I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of role models. When you’re growing up you get asked a lot about yours. They want names, and if you don’t have any you’re basically a feckless little renegade operating in an ideological vacuum, unnerving to even the most self assured adult. I’ve seen teachers and parents press squirming children for replies, as if the failure to come up with a name is a moral one. I’ve seen children deflate as their answers don’t land, met with terse disapproval or nervous laughter. No child should be cornered this way, forced to rise to adult expectations that early. Phrased differently the question still remains an unfair one- What do you want to be when you grow up? It is ‘one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child’, says Michelle Obama in her excellent book, Becoming. ‘I was going to be a paediatrician,’ she writes, because ‘I quickly learned that it was a pleasing answer for adults to hear.’ It is stupid to ask it of a child, she says, because becoming is a continuous process and there is no singular, grand, final goal. ‘As if growing up is finite.’ she vents. ‘As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.’ She puts the notion to rest with a list of milestones that shaped her person. Becoming a lawyer. VP at a hospital. Director of a non profit that helps young adults build meaningful careers. A working class black student at a posh white college. The only woman, the only African American woman, in all sorts of rooms. A bride, a mother, a daughter grieving her father’s death. The FLOTUS.
So are role models completely useless? One could argue that they are replacement- parents and guides that help us navigate adulthood, teaching by example, pointing us in surprising and inspiring directions, playing mentors-in-absentia, imaginary best friend, the voice in your head. When I first started writing about fashion, I’d ask myself What would Anna Wintour think? There is merit in curating your inspiration, shaping your life around goals you admire. But it can tip over into worship. Popular culture conflates worth with celebrity. To a lot of young people today, you’re not a good role model if you’re not famous- social media famous, frenzied paparazzi famous, money famous. The dismantling of beloved icons like Michael Jackson- decades too late- has laid bare our worst groupie impulses.
My other problem with society- certified role models is that they are overwhelmingly male, mostly dead, and thus framed as unimpeachable, aggravatingly so. Let’s pick three popular names, old- timey people who were and still are believed to be the best at what they did, mythologized beyond recognition. Charles Dickens, Victorian novelist and sublime chronicler of the industrial age is seldom called out for his misogyny. In Dickens’s Women, writer Miriam Margolyes is clearly conflicted in her appraisal of this man who called his wife Catherine ‘as near being a donkey as one of her sex can be.’ His infatuation with teenage girls, his vicious treatment of the women in his life and the mental abuse they suffered at his hands are conveniently sidestepped in readings of his work. Albert Einstein, god and muse to every acne- studded teen scientist in the world was a shitty husband and consummate asshole. Among the other crimes he was never officially called out for- like casteism- Gandhi’s horrifying obsession with sex and women’s bodies manifested as widely documented perversions; his aides looked the other way as he subjected the women in his life to unspeakable atrocities.
It also seems to me that women are pushed into adopting female role models much more aggressively than men are into adopting theirs. If you were a little girl in the late 90’s and didn’t have astronaut Kalpana Chawla, police officer Kiran Bedi or Man Booker winner Arundhati Roy shoved in your face at least once, did you even exist? Little boys and young men face nowhere near this sort of pressure to prove their capabilities; it’s because their worth isn’t contingent on glory- getting. Across the world exasperated, indulgent mothers of male children go Boys. What can youdo?! even as they hold their female children to far more exacting standards. I believe there is enough and more room for male ordinariness, but little tolerance for female ordinariness. Thus, the success of female icons is selectively interpreted; ordinary women are burdened with replicating their magnificence if only to prove to their caregivers that they’re worth the love, respect and investment. Meanwhile those burdening us refuse to acknowledge how a hostile patriarchy stymies us at every step, or indeed review their own complicity in our failures. In Emma Cline’s breakout 2016 novel The Girls, a character hits it right on the head- ‘All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you- the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.’
The heroines in Penelope Bagieu’s Brazen- Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World do just that- become. They spend their lives striving to be so comfortable in their skin they become the best versions of themselves. Their success is not textbook, not quantifiable, not the kind of success that lends itself easily to film adaptations or punchy headlines. A lot of it isn’t the sort of success we set such great store by. No. This is a success so out of character for its milieu, or marked by so many setbacks and so much heartbreak it’s more struggle than success and may well not have acknowledged as such in its time. It is the sort of success authority figures and polite society bristle at, warn their children against. Respectability was no consideration for these women; their lives were all heart and good sense even if it got them into trouble. In the glut of feminist easy- reads in the market- many lavishly illustrated but low on substance or imagination- Bagieu’s book stands out for its selection of names, drawn by casting such a wide net across eras and geographies and cultures that there are women here you definitely haven’t heard of, women who are no less deserving for it. Among the brief bios listed against each name in the index, my favorites are Obstinate Lover and Reluctant Celebrity. Her beautiful art and clever storytelling deserve as much praise as her criteria for inclusion. In her landmark book of essays Men Explain Things To Me writer Rebecca Solnit makes a passionate and patently logical argument for evaluating things- people, intentions, outcomes- differently. ‘My own task these past twenty years or so of living by words has been to try to find or make a language to describe the subtleties, the incalculables, the pleasures and meanings—impossible to categorize—at the heart of things. My friend Chip Ward speaks of “the tyranny of the quantifiable,” of the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having. The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the Earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters.’ Brazen is a quietly brilliant attempt at counting what matters, and making it count.
Over at Shoes Your Daddy, a small but spirited art- meets- fashion endeavour, Delhi based founder Sugandha turns erryday clothes and shoes into canvases for her exquisite art. I recently popped into Rajasthan for a short vacation and this Mughal miniature painting- inspired jacket was perfect for long walks in the windy pink corridors of its ancient forts. I wore it over a whisper of a chikankari kurta from Janpath, an old chartreuse sweater and parrot green pants. I’d happily throw this on over a cotton sari, a sundress or a gharara.
I met Sugandha at a flea market for small local businesses and loved how earnestly she pitched her work. There’s something about spunky young women taking risks over something they love that gets me everytime. It wasn’t easy choosing from her arrestingly gorgeous prints- other favorites were unibrowed goddess and feminist icon Frida Kahlo and fluid swirls of blue, white, black and yellow approximating Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Because I stumbled on her stall near closing time, she gave me a 500 Rupee discount on this 4000 Rupee jacket. She also does shoes and is especially happy to work with Vans or Converse pairs. If you want one customised with a particular design, send her your shoes after confirmation from her end, or ask her to source your size. All her hand- painted shoes and garments are washable. For general dirtiness or even a localised stains, a soft cloth, cold water and careful hand washing will do quite nicely.
You can browse Sugandha’s work at her Instagram page. For general enquiries, tap on the FAQs in her Highlights. For jacket- specific information, tap on Jackets. You can message her on Instagram for purchase requests. She accepts payments through PayTm and Online Banking options like NEFT and IMPS.
And now, a PSA. When reaching out to a small business for a purchase, it’s important to remember that they’re still scrambling to get operations and logistics right. It’s an all- hands- on- deck situation and they may not always have the time or energy to engage in long winded conversations. Replies to your questions may be short and professional and not always prompt, but that’s no reason to spit fire at them or accuse them of ‘rudeness’. They’re not being rude; they’re just optimizing. There’s nothing a small business loves more than a customer who communicates with courtesy and professionalism, so keep your enquiries strictly information- based and remember to thank them after the exchange. Think a lot before you escalate to aggression, like demanding a refund for a late delivery, for example. Small businesses rely heavily on state and national courier services and don’t always control delivery speeds. It’s best to assume that any timelines conveyed before your purchase are fluid and come from a place of good intentions. No one wants to inconvenience or disappoint their customer.
Also, remember to thank them and compliment their work after you’ve received a satisfactory order. Kindness goes a long way in boosting morale, and who knows, you might make a great new friend! Always support small businesses, local businesses and women- owned businesses any way you can.
I was in the middle of my first break from work when Elizabeth Holmes and her black turtleneck burst onto the scene with the brilliance of a thousand suns. Valued at 9 billion dollars, her company Theranos promised to revolutionise a key diagnostic aspect of healthcare- laboratory testing. Her ascent to business stardom was inspiring and felt personally relevant. She had taken a ton of risks- dropped out of college young, turned a passion project into a life goal, persevered in a field that isn’t known to be particularly kind to women. It also felt like a timely cultural intervention against years of male- led innovation in the startup space. Her poise and her power showed up shows like The Big Bang Theory for their mean- spirited portrayals of women in science. Comically inept at doing life, these women exhibit a strong self- sabotaging streak evidenced by their relationships with narcissistic men. Their low self esteem makes them undeserving of the little kindnesses that make up healthy romantic relationships. While their immaturity and habitual boasting get the men our love and our laffs, the women are punished for far less egregious errors by being written off as a scold, a bumbling idiot, or a shrew (Bernadette, Amy and Leslie respectively).
Holmes was different. She brought a self assured grace to the table, and her premise was elegant and disruptive. Pinprick- based bloodwork felt like real scientific progress as opposed to her peers’ formidable but fundamentally inessential sells. This wasn’t an app that hyper- connected people or a phone that commanded luxury prices. Her idea didn’t need spin- it really could make the world a better place. She was a force for good.
That is, until investigative reporter and two- time Pulitzer winning team member John Carreyrou began asking questions. Carreyrou had a habit of reading the New Yorker on his daily subway commute and remembers being unmoved by their gushing coverage of Holmes’ exploits.
‘…there were some things I’d read in that article that I’d found suspect.’, he writes, ‘The lack of any peer-reviewed data to back up the company’s scientific claims was one of them. I’d reported about health-care issues for the better part of a decade and couldn’t think of any serious advances in medicine that hadn’t been subject to peer review. I’d also been struck by a brief description Holmes had given of the way her secret blood-testing devices worked: “A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.” Those sounded like the words of a high school chemistry student, not a sophisticated laboratory scientist…(I ) found it hard to believe that a college dropout with just two semesters of chemical engineering courses under her belt had pioneered cutting-edge new science. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg had learned to code on his father’s computer when he was ten, but medicine was different: it wasn’t something you could teach yourself in the basement of your house. You needed years of formal training and decades of research to add value. There was a reason many Nobel laureates in medicine were in their sixties when their achievements were recognized.’ A few weeks later he got a tip from an obscure pathology blogger who shared his scepticism of Holmes’ technology despite advances in the field of microfluidics. Carreyrou officially initiated the investigation after former key Theranos employees joined his quest for the truth. Bad Blood- Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup is the sum of his excellent investigative work and a fly on the wall look at how Theranos contained and deferred an epic implosion by way of Holmes’ gumption and bald faced lying.
To me Carreyrou is a journalistic outlier because he refused to buy into the prodigy narrative, nor was he swayed by the names on Holmes’ formidable board, which included Henry Kissinger and former US Secretary of State George Shultz. In one interview he explains why he was unimpressed with her lineup of directors. He talks about two types of investors; ‘Dumb Money’ are typically privileged old white men who cultivate proteges in the hallowed Washington tradition of post- retirement philanthropizing. They invite pitches in their stately old drawing rooms and invest with the understanding that they are patrons and advisors, not investors. Their admiration is fawning and mostly uncritical. ‘Smart Money’ is VC firms that have entire teams dedicated to diligence and research. They demand periodic updates from their investees and closely monitor their company’s progress. While investigating Carreyrou understood why Theranos didn’t have a single doctor, healthcare or medicine tech investor on her board- she just couldn’t afford to.
Carreyrou was dogged, meticulous and painstakingly ethical in his search for the truth. His findings force us to take a hard look at our universal awe of Unicorns- rare Silicon Valley startups valued at 1 billion or more, their founders celebrated in the media and held up in homes and classrooms as career role models. At the time of his investigation there were only 39. These companies had another distinguishing feature. ‘Instead of rushing to the stock market like their dot com predecessors had in the 1990’s,’ writes Carreyrou, ‘the Unicorns were able to raise staggering amounts of money privately and thus avoid the close scrutiny that came with going public.’ This means that Unicorns can potentially get away with toxic work policies and grey- area practices, neither of which overly concern their RoI- minded investors.
It is important to understand why Holmes got away with deception and fraud for over a decade without anyone- regulators, investors, retail partners, the media- noticing. The only people who did notice were ordinary folk who’d had Theranos do their bloodwork via physician referrals. The physicians especially were mistrustful of the company after patient reports threw up repeated inaccuracies. Sometimes a Theranos device would throw up improbable potassium values for a patient, a value possible only if they were dead. The frequency of these errors was frightening but meant nothing when voiced by ordinary people. This is because we romanticise the entrepreneur. They remain the objects of an enduring cultural fascination and feature prominently in our resignation fantasies. Before I go into why, let’s first draw a distinction between the old and the new entrepreneur, even though both are mainstays of the same capitalist ecosystem. One, the idea of genius is strongly embedded in the stories of the new entrepreneur or new guard. This is an important myth to perpetuate because it precludes uncomfortable discussions around race, class, privilege or accountability. Prodigious talent confers a godlike status on its wielder, and you don’t knock your gods down easily. As a result the idea of genius has become inseparable from and central to the origin story; in many cases they’re one and the same thing. Two, they’re good at performative anti- establishmentarianism. Whether its Zuckerberg’s hacker ethos or Google’s anti- formal offices, there’s an egalitarianism and benign irreverence to their vision. You want to root for the guy that won’t spend his money on an expensive suit just to impress an investor. But just because they aren’t staid or predictable doesn’t mean they aren’t problematic in a typically capitalist way- Amazon’s been panned consistently for making their employees work unforgivable hours and Facebook’s business model is built on the exploitation of privileged- access data on consumers. They are beneficiaries of the same system they claim to reject. Three, with origin stories that almost always feature a rejection of the formal education system, rough- around- the- edges personalities and unmistakable youth, these guys have great relatabilility. These stories almost always feature a garage/ dorm/ basement, a broken- down car, dubious finances, suspiciously uncritical parents and a friend or two willing to participate in a shared delusion. We’ve all been broke and saddled with an uninspiring thesis/ job at some point in our lives and harboured dreams of working for ourselves. Dropping out of school was once considered delinquent behavior, but the Valley entrepreneur introduced us to the idea of the Good Delinquent. The Good Delinquent plays on our own dissatisfaction with the formal education system- its expensiveness, its pointlessness in a competitive job economy and its ultimate futility. There’s also the matter of appearances- in the contrast of their wealth with their enduring frumpiness (Gates) and normal, low- key domesticity (Zuckerberg) we see our own lives and possibilities reflected. Seductive conclusions (I’m not so different from these guys, I too can have this if I try hard enough) are thus easy to draw. Four- these guys are now the most valued employers in the world- by recruiters, potential employees and media alike. It’s difficult to challenge that level of validation. Five, a lot of these guys are Meta Curators; their algorithms control the visibility (or lack thereof) of images, news, issues, opinion, conversations- everything. It’s not easy to step back and say I think this needs a closer look. Five- the Valley entrepreneur understands the power of iconography. In Steve Jobs’ black Issey Miyake turtlenecks, Zuck’s normcore grey sweats and Elon Musk’s douchebro swagger we see evidence of a carefully cultivated image that’s as valued by consumers and market watchers as the company itself. All of these combine to concentrate unprecedented amounts of power, influence and public goodwill in the hands of these men. We see in them an essential goodness, even when they’re locking horns with regulatory bodies and lawmakers over indefensible policies and market manipulations.
Carreyrou’s book challenges the notion that these titans are beyond reproach. He mentions a number of red flags that should’ve alerted anyone watching Theranos closely. My personal favorite is his assessment of Holmes’ derivative personal style. She modelled herself after Steve Jobs and took to black turtlenecks with enthusiasm. She also spoke at a false pitch, a baritone several octaves below her natural one. When I watch her in interviews I see another glaring affectation. She mimics presidential speech patterns quite competently, particularly Barack Obama’s; she gets his vocal fry down pat. Several observers have also commented on her intense blue gaze. The fact that she could go longer- than- average without blinking meant that her stare had an earnest, hypnotic quality. ‘A woman must continually watch herself,’ says John Berger in Ways Of Seeing. ‘She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.’ He writes that ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision : a sight.’ In a world run by older men with questionable fashion choices, Elizabeth Holmes- with her beauty and her audacious vision- was a sight. She presented as the male- approved version of herself she liked best, a version that allowed her to pass as harmless and well intentioned even as she pulled an elaborate con.
Carreyrou’s book is an important, unputdownable read. It demonstrates what a free press can accomplish when left to do their work unhindered. It endorses unconventional/ alternative media platforms- like blogs- as no less essential to democracy for their lack of eminence or institutional backing. It confirms our worst suspicions about corporate culture; despite their professed egalitarianism, these remain some of the most oppressive, opaque workplaces in the world, discouraging dissent and scepticism in much the same way as the old guard did- strong-arming newcomers and junior employees into submission on threat of termination. It illustrates the flip side of can- do work culture, a culture that sees questioning as incendiary and dangerous, minimizes employee concerns, and goes to great lengths to protect the reputations of its heroes. It is also a testament to the human spirit- what a bunch of honest, confident employees can do for the greater good. It reignites conversations around extending protection to whistleblowers in the workplace and making offices more transparent. It makes a case for nurturing our rusty bullshit detectors, too afraid or lazy to ask questions even when we’re suspicious or clamping down on our discomfort or repelled by the authority figures who matter. And finally, it’s a firm squeeze on the shoulder to anyone who’s been made to feel small, worthless and insignificant at their place of work- you didn’t deserve it. No one does. Not ever. Your voice matters even if you’re the newest or lowest- paid member of company. Let no one tell you otherwise.
Image- Actor and dancer Helen, who I love most for her full, open, teeth- revealing smile, a contrast to the pursed- lip mouth contortions and knee jerk pearl- clutching performed by the leading ladies of her time. “…in the Merchant Ivory film Bombay Talkie I had to dance on the keys of a gigantic typewriter.”, she says in an interview, referring to the weird and wonderful nature of her job and the fantastical contours of her plumage. She brought childlike joy, grace and unmistakable relish to the act of embracing her sexuality, and for that India’s film industry must forever be grateful. May we all go through life like Helen dancing on the keys of a giant typewriter!