saved, what tragedies might have been avoided?
And yet, the gamble she made is still one that continues to be rewarded: do it first, do it fast, and the rest will work itself out. You can do anything! You can achieve anything! But with millennials now in our 30s and early 40s, the lie of those promises has been uncovered. Housing bubbles, economic collapse, a pandemic, unregulated capitalism, terrorism, the brink of world war. To give Elizabeth another slogan: “Failure is part of the process.” We’ve learned it the hard way.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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