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American Psycho, 2000 (Film Still)

Make yuppies evil again! Why Hollywood gave up on anti-capitalism

Tech CEOs like Elon Musk shouldn’t be lambasting Hollywood for depicting them unfairly – they should be thanking it for giving them such an easy ride

“Hollywood refuses to write even one story about an actual company startup where the CEO isn’t a dweeb and/or evil,” Elon Musk recently whined on Twitter. If this were the case, there would be an obvious explanation: start-up CEOs are all evil dweebs. But the premise of Musk’s argument falls apart quickly, as the sad reality is that Hollywood isn’t demonising Silicon Valley CEOs anywhere near enough.

I recently went through a phase of watching classic blockbusters from the 80s and 90s (Aliens, Total Recall, RoboCop, Gremlins 2 – that kind of thing) and I was struck by how often these films featured smarmy yuppies as antagonists, often acting as the human face of an evil corporation. These characters were truly loathsome, nasty pieces of work; avatars of the worst excesses of the Reagan years who would inevitably get their well-earned comeuppance. In terms of both malign influence on the world and sheer obnoxiousness, the Tech Bro has surpassed the City Boy as the archetypal villain of the age. And yet, with a few less than stellar exceptions, Hollywood hasn’t looked to Silicon Valley as a source of antagonism as it did with Wall Street in the 80s. This year has seen the release of a number of new TV shows which could have reversed this decline: The Dropout (about Theranos), WeCrashed (about WeWork) and Super-Pumped: The Battle for Uber. But through clumsy attempts at exoneration, these shows have failed to deliver the villains we deserve. Tech CEOs like Elon Musk shouldn’t be lambasting Hollywood for depicting them unfairly, they should instead be thanking it on their hands and knees for giving them such an easy ride.

It’s true that there have been a smattering of Tech Bro villains over the last decade. David Fincher’s 2010 The Social Network doesn’t pull its punches in terms of depicting Marky Z as a creep. Jesse Eisenberg played a slimy Zuckerberg-esque Lex Luthor in the roundly reviled Batman vs Superman (2016), and 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service features Samuel L Jackson as a streetwear-clad tech titan who wants to cull the world’s population in an effort to stop climate change. Don’t Look Up – Adam McKay’s smug, didactic satire about climate change – saw a greedy tech CEO consign the world to obliteration. Aside from a handful of TV shows and a smattering of minor Marvel villains, that’s about it. 

The decline of the evil yuppie comes alongside the attendant decline of another archetype: the Evil Corporation. “I would say that in terms of popcorn entertainment, it has disappeared,” Jesse Hawken, film critic and host of the podcast Junk Filter, tells Dazed. “When it comes to mainstream cinema, today it’s more about bad actors within a corporation, as opposed to the actual mechanics of the corporation itself. You can contrast that with something like Robocop which is explicitly about the dangers of privatisation.” You can see this at play in the spate of Silicon Valley films and TV shows, which rarely act as an indictment of the tech industry itself; while there might be some hand-wringing about the dangers of hype, the problem is usually an individual excess of ambition. 

According to Hawken, the decline of anti-corporate messaging is partly because the economy of Hollywood has changed in the intervening years. While there have always been big corporations involved in major studio filmmaking, today this involvement is far more direct. “I don’t think any executives of 20th Century Fox in 1979 were worried that a movie might have an anti-capitalist or pro-working-class message,” he says. “But today nobody’s going to get a lot of corporate support if they want to make a new blockbuster about an evil corporation. On a huge box office level, the movies that spend a lot of money to make a lot of money play it safe more than anything. They want to make sure that the highest number of people like the film, so the most you could ask for in any kind of anti-corporate messaging in a movie is surface level. If there were a bad guy in a corporation, he would be acting alone. Contrast that with somebody like Carter Burke from Aliens [the yuppie villain]: he’s a company man and the evil stuff that he does is on behalf of his evil company.”

Elizabeth Holmes – the disgraced CEO of a fraudulent start-up that falsely claimed to have revolutionised blood testing, thus endangering the health of a number of real-life patients – would be the perfect source material for a truly monstrous tech world villain. But Hulu’s The Dropout just can’t bring itself to depict her as such. It veers close, but darts away every time with some humanising detail intended to absolve her.  The Dropout is essentially an example of what critic Parul Sehgal has termed ‘the trauma plot’, whereby the actions and motivations of characters can be understood entirely in relation to their painful personal histories; in the case of Elizabeth Holmes, The Dropout suggests she started Theranos because she experienced a sexual assault in college, and was therefore motivated by a desire to ‘make people feel safe’. In the case of her partner – the odious, bullying Sunny Balwani – it’s suggested that the reason he’s so unpleasant is due to the racism he has experienced in the US (“No one thinks you’re a terrorist when you drive a Lamborghini!”) Each explanation seems crude and reductive, not to mention a little insulting to survivors of racism and sexual assault who don’t go onto launch fraudulent healthcare start-ups. 

That’s not to say these narratives are wholly untrue: people’s harmful actions often can be explained, in part, by past experiences. But often the more cogent fact is that some people are just selfish and greedy,  and enabled by an economy and culture which is every bit as corrupt as they are. What is served by portraying these people, who embody Silicon Valley at its most predatory, as sympathetic? And who is afforded this degree of clemency? Maybe this is glib, but the fact that Holmes is white, and from the right stock, makes her an easier candidate for this kind of narrative rehabilitation. Rather than a bad person (which, by any definition, she surely is), The Dropout presents her as being cursed with the fatal flaw of being too ambitious, too much of a go-getter; everything our culture rewards but taken too far. These attempts at nuance become a cop-out. It might be true that no one is wholly evil, but someone who recklessly endangered people’s health in a craven bid for status and wealth deserves to be portrayed in black-and-white terms.

The Dropout treads an uncomfortable middle ground between hand-wringing and hagiography. If it had embraced Holmes as an Amy from Gone Girl-style sociopath, it would have been just as unsavoury but a lot more fun. Obviously, you can have a terrible person for a protagonist, but this tends to work better when you embrace their awfulness rather than trying to wriggle out of its implications: American Psycho would have been a worse film had there been a flashback, played for pathos, which explains that Patrick Bateman is the way he is because a girl once pantsed him in the playground. 

So why does it matter that these shows have failed to successfully villainise the Silicon Valley CEO? In a sense, it doesn’t. Even if The Dropout or WeCrashed were the most rousing agitprop ever committed to film, they wouldn’t inspire people to take up arms and march to the Bay Area, or even to campaign for the mildest tech industry reforms. It would be nice to think that we are doing activism simply by watching a Hulu original, but this isn’t the case: mass media is rarely a good driver of political engagement. Squid Game and Parasite were both deservedly popular, but if they’ve succeeded in fermenting any revolutionary class consciousness, this has yet to materialise. Moreover, it’s an unreasonable metric by which to judge a film or TV show, and one which leads to such absurd situations as people denouncing celebrities for hosting Squid Game-themed parties on the basis that they’ve ‘missed the point (“capitalism is bad” sailing straight over Chrissy Teigen’s head.) Even if you look at the films commonly held up as the most effective examples of political satire, the extent to which they are useful is questionable: Dr Strangelove (1964) failed to achieve nuclear armament, which has no bearing on its artistic merit. Truly subversive art tends to arise in tandem with political movements, rather than bringing them into being. If a film or television show were to pose any threat to societal order, you probably wouldn’t be able to stream it on Netflix. 

So, in a sense, the decline of anti-capitalist sentiment in Hollywood doesn’t really matter. But the yuppie villain was usually enjoyable to watch, and it’s a pity that we have been denied an equivalent catharsis today. It’s not that these depictions act as a catalyst for political change or a form of consciousness-raising, but they do offer a kind of libidinal release that, apart from anything, is fun. “I guess it’s the vicarious thrill that movies give us in general, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. I don’t think that people really get their subversive points in that way,” says Hawken. If we do have to live underneath the boot of the Silicon Valley Tech Bros, if we are daily subject to their smug hypocrisy and corny aesthetics, then we should at the very least be afforded the visceral satisfaction of watching their fictional representations meet with retribution. No doubt we’ll soon be treated to a wry, subtly absolving dramedy about Tesla: if it doesn’t involve Elon Musk being eaten by an alien or blown up by a robot, then you can count me out.