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Female Foundering

How to girlboss a fall from grace
A blonde woman (Elizabeth Holmes) behind bars.

“This isn’t just my job. This is who I am. Anyone who doubts my company doubts me,” says Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in the last year’s Hulu show The Dropout. It’s a claim the real-life Holmes managed to make work for her, until it didn’t, tying the success of Theranos, the company she founded in 2003, to her own personal brand as a serious-minded female science genius. Her rhetoric implied that any criticism of the “Edison,” the blood-testing device that promised to diagnose numerous diseases using only a single drop of blood, ought to be brushed off as sexist bias rather than legitimate critique. In making herself the face of this tech, she cultivated an image of authority, power, innovation, and promises kept though the adoption of the black turtleneck made famous by Apple icon Steve Jobs, her low voice, no-nonsense bun, and (when called for) red lipstick.

The Dropout’s title figures the drop of blood through which Theranos supposedly could accomplish never-yet-seen feats of science in the context of what kicked off the whole endeavor: Holmes’s dropping out of Stanford. Her status as a dropout both fueled her success—she was a genius with no time for formal education, à la Mark Zuckerberg—and also invited doubt. And while dropping out of school is neither a harbinger of failure writ large, nor should it be pathologized in a society that ties college education so tightly to a lifetime of debt, in this case, the choice indicated Holmes’s willingness to step beyond her ken. That is to say, to make claims for which she had no scientific chops or backing. In naming its show, then, Hulu relied on its audience coming to Holmes’s story from the skepticism brought on by her downfall.

The task of the girlboss was to pick up on the girl power premise that the only limits on her (implicitly white, rich) ability were in her imagination, making personal success a matter of domination, of conquering her field and making it conform more to her own ideas and desires. There was a shamelessness to this practice, an unwillingness if not an inability to see just how out of her depth she might be. If “girl power” implies self-reliance and assertiveness, and “leaning in” encourages ambition, the girlboss took these qualities to their limits, as illustrated by Holmes’s recent sentencing to eleven years in federal prison for defrauding investors—a sentence that finally began earlier this week, after multiple attempts by her legal team to delay.

When speaking of girlbosses, another term frequently pops up: the female founder.

Her predicament has some precedent in the girlboss aesthetic itself, which often focused on reclamation: not only the de rigueur positioning of pink as powerful, but the reappraisal of sad or tragic stories and figures and their recuperation as aesthetic accessories to a new successful life. Take Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, who led a life that was—to the extent an empress’s can be—decidedly grim: her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph was far from storybook, and she died at the end of the nineteenth century after being stabbed by an Italian anarchist. A hundred-odd years later, nap dress behemoth Hill House Home, as part of its range of luxury bedding, took Elizabeth’s nickname, “Sisi,” as the moniker for their silk pillowcase.

The empress’s signature beauty—her hair—was the point of inspiration here. Hill House Home CEO and influencer Nell Diamond, who wrote her Princeton senior thesis on hair and whose signature style is her own hip-length tresses, seems to be engaged in a sort of Sisi cosplay in the service of moving bed linens and nightgowns, as do the models showcasing her company’s wares. In this way, Sisi is turned from person to product and then reincarnated in the form of the product’s shiller, who then seeks to inspire legions of young women to copy the style. Elisabeth’s murder was intended to be a blow against the power of the Austro-Hungarian state, but Hill House recasts her as a different kind of symbol: an enviable hairfluencer, the shorthand for a product designed to replicate that beauty in anyone with $85 to spare on pillowcases.

When speaking of girlbosses, another term frequently pops up: the female founder. Following the humbling of so many prominent girlbosses in the last several years, the latter term was intended to push back against the infantilization brought on by an association with girlhood and replace it with a businesslike seriousness. “Girlboss May Be Over, But The Woman Founder Is Here To Stay” announced Forbes. To be a female founder, the business press argued, was to rise above the petty problems that plagued so many girlbosses in the public eye. And to praise a “female founder” signaled that you respect women so much that you’d never call a fully grown adult a “girl.”

But the alternate terminology just dresses up the same concept in new clothes. The alliteration of “female founder” is itself an aesthetic device. And as with girlboss, “female founder” puts emphasis on the top of a company’s hierarchy, assigning all the success of a company to the originator of the idea behind it. But the invocation of the “founder” has another, much less intentional, resonance: “to founder” is to collapse, to give way, to stumble. And going at least as far back as the Aeneid, where Virgil uses forms of the Latin verb for “to found” to describe both Aeneas’s establishing of Rome and his stabbing of his final enemy in service of that goal, the intertwining of founding and its costs has a long history. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the female founder seems to surround herself with images of stumbles, of collapses and unhappy endings. More than that, the apotheosis of her status as a girlboss may be—paradoxically—tied to a fall of her own.

After all, as many commentators have noted, several of the girlbosses who once defined a feminist era have since fallen from grace. In 2017, Miki Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment by an employee of her period underwear company Thinx. Nasty Gal—the company founded by “girlboss” coiner Sophia Amoruso—went bankrupt following allegations of pregnancy-related discrimination; Leandra Medine Cohen’s Man Repeller folded in the wake of allegations of racism in her personal conduct and hiring and firing practices; Audrey Gelman stepped down as CEO of The Wing after reports of the toxic workplace she oversaw; after employees at beauty company Glossier alleged the same, its founder Emily Weiss stepped down as CEO in May of last year; and the eco-credentials of Amanda Chantal Bacon’s Goop-y brand Moon Juice were recently revealed to be as false as their claims of diversity and inclusion.

More often than not, the playbook, when faced with comeuppance, has been to pivot toward something like weaponized victimhood, to claim sexist double standards, a “how could I have known” attitude, or a limp promise that she’s “listening and learning,” as though the problem were a matter of education—not power. During Holmes’s trial last summer, her legal team trotted out a defense that might have seemed somewhat surprising for the formerly lauded girlboss savant whose company claimed to revolutionize blood testing: that she was but a pawn, manipulated by her older male business partner and made to act against her better judgment. The move toward vulnerability is itself a calculated one, in line with the girlbossification of failure. Holmes’s recourse to victimhood here was not a repudiation of her girlboss bona fides, but a canny use of them: taking the adversity she faced and spinning it in one last-ditch attempt to act in her benefit. Whether this move is successful in the eyes of the public—in Holmes’s case, it appears not to have been—it doesn’t really matter.

The girlboss can’t be culpable—women are judged too harshly, she was trying her best, how could she have known.

For just as Theranos itself was a shell game, an absolute fantasy that played at scientific advances, so, too, was the girlboss idea itself about propping up a mirage: that a visionary woman can be single-handedly responsible for creating an empire and fatally wounding sexism in the process. When these empires falter, the retreat from the top hits similar notes as the rise; the girlboss can’t be culpable—women are judged too harshly, she was trying her best, how could she have known.

As the female founder has begun to emerge from under her foundering, one trend recurs in her narrative of rebirth: an embrace of the domestic. Departing the corner office, she turns her attention to the home. There is a difference here from the momfluencer archetype chronicled by Katherine Jezer-Morton and others—which is subject to frequent derision—in these women’s performance of domesticity. From the way that Holmes’s pregnancy and its implied future motherhood played out in her appeals for leniency at her trial to how Emily Weiss’s post-corner office Instagram has turned entirely into shots of her pregnant and mothering, recourse to the cult of domesticity is not a retreat so much as an attempt to reestablish cachet. While it might recall the way so many Rosies the Riveter were shipped off to 1950s suburbia following their dismissal from jobs given over to their war-returned husbands, this turn is ultimately a new avenue for power.

In a recent post on her Substack A Tiny Apartment, ousted Refinery29 cofounder Christene Barberich discussed her impetus for sharing a “house blessing” as a testament to  “why and how space can be so sacred and powerful, and how we can be more intentional and in step with making our spaces—no matter how in-between or imperfect they are—a place where we can plant and nurture the seeds of our deepest desires/biggest dreams.” In a similar vein, Audrey Gelman told Vanity Fair in a profile published last summer about the bespoke home goods store she founded following a stint as a stay-at-home mom, “Obviously, yes, the life I am living now is really different than the life I was living, but it was actually, it’s a life that I fantasized about before. It’s not a consolation prize, you know?”

Before it became associated with women’s self-assertion, the term “girl power” was a technical one. Akin to manpower or horsepower, girl power was first defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the number of girls available to perform a task; girls considered collectively in relation to their capacity to perform work.” An individual who seeks to take credit for the work of a whole group, the female founder undermines the goals of empowering women, of recognizing the power and capacity of their labor in the face of smoke and mirrors image-making. While disgraced female founders may find solace in turning from the feminine archetype of the girlboss to that of the domestic maven, the rest of us ought to take heed of Angela Davis’s words when, critiquing Sylvia Federici’s wages for housework movement, she insisted on the shop floor as the site of both struggle and liberation: “The fact remains that on the job, women can unite with their sisters—and indeed with their brothers—in order to challenge the capitalists at the point of production.”