The cultural power of Elizabeth Holmes


The story of Elizabeth Holmes unfolds like a Greek tragedy, of which we come to the third and last act. First, there was her rise from a 19-year-old Stanford dropout to the world’s youngest self-made billionaire woman. Then the scandal: a tidal wave of covers, articles, documentaries, podcasts and books that sought to expose just how much of a scam Holmes’ character and Theranos operations had been from the start.

Now, with the verdict finally in and Holmes facing conviction on four counts of fraud, the cultural power of her name and image has taken on a very different form. Most trials with this degree of media attention take place twice: once in criminal court and then again in the court of public opinion. The latter decided long ago that Holmes is not just a criminal, but a prankster.

A significant portion of the internet is dedicated to making fun of her, such as a TikTok community known as “Holmies” who poke fun at her with characteristic Gen-Z irony. There is merchandise. There are people who lined up at the Santa Clara courthouse dressed as women on trial. The story of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, may be coming to an end, but our cultural obsession with Elizabeth Holmes – the blond-haired, turtleneck-clad Girlboss, with the deep voice and ruthless scam – is far from over.

Invent an icon

Between 2014 and 2015, Elizabeth Holmes appeared on the cover of seven major magazines, styled and posed effectively the same way each time: black turtleneck, powerful gaze, blonde hair swept back. This highly organized personal image has become as central to Theranos history as the actual function of the company itself. She cultivated a memorable cult of personality, which is often interpreted as at least part of what made Theranos so attractive to its ridiculously powerful board members and deep-pocketed investors.

Throughout Theranos’ rise, heyday, and eventual implosion, Holmes was subject to the very tenuous marriage between our societal expectations for women in the public eye and technology leaders in the public eye. The Tech Bro archetype is given credibility by his penchant for sweatpants and his inability to show up; at the same time, respectable media establishments devoted considerable energy to debating Holmes’ split ends.

English teacher Laura Goode has written about feminism and internet culture for much of her career. “In the way she became a character in the text of her own media frenzy, there was so much ink spilled over both her appearance and the flaws in her appearance,” Goode said of of Holmes. She was careful to point out the litany of privileges that Holmes leveraged to build her public image: her inherent whiteness, blondeness, and conventional beauty.

But Goode also noted how the media’s fixation on Holmes’ physical appearance has proven to be a double-edged sword. Even in her heyday – when Elizabeth Holmes was in the press, in a good way – intrigue over her self-presentation could very quickly turn into criticism. “I think the cacophony – and the duality of these two arguments – only underscores the dire straits for all women in power, whether corrupt or not,” Goode said.

Throughout her trial, Elizabeth Holmes’ personal mythology seemed inseparable from the Theranos scandal itself. The Wall Street Journal devoted an entire article to her courtroom wardrobe: she swapped black turtlenecks (with all their connotations of relentless power and genius) for pastel colors and diaper bags, reshaping her image to suggest domesticity and innocence – as if the difference between 20 years of freedom or imprisonment depended on the choice of the right outfit.

Capitalize on the joke

“I think part of our cultural fascination, both with female scammers and with female scammers’ fashion, is that these stories call attention to the inherent scam and illusion of fashion itself. “, Goode told me. So many people wanted to dress up as Holmes for Halloween in 2019 that Bay Area retailers ran out of black turtlenecks.

Today, the media spectacle of the Theranos scandal has spawned a small parallel industry of Holmes-themed merchandise, which you can buy on Amazon, Redbubble, or Etsy. A former Theranos employee is selling her lab coat on Poshmark for $17,000. It’s a fair question to ask to what extent the media’s treatment of Holmes’ fashion choices is an indication of how gender-biased his media coverage has always been. Suffice it to say, there was less of a manic rush to dress up as Theranos COO Sunny Balwani for Halloween. Believe it or not, there were absolutely no articles written about the outfit Henry Kissinger wore to Theranos board meetings, and it’s much harder to find a T-shirt with Henry’s face on it. Adam Neumann on it.

In 2015, Holmes may have been seriously admired as something of a cultural icon, but in 2021 she’s been reduced to a punchline. An Etsy store, WeAreElizabethHolmes, is looking to capitalize on the joke. Most of their merchandise – pillows, face masks, mugs, tote bags, T-shirts – are made in the style of popular streetwear brand OBEY: the image of Holmes rendered in black and white, with the word BOSS ( or, affectionately, LIZZY) emblazoned in a red band at the bottom of the frame. Many of the products also include what might be the most famous line Holmes has ever uttered – “first they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world” – which she delivered in a interview in 2015, delivered then, of course, in a deep, breathless baritone.

In his likeness to a tote bag, Holmes’ face is mostly shadowed, his eyes droopy and cartoonish and embarrassing. Her hair is frizzy and badly split, even when rendered in a two-dimensional silkscreen. His mouth is slightly open; his gaze is intense and askew, looking not at you but beyond you, fixed on a spellbinding future horizon that the rest of us cannot see. The resulting impression is not that of a rational, collected woman. You could call it a look of genius, if you’re feeling generous, but most of the time it’s all about making the world never get past thinking Holmes is crazy.

“We’d say we’re not so admiring of her, more amused that she could go so far on a lie,” one of the operators at WeAreElizabethHolmes, who runs the store anonymously, told me. confidentiality reasons. . They opened the online store a few months ago, initially as a hobby; they now ship goods all over the United States. The rep I spoke with estimated that about 70% of their sales so far were to women. “As for her fanbase, we believe it’s mostly young women who feel they can relate to a female figure in the tech ‘brotopia’,” they said. “And the best part is that most of the time, she won! Until she doesn’t.

The WeAre representativeElizabethHolmes also noted that the image they were peddling was one that Elizabeth herself had gone to great lengths to build. “She looks like the baddest thing,” they said, taking particular pride in her blonde high bun and Jobs-inspired black turtlenecks. What WeAreElizabethHolmes and other marketers have apparently realized is that while there is an audience for women’s success stories, there is often a much larger market for their offcuts.

“I found the shirt on Etsy, and I think it says, ‘Disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes is my Girlboss hashtag,'” Viva Donohoe ’25 told me. “And I bought it, because it’s fucking hilarious.” Contrary to the Etsy store rep’s assumptions, Donohoe is interested in the humanities and considers herself an ardent feminist. For her, the humor of the whole ordeal comes from the way Holmes is emblematic of conventional feminism’s embrace of the Girlboss.

“I think it’s kind of like all the math we have with the Girlboss archetype is really funny and stupid, and doesn’t actually contribute to equality,” Donohoe said. “Especially like in feminist discourse, people are starting to realize: OK, this is a dishonest form of feminism. Women are now at the table, but they are not changing the discussions at the table. Women are climbing the capitalist ladder, but they continue to exploit other women while doing so.


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