The trial of Elizabeth Holmes has been awash in stereotypes and cliches. Holmes, the founder of the medical technology company Theranos, is accused of defrauding investors. Prosecutors have spent weeks detailing the many ways in which they believe she misled the rich and famous and accomplished. Her messy blond bun and uniform of black turtlenecks have not been held up as a smoking gun in her subterfuge. But the style that defined her as an entrepreneur serves as a kind of shorthand for so much of what we presume about gender, success, intelligence and power. Those assumptions are a hindrance and a danger.
The Holmes case is a minefield of old-fashioned masculine tropes, including the notion that fashion doesn’t matter.
Until the unraveling of Theranos, Holmes was hailed in the media as a visionary whose ideas would change the way in which ailments were diagnosed. Holmes said she had devised a way to run a multitude of tests from a teeny-tiny drop of blood, rather than the many vials of blood that are typically required. As Holmes went about wooing board members, she was known for her utilitarian dress, which called to mind the aesthetic that had been favored by Apple’s Steve Jobs. The simplicity of her attire played into the philosophy that by not having to make decisions about clothing, her mind was free to consider other, weightier issues. The lack of sartorial embellishment was supposed to signal focus and seriousness to investors, who were so busy being reassured by her image that they failed to concern themselves with the improbability of the technology she was promoting.
The comfort presumably derived from the lack of variation in her attire reeks of the same sort of misogyny that had an earlier generation of ambitious women walking around law offices and corporate conference rooms wearing pussy-bow blouses and boxy suits. Power and competence have long been viewed through the male gaze. The blandness of Holmes’s attire was ostensibly meant to reflect a clarity of purpose when it could just as easily have been perceived as indicative of a woeful lack of creativity and imagination — an inability to see beyond a singular vision, an obsessiveness that leaves one blind to everything else including the truth.
In her public presentation, Holmes had been adept at exploiting the culture’s eager willingness to believe in the preeminence of masculinity. Her congested contralto was a distracting blend of a male news anchor’s affected gravitas and a politician’s voice-coached stump speech. But mostly, it gave into the stubborn belief that there’s power in bass notes and weakness in the upper register. For every woman who has ever been told that her voice is grating or shrill or hysterical, Holmes offered a cynical road map to vocal appeasement.
Much has been made of the impressive names that populated the Theranos list of supporters that Holmes attracted: Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Jim Mattis, Rupert Murdoch, Larry Ellison and others. The names came from the realms of government, business and the military — fame attracted fame, with much of it rooted in the idea that accomplishment in one area meant competence in another. It’s a halo effect that has long served men, older White men, in particular. Their expertise is assumed to be transferrable, and so they assume themselves to be experts in all things. They believe they are right. They believe their own nonsense. The Silicon Valley mantra of “fake it until you make” is, after all, just a gussied up version of “lie.” So they believed Holmes.
Now that Holmes is facing a jury, her aesthetic has changed. Her hair hangs loose. The turtlenecks have been replaced with blouses or dresses and a blazer. There’s nothing urgently feminine about her new look. She isn’t indulging in stereotypes such as pastels, floral prints or high heels. Her color palette is resolutely somber. Her hair is still a little mussed. As part of her defense, she’s arguing that the true power at Theranos didn’t reside with her. It was with Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, the company’s former president and her former boyfriend. He controlled her, Holmes has said. Balwani dictated her clothes, her diet, her public self. (He has said this is false.) She co-opted masculinity and its accompanying authority to promote the possibilities of Theranos, but it was all pretend. It was all drag.
Entering the courtroom, Holmes hasn’t glommed on to femininity to rebut the prosecution. She’s simply let go of the illusion of power. She has tried to disappear.
When Holmes arrives at federal court, she is often photographed holding hands with her mother and her boyfriend, Billy Evans. She’s sandwiched between the two as if hers has been a seamless life journey from the protective embrace of her mother to the supportive arms of Evans. That interlude when she was the talk of the business world has vanished. They are her buffers, her camouflage. They often look as though they’ve coordinated their attire so that the image is of a cohesive unit. Holmes wears the forgettable ensembles. It’s her mother who has the flourish of a scarf.
Holmes stood out in her old uniform. She was the girl wonder mixing it up with the bad boys of Silicon Valley. She was the monotonously dressed female leader in a male-dominated field who didn’t have time for the distractions that the culture defines as frivolous. She was the pretty blonde who could look disheveled and still maintain all the social advantages that accrue to pretty blondes.
Holmes is at the center of this story of fraud. What she said. What she knew. But through it all, Holmes may well have been powerless. Not because she was in thrall to anyone in particular and not because she was unclear about her intent, but because she gave in to a charade of masculinity to make the case for her ambition.