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Elizabeth Holmes’ criminal trial for fraud got underway on Wednesday, and the world was reminded of one of the stranger sections of our society. Elizabeth Holmes stans (or “Holmies,” if you will) have taken over the internet, with one photo of a group of women dressed like the accused scammer going viral across social media. Twitter lit up with wry jokes about “Elizabeth Holmes cosplayers,” tech journalists posted urgent calls for Holmes fans to get in touch, and an Elle magazine profile of the Elizabeth Holmes fan club TikTokers resurfaced. Assuming the allegations against Holmes — that she knowingly defrauded investors out of millions of dollars and endangered public health by peddling the Silicon Valley version of snake oil — prove to be true (although she firmly denies them), I agree that she is a Bad Person, and a troubling choice of personal hero.
There is a part of me that can kind of understand where the Holmies are coming from. Hear me out.
Women in the public sphere are rarely allowed the kind of complicated backstory or personal mythos of, say, an Elon Musk. Why shouldn’t women latch onto a billionaire anti-hero of their own? The very definition of a #GirlBoss, Holmes might also be an evil mastermind who worked the system to her own advantage in the same way that men have done for ages. Women can be vampiric capitalists just like men can and that’s equality, baby!
Society does not expect its male heroes to be as pure and above reproach as it does its heroines. To be frank, I can see how it might be freeing to embrace as an icon a woman who is openly, capital “B” Bad. The pressure to hold her to the impossible, saintlike standards we demand of our Dolly Partons, our Beyoncés, and our Hillary Clintons is lifted. Holmes fans can breathe easy because they already know that what she did — if proven — was heinous; they just admire the entrepreneurial spirit of her villainy.
There is also a sort of perverse, gendered underdog story still underpinning the rise and fall of Holmes and Theranos. The way she likened herself to Steve Jobs by aping his signature black turtleneck look. The way she deepened her voice to a guttural baritone so as to sound less feminine. From the jump, Holmes’ brand was always that of a woman succeeding at a man’s game. She sold herself to investors as a female struggling in a male-dominated industry and now, like so many male Silicon Valley hucksters before her, she’s facing the music in court.
Very little about Holmes’ story is genuinely feminist, of course. Her personal house of cards was built on the much-maligned Sheryl Sandberg idea of “Lean In” feminism, that encourages women to succeed by simply working twice as hard as the men around them. And rather than pave the way for other women tech entrepreneurs, Holmes has made it harder for women in STEM to gain investor funding or trust because they are now constantly compared to her.
But if the eventual project of feminism is to build a world in which women are accepted in all our complexities, as neither whores nor madonnas but as fully nuanced human beings, there must be room for female anti-heroes. You will find robust defenders of some of the worst of men anywhere you look. Joe Rogan, a two-bit conspiracy theorist whose unbelievably popular podcast has hosted extremely controversial and distasteful figures, is broadly admired for his openness to debate. Gordon Gekko is lauded as a genius. Al Capone is a cultural folk hero. Donald Trump was elected president. From Tony Soprano to Walter White to Don Draper, we love a male anti-hero.
In that context, I can understand why there’s something darkly appealing about a woman who was apparently prepared to do whatever it takes to succeed and burn everything down in the process. The same impulse powers by own personal fascination with historical female villains like Ching Shih, an 18th century pirate leader and one of the most successful pirates in history, or female villains of myth like Circe, the witch who famously turned men into pigs. They were women who wanted power, so they took it.
I would not call myself an Elizabeth Holmes fan, personally, and I certainly would not feel compelled to dress as her to support her in her trial. But what I am saying is: Since when did rooting for the bad guy become something new?