“First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then all of a sudden you change the world,” former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes told CNBC in a 2015 interview. Once touted by Forbes as one of America’s youngest female self-made billionaires, Holmes is currently on trial for fraud. If convicted, this former feminist icon could face up to 20 years in prison.
Elizabeth Holmes was just 19 years-old when she founded Theranos in 2003. With a lifelong fear of needles, Holmes set out to revolutionize the field of diagnostics with a new technology that she claimed could reliably screen for a variety of health conditions with just a small drop of blood. As a young Stanford University dropout, Holmes and her startup caught the attention of several high profile investors, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and prominent attorney David Boies. At its peak, Theranos was valued at over $9 billion dollars despite the fact that, as journalists and prosecutors would later point out, Holmes’ supposedly revolutionary blood-testing device was utterly bogus.
Holmes’ success story, and now the controversy surrounding it, have both found a spotlight in the media. By casting Holmes strictly as a villain, however, we ultimately perpetuate the misogyny already rampant in Silicon Valley that holds female CEOs to a drastically stricter standard than their male counterparts. This is not to say that Holmes isn’t culpable. But Holmes is a symptom of a much more pernicious cultural problem in the tech industry, and her actions must be situated in that context.
Holmes, while obviously a particularly fraudulent actor, is also reflective of a broader strain in feminist culture. With an infamous (and allegedly forced) low-pitched voice and Steve Jobs-inspired turtleneck, Holmes never missed an opportunity to emphasize her identity as a self-made woman. At its core, this genre of “Girl Boss” feminism, a term coined by NastyGal CEO Sophia Amoruso in her now infamous memoir #GirlBoss, attempts to brand the financial and professional success of any woman as an advancement for the entire feminist cause. As I’ve argued in a previous column, with the exception of those few lucky (and usually white) CEOs that do make it into corporate boardrooms, for the rest of us, this brand of #GirlBoss feminism pushes superficial feminist gains at the expense of broad political and social change.
With her simultaneous espousement of these feminist principles and alleged conman status, it’s easy to see why Holmes has become the poster child for this hollow brand of feminism. A series of viral meme accounts have even begun satirically hailing Holmes as their feminist hero. After all, as Rania Blaik, one of the TikTokers behind the meme, told the LA Times, “Having a fraudulent healthcare company with an awful culture and simultaneously being named Glamour's Woman of the Year is deeply funny.”
From Marie Antoinette to Monica Lewinsky, the trope of the female villain is just as ubiquitous as it is captivating. #GirlBoss was attempting to push back against this exact tendency. However, in an act of overcorrection, this line of thinking can perversely prompt us to idolize “Nasty Women” not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. Due to this impulse, an entire generation of women has tried in vain to simultaneously be empowered by both Kim Kardashian and Kellyanne Conway when in reality, we probably shouldn’t be idolizing either of them. All of this goes to say, however, that we can condemn Holmes’s actions without needing to somehow be empowered by them.
On the other hand, it’s worth noting just how vast the media’s obsession with Holmes has become. Ever since Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou first raised questions about Theranos in 2015, Holmes has been the subject of countless articles and essays, multiple podcast series, a New York Times best-selling book, a hit HBO documentary and a pending Adam McKay film starring Jennifer Lawrence. As the focus of so much sensationalized media, it’s worth questioning why the legend of Holmes and her disgraced company was so easily absorbed into the public bloodstream.
Ironically, misogyny itself most definitely has something to do with it. Fraudulent businessmen are nothing new. But a female conman? That’s newsworthy. And while this criticism might be well-deserved, it’s not affecting Holmes in a vacuum. According to the New York Times, women in Silicon Valley are continuing to suffer the aftereffects of Theranos’ downfall. Haunted by Holmes’ legacy, women in the tech sector — an already notoriously male dominated field — are reportedly facing even more difficulty courting investors than before. And as the story’s author Erin Griffith keenly pointed out in an interview with Marketplace Tech, “Every male founder that is working on, say, office sharing, is not getting compared to WeWork and Adam Neumann.”
While the extent of Theranos’ fraud was definitely unusual, the “fake it till you make it” approach that Holmes so wholeheartedly embraced certainly wasn’t. Dependent on venture capital, Silicon Valley startups will routinely overstate their progress in order to attract high profile investors who, more often than not, are more successfully enticed by flashy displays of progress than detailed plans. Those familiar with Silicon Valley allege that this high level of risk-taking is simply an accepted part of the culture. Apparently, even the first iPhone was still riddled with bugs when Apple founder (and Holmes’ own black-turtlenecked muse) Steve Jobs first demonstrated the product. And when it comes to Holmes’ legacy as a female entrepreneur, you could argue that she was simply following her predecessors’ examples by “leaning in.”
Once hailed as an icon for women everywhere, Holmes has quickly become a meme on the Left and a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley’s most reactionary investors. It appears that the only thing we love more than a self-made woman is the opportunity to tear one down — love or hate her, it seems that the media and tech sector alike are unable to understand Holmes outside of these dehumanizing tropes. Holmes was undoubtedly a bad actor. But in reducing her to a cartoon villain, we’re ultimately acting upon the same reductive instinct that prompted #GirlBoss to view her as an idol.
To be clear, I have no vested interest in defending Elizabeth Holmes. Assuming the accusations wielded against her are true, she knowingly conned her investors out of millions, and even more egregiously, actively endangered the lives of patients in order to further her career. This is also by no means a defense of #GirlBoss feminism. On the contrary, by failing to understand Holmes outside of the caricature that’s been painted, we risk upholding the very tenets of corporate feminism that we aim to reject. Just as #GirlBoss feminism celebrates the success of already privileged women while neglecting broader social, political and economic inequalities, focusing on Holmes as an individual also fails to encompass the bigger picture. By forcing Holmes into clichés, we fail to recognize the Silicon Valley culture that encouraged her negligence as well as the history of misogyny that #GirlBoss was attempting (and failed) to address.
If we truly want to kick #GirlBoss feminism to the curb, we need to move beyond the impulse to view women in a binary hero/villain framework. Assuming the prosecution prevails, Elizabeth Holmes is a con artist and a hustler. She is not, however, just a Madonna or a whore or an icon or a meme — she’s a bad actor operating in a bad system.
Sarah McGrath ’24 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.