These two things can be true at the same time: that Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the failed medical-testing company Theranos and dark protagonist of the new HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” probably lied to investors and the public, seems like a terrible person and deserves a long prison sentence. And that the coverage of her — which commanded, in recent days, pieces and segments in the New Yorker, most of the major newspapers , Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed, CNN, ABC’s “Nightline,” “The View” and dozens of other outlets — has been unbelievably, jaw-droppingly sexist.
I’m not a person who writes often about sexism or even sees it much. But I can’t get over the emphasis on Holmes’s body language and appearance. “It’s hard to say which physical attributes of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes stand out most: her turtlenecks; her ginormous, unblinking eyes; her perma-red lips,” Vanity Fair wrote. Vox said that Holmes has “questionable personal style.” Yahoo quoted an image consultant who proposed that “it’s almost like she’s trying to assert her dominance through this intense, alpha makeup.”
There is a tension between what many of us say we want (truly equal treatment of women in the media, the workplace and public life) and what we seem almost irresistibly attracted to (lurid deconstructions of a public woman’s looks — and, by extension, her psychological pathologies). If you think the fixation on Holmes’s appearance is just a corollary to how absurd the Theranos story is, think again. The meltdown of the Fyre Festival was a rich story. So was the collapse of Paul Manafort. So is the ongoing drama that is “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli. But none of the male villains of these stories have been subject to anything near the analyses of facial expressions, clothing, personal grooming and potential mental illnesses that writers and analysts have directed toward Holmes.
A Medium piece suggested that the way Holmes’s “eyelids were opened wide with a relaxed forehead . . . is a tremendous red flag,” signaling “deception.” Rolling Stone’s roundup of the eight “most shocking details” from “The Inventor” declared that “Elizabeth Holmes doesn’t blink.” Inc., a business magazine, said her use of a “slimming lens to make her neck look thinner” in photos was a sign that she’s a sociopath. Vox picked apart her “awkwardly dark, often slightly askew makeup,” and Refinery 29 — which declares itself “the leading global media company focused on young women” — invited the psychoanalyst who coined the term “toxic people” to note that Holmes’s blue eyes are “mesmerizing, and she took advantage of that.” In a separate piece, Refinery 29 called her “a robot in a black blazer . . . not even her [blond] hair is real.”
Is this a joke? About 70 percent of American women color their hair. And although perhaps only 5 percent of white American women have naturally blond hair, nearly 50 percent of female chief executives are blondes. In 2016, Inc. told women, “If you crave a leadership position . . . you should dye your hair blond.” (The psychoanalyst who warned readers that Holmes’s look indicated she is “very sociopathic” is also a blonde.) As for Holmes’s “awkwardly dark” makeup, North America accounts for 25 percent of global cosmetics sales. Mascara is the second-largest seller in cosmetics after foundation. Most American women wear it.
So nothing about Holmes is hugely abnormal except for what she allegedly did. Yet of all the revelations in “Bad Blood,” John Carreyrou’s bestseller about the alleged Theranos fraud, one of the only lines that made it into Quartz, Rolling Stone, Wired and Refinery 29 was that “the way [Holmes] trained her big blue eyes on you . . . was almost hypnotic.” This depiction of Holmes, and the focus on her looks, has appeared in liberal publications that have spearheaded pushes for more equitable, less nitpicky or grotesque treatment of women. The same publication that criticized Holmes’s “questionable personal style” has also decried the country’s “fixation” or “obsession with [the] appearance” of women in public life.
It’s a disservice, because the Theranos story contains a broad indictment of Silicon Valley and American culture hiding behind the fixation on Holmes’s supposedly devious psychology. Netflix and Hulu recently produced damning documentaries about Billy McFarland, the fraudster behind the failed Fyre Festival. But McFarland still comes off as human, a guy who might have gotten in over his head — and who shares the blame with many others. Holmes’s treatment makes this conclusion impossible. This assists the people who aided or supported her: Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, a former top Hillary Clinton aide, former secretary of state George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Errol Morris, august Stanford professors and several former Apple employees. If we had to distribute the blame here, we’d have many fewer heroes. So we say, instead, that she cast a spell over her male targets, who were victims.
When I was born, in 1983, a family friend warned my parents against naming me Eve. He argued that Americans mostly still had a puritanical, Calvinist streak that associated the name Eve with malevolence, guile, cunning and sin. Eve was the archetypal seductive destroyer. The art historian Christopher Witcombe has written that Eve is portrayed in Western art as “evil, disloyal, untrustworthy, deceitful, seductive, and motivated . . . purely by self-interest.” “Do you not believe that you are each an Eve?” the early Christian theologian Tertullian preached to women. “You are the one who opened the door to the Devil. You are the one who first plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree.” Adam, in this interpretation, was obviously just a bumbler and a dupe. In many Western artistic depictions of Eve taking the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam is pictured off to the side, napping.
“The Inventor’s” approach to men draws heavily on this parable. Holmes’s co-conspirator, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, is virtually absent. What is his life story? What did his employees think of him? Is he a sociopath? New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta also turns up in the movie as a wise ex-post-facto guide to the drama, despite having been partly responsible for the scam, as the respectable reporter who gave Theranos traction by publishing a long, largely credulous account of the company in 2014. Rupert Murdoch and other investors who pumped millions into Theranos, even after evidence emerged that could have given them doubts, never appear in the film. Kissinger, who sat on Theranos’s board, appears only via a recording that says nothing about his motivations or influence but reveals him struggling to operate his computer — dumb, but also kind of cute! Shultz, a retired diplomat, virtually adopted Holmes and defended her against his own grandson. But the film redeems him at the end when we are told that he finally woke up to Holmes’s real nature. All of these men are Adam: napping during the crime and, therefore, forgivable.
Holmes has nothing in common with the courageous women who have come forward in the #MeToo movement. But the male figures in the Theranos narrative have a whole lot in common with men as #MeToo’s opponents often present them — hapless prey taken for a ride by opportunists or temptresses.
I’ve asked myself many times, since the advent of #MeToo, whether men are actually now more constrained in their public behavior than women are. I’m socially permitted, in the current climate, to say things such as “I hate men” on Facebook without imperiling my career or reputation. I can say out loud, “God, men are awful,” and get nods of assent, even from men. If a man says in a locker room that “women are awful,” though, Gillette tells us that other guys are supposed to call him out.
Even this reversal, though, acknowledges men’s imperfection. Yes, #MeToo holds that men’s enduring power in the world can tempt them to wrongdoing. But to say “Men are awful” is also, in a sense, to say “It’s understandable that men can be awful.” A screwed-up, mendacious, power-hungry woman is still a surprise — a grim fascination. Something aberrant. Something even inhuman. A witch.
During the Salem witch trials in colonial America, magistrates encouraged investigators and the public to scrutinize women’s bodies for “witches’ marks.” “Witch hunters” shaved misbehaving women — some of whom really did misbehave — so that every part of their bodies could be examined to reveal evil. Supposedly, the claw of the devil had marked these women as his own. This could take the form of any imperfection: warts, moles, scars, skin tags, even discolorations from injuries or diseases.
It’s revealing that these kinds of physical flaws, in women, were believed to be indicators of their power. It was important for the colonists to assign immense power to “witches,” because it allowed them to look away from their own failings. Early America was an explicitly utopian project. There were so many hopes, and thus so many failures, ill omens and disappointments. We still are idealistic, and Silicon Valley is the epicenter of that.
How different are the analysts who profess to know Holmes’s psychology (based on intense examination of her eyelids and her hand gestures) from the witch hunters? Holmes is scrutinized, most of all, as a being unlike the rest of us — which is strikingly different from how Billy McFarland or even, frankly, Harvey Weinstein have been treated. Most of the people diagnosing her must know that many women feel pressure to go blond and struggle to keep their makeup looking good. But it’s somehow impossible to believe that Holmes’s eye makeup didn’t look great just because she wasn’t great at applying it. It’s impossible to imagine she went blond because she didn’t like her brown hair. It’s impossible to think she wore black turtlenecks every day because she was encouraged, by mentors and magazines, to adopt a “uniform style,” which is now the conventional wisdom in fashion. It’s impossible to think she worried, legitimately, that a higher-pitched voice would hamper her prospects.
Women are urged all the time to do many of the things we find so weird in Holmes: to go blond, perfect a smoky eye, adopt a more masculine tone. But Holmes is assumed to have done these things with malicious intent, as part of her wizardry on everyone around her.
In McFarland, we permitted ourselves to think that our modern snake-oil salesmen are also victims of a larger culture. In Holmes, we permit ourselves to ogle pure evil. Whatever appears slightly odd about her, physically, is a sign of her interior problems. Anything bad that happened in her vicinity was her design, evidence not of a gigantic failure by a group of people but of one woman’s malevolent cunning and power. In other words: She is our witch, and for our old-fashioned delight, we are burning her.
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the views of an essay in HuffPost.]