Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos infamy was found guilty on four counts of fraud this month, finally completing her transformation from #girlboss hero to villainous technocrat. The media’s turn on her was obviously hilarious, especially considering her attempt to invoke victimhood tropes in self-defense. Holmes, for instance, claimed to be duped by her boyfriend, shifting blame for the company she once gladly claimed credit for.
Emily Jashinsky: What’s your big takeaway from all of this, Madeline?
Madeline Osburn: I have enjoyed following the story of Elizabeth Holmes ever since I read “Bad Blood” by John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who first broke the story of Holmes’ fraudulent business and her efforts to destroy anyone in her way. It’s a great book, but one element that Carreyrou doesn’t fully explore is the extent of the media and ruling class’s obsession with girlbosses and how it completely blindsided them to any critical thinking.
They so badly wanted this female, college dropout to be the next Steve Jobs that nobody questioned it when she creepily tried to copy Jobs on everything down to the black turtlenecks. It leaves me wondering, are successful women in STEM really so rare that Time magazine and Joe Biden were so easily swindled by the first media-savvy one that came along, or is she just that good at manipulating public opinion?
EJ: Do you think that was also the case with her investors? The list of rich people who threw money at her is full of heavy hitters, exactly the kinds of folks with government and private sector experience you’d expect to know better. But were they also blinded by the identity element? So eager to support a youngish woman they overlooked red flags?
Something people often miss is the vicious cycle of media patting private elites on the back and then having the favor returned over and over. #GirlBoss coverage made Holmes look like a better investor and early investors made her look like more of a girl boss.
Congrats on reading a book, by the way.
MO: I’ll never read another one. But Carreyrou deserves credit for the story, not Amanda Seyfried or Jennifer Lawrence, who are both playing Holmes in various biopics.
It’s definitely a cycle. Media loved to mention that the Theranos board was stacked with two former secretaries of state, former senators, military brass, who I assume must have been duped by the fawning media. Of course, a major part of the story is how Holmes duped investors by pretending to put their tiny blood samples in her machine, only to actually have the results run in a different lab.
Maybe it was her lying paired with the magazine covers. Either way, this creating of fake valuations based on nothing more than what a company could maybe do one day is not actually new in Silicon Valley, but that is a whole other conversation.
I want to go back to what you mentioned earlier about Holmes blaming her boyfriend. The great irony of this story is that the same girl bossing that earned her $4.5 billion valuation also sealed her guilty verdict for the jury. Holmes intentionally cast herself as a visionary trailblazer in a male-dominated industry and frequently claimed she was in complete control of the company, not the man by her side. When confronted with evidence of fraud, she tried to backtrack on the girl bossing, claiming that she wasn’t really in charge at all. It was the man’s fault.
EJ: Right, she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, to be the feminist leader and the female victim. It didn’t work. Nobody is still yassss kweening, but obviously she will always be held up as an example of 1) tech’s egregious smoke-and-mirror culture and 2) the pitfalls of neoliberal corporate feminism.
Her story also unraveled at exactly the right time, just as the true crime genre was exploding in podcasts and docuseries. All of these factors make her a fascinating and topical character. She also had the weirdly low voice, the Steve Jobs look, and the cold stoicism that feels odd on women.
I guess my last question is whether our culture really is turning on corporate feminism. It was flaming hot in the Obama era, but took a huge hit in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s close contest with Bernie Sanders. Am I naive to think the downfall of Holmes is another sign the “Lean In” archetype is falling out of fashion?
MO: I don’t think you’re wrong to say it’s out of fashion, but I also don’t think we will see the media thirst for corporate feminism really ever disappear. They still treat it as taboo for women to say they don’t want to work after having children, even if that’s a growing sentiment among women looking at the cost of child care compared to their salaries.
You mention “Lean In”—Sheryl Sandberg is actually a perfect encapsulation of corporate feminism as a trend. She’s not as popular or influential as she was in the Obama era, but she’s still the chief operating officer of Facebook. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is copying Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, but someone out there is apparently paying for her Masterclass videos.
EJ: I watch them every morning before enjoying a cup of coffee and collecting speaker fees from Deutsche Bank.