Levy: The Era of Exploitative Feminism

Why we need to stop sensationalizing female success.

by Gabrielle Levy | 2/21/19 2:11am

 

Just one pinprick of blood and you can be screened for thousands of diseases and disorders. This was the promise made by the female entrepreneur and former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes in 2014. I remember sitting at my kitchen table over a family dinner, listening intently as my mom enlightened me of the story of Holmes and her groundbreaking company. In line with how the media was portraying Holmes at the time, my mother unconsciously spun Theranos’ narrative as a gilded story of female achievement and innovation — a feel-good account of a woman breaking through the glass ceiling and designing something better than any man had ever produced. 

Yet, as many are aware, the revolutionary technology of a “miniLab” never came to fruition. Infuriatingly, Holmes never even had any reason to believe that her company, which she founded after dropping out of Stanford University following suit of Steve Jobs and other visionaries, was ever capable of producing such a technology. Investigations by the Wall Street Journal and CNBC found that Theranos had been outsourcing their bloodwork to other labs and that individuals enrolled in their trials had been receiving shaky, if not entirely misleading, results which led to several instances of harmful prescriptions of blood thinners. Indeed, the New York Times editorial board deplored Holmes’ deception as, “one of the most outrageous acts of corporate prestidigitation since Enron convinced us that it had reinvented energy.” 

Surprisingly, we’ve seen this story replay itself all-too frequently over the past decade. Take Haruko Obokata, another burgeoning young female scientist who skyrocketed to fame and became the head of her own laboratory in 2014 after claiming to have found a way to turn ordinary cells into stem cells she denoted as “STAP cells.” The only problem was, no one else could recreate these magic cells. Within months, investigations were launched and Obokata was found guilty of scientific misconduct because, to put it simply, STAP cells had never actually existed.

Most recently, there was the case of Sheryl Sandberg ­­— the COO of Facebook and face of a “new brand of professional feminism.” Lauded for her impressive career, Sandberg’s celebrity soared after the publication of her book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” which advised women on finding the balance between professional success and family life. Again, the media and public were enamored by the tale of the unstoppable career woman, and Sandberg became a feminist icon. But then, in November 2018, the bubble burst. A New York Times report found Sandberg responsible for many of Facebook’s recent controversial business decisions, such as suppressing information on Russian hacking and hiring PR firms to attack George Soros with anti-Semitism after he criticized Facebook for being a “menace to society.” 

It’s sad, but undeniable, that it has become unbelievably profitable for women to exploit feminism for the pursuit of wealth and fame. As a woman, I am hesitant to phrase the acts of Holmes, Obokata, Sandberg and others in such blunt terms. Indeed, these individuals’ acts of capitalist exploitation perpetuate the stereotype of the ruthless and immoral careerwoman, set in dichotomous juxtaposition to the dim, but caring housewife.

At the end of the day, it was wrong of these women to abuse the willingness of the media and public to fall in love with the story of a successful female. Nonetheless, I also argue that it was wrong for so many of us to be so eager to worship at the altar of these powerful women in the first place. 

The three women discussed above are simultaneously the engineers and products of an exploitative feminist dynamic. Yet these two phenomena can also occur separately of one another. There are countless examples of successful female entrepreneurs and scientists whose reputations have not been tainted by scandal. I wish to emphasize that many powerful women did not intentionally exploit feminism as a marketing tool to advance their celebrity or careers. Take Mary Barra — the CEO of General Motors and top-ranking woman on the Fortune 500 list. In a 2015 interview, Barra discussed her inability to “understand why people found her gender such a noteworthy part of her job.” Though Barra rightfully found gender to be irrelevant to her accomplishments, the media was unable to separate her identity as a woman from her success as a CEO. Today Show host Matt Lauer even publicly wondered whether the phenomenon of the glass cliff applied to Barra’s success; had Barra been promoted because GM felt a female figure would soften the blow of their recall crisis of 2014? 

On the other hand, there are also instances in which the narrative of feminism has not worked to increase public support of successful women. After posing for the cover of Vogue, Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo!, was criticized for allowing herself to be used by the media as proof that powerful women can also be beautiful. Instead of being lauded for her ability to “have it all,” Mayer was attacked for attempting to use overt femininity to “soften” her image. In other words, successful women do not always attempt to exploit the narrative of feminine success, though the media might still end up exploiting it for them, and those who seem to be attempting to exploit it, do not always succeed. 

Yet, at the same time, I believe people should stop jumping the gun and sensationalizing female achievement. When we aggrandize an individual’s achievements more on the basis of their gender than on tangible measures of attainment, we not only risk being swindled (perhaps endangering our health in the process), but we perpetuate the idea that a woman being successful is rare enough to warrant extra media attention and praise. 

Personally, I long for the day when a news story describing a discovery by a female scientist makes little to no mention of gender. When we buy into sensationalism, we open the doors of fantasy for those who are willing to lie and deceive to climb to the top. Even worse, we devalue the women who play by the rules and actually earn their success and fortune. So let’s stop worshipping female CEOs just because they are female and stop sensationalizing the idea of female success. Let’s break through the glass ceiling of norms, not just the glass ceiling of professional success.