Does the Elizabeth Holmes trial spell the end of the #girlboss era?
Show caption ‘As Holmes has found out, women can only get away with bluffing for so long. Lean in too far, and you’ll have a very nasty fall.’ Photograph: CNBC/Getty Images Opinion Does the Elizabeth Holmes trial spell the end of the #girlboss era? Arwa Mahdawi The Theranos saga is depressing, but there is one silver lining: the preoccupation with the #girlboss is dead, and Holmes helped kill it Sat 4 Sep 2021 14.00 BST Share on Facebook
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Elizabeth Holmes and the end of the #girlboss
A brown man made her do it! Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of blood-testing startup Theranos, was once seen as a maverick thinker and a fearless feminist icon. Now that she is standing trial for fraud, however, she’s set to argue that she bears no responsibility for her actions: she was completely under the control of her ex-boyfriend and former Theranos executive Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. According to court filings, Holmes’s lawyers will argue that Balwani, who was almost 20 years older than Holmes, emotionally and sexually abused her. Holmes’s lawyers write in the court filings that she was the victim of a “pattern of abuse and coercive control” that essentially “erased her capacity to make decisions”.
These are really tricky allegations to discuss. On the one hand, it’s important to be clear that women don’t tend to lie about sexual abuse. And, no matter what you think of Holmes, it’s critical to remember that there’s no such thing as a “perfect victim”. You can be a survivor of intimate partner abuse and also a perpetrator of wrongdoing; the two are not mutually exclusive.
On the other hand, it’s also important to acknowledge that there is a long history of white women playing the “damsel in distress” to deflect blame and avoid accountability. White womanhood has been weaponized for centuries to uphold white supremacy. Society is quick to think of brown and black men as brutes and white women as naifs; we all know the famous examples of women who have tried to use this to their advantage.
I have no way of knowing what the relationship between Holmes and Balwani was like, or what the truth of the matter is. Here’s what I do know though: the revelation of Holmes’s he-made-me-do-it defence has sparked widespread skepticism. I worry that this is going to have wider ramifications and make it harder for victims of coercive control to be believed.
Holmes, it should be noted, has already made it harder for female entrepreneurs to be taken seriously and raise funding. A number of female founders have spoken out about how they’re constantly compared to Holmes and are asked to prove their startup isn’t the next Theranos. When prominent male entrepreneurs are caught lying to investors or acting unethically it’s often shrugged off or even excused; it certainly doesn’t affect other men’s careers. When a prominent woman is disgraced, however, all women are implicated. The bar has always been higher for women; Holmes’s downfall may have raised it higher still.
While the entire Theranos saga is depressing, there is one small silver lining to be taken from it: the cultural preoccupation with the #girlboss is now well and truly dead, and Holmes helped kill it. I’m not defending Holmes in any way, but at the end of the day, she was just doing what women have been told to for the last couple of decades: she was leaning in. Like every other #girlboss, she was molding herself to a style of leadership that had been dictated by men, while using feminism as a marketing strategy. We may confuse confidence with competence when it comes to our male leaders but, as Holmes has found out, women can only get away with bluffing for so long. Lean in too far, and you’ll have a very nasty fall.
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Arwa Mahdawi’s new book, Strong Female Lead, is available for pre-order