Three episodes of the new HBO comedy series Silicon Valley have passed, and I admit that I’m hooked, though not always for good reasons. The show, directed by Mike Judge (known for his hit sitcom Office Space), follows a group of young programmers living in a tech incubator in Silicon Valley and attempting to get a startup off the ground.
Like many who have begun to follow the show, I find the show’s low-brow humor entertaining, if not exactly enriching. However, I tuned into the premiere with distinctly more academic curiosity than most viewers, having spent the past year researching and writing about gender in Silicon Valley startups for my senior thesis at Claremont McKenna College. I was curious to see how Judge dealt with the well-publicized gender gap in the Valley and how he portrayed his female characters.
I was, unfortunately, not surprised by what I saw.
No matter how many articles highlight the dramatic gender imbalances in the Valley, my conversations with those most directly affected often hedged the issue. Many of the individuals I interviewed for my research were hesitant to “take a side” on the gender issue, framing it instead as a “logistical” or academic curiosity. The most common explanation among my 30 interviewees seemed to be, “We know there’s an imbalance, but it’s not just us—all tech companies are like this.” Followed closely by: “And we’re working on it.”
But are they really “working on it?” HBO’s newest show is a step backwards in the efforts for real change in gender stereotyping, and the popularity of the show seems to suggest that we as a nation are more comfortable laughing at our problems than in making the effort to face them.
Even from a single 30-minute episode, the gender imbalance is shockingly clear. Monica (played by Amanda Crew), is the show’s only major female character. Even though she is a woman in power (well, at least a high-level assistant to a man in power), this does little to elevate the status of females in the show: On the rare occasion that women do appear on the screen, they are objectified and isolated.
In the opening scene of the opening episode—a party at a billionaire’s new mansion—the lead character comments on how women and men always separate at these parties, “like a Hasidic wedding.” Women are clearly coveted, but not as colleagues. They are drooled over as objects, sought after by the young, nerdy guys of the show in the same overly privileged manner as any other item. In my interviews, many women mentioned this feeling of objectification: If they wanted to get ahead in the Valley, they had two choices. Either they had to play up their femininity and accept what many women protest as “affirmative action for females” (granting positions to underqualified women or putting “token” women on startup boards without giving them any real power), or become “bossy” and “masculine” to maintain a position of power. With either option, women are forced to operate as an embodiment of gender rather than as individual human beings.
The character of Monica, although she does have a prominent role, reflects the use of the “token woman” in her uncomfortably forced positioning as the show’s only major female character. Like the hasty addition of a woman to Twitter’s all-male board, Monica seems to have been “plunked” into the show rather than serving as an individual character whose traits—beyond her gender—are necessary to the story line.
This is not the only uncomfortable reflection of reality that Judge inserts into the show. The first episode even features an app, NipAlert, that would “show the user the location of a woman with big tits.” This would be a humorous hyperbolic representation of pointless applications coming from the Valley … if only it were an exaggeration. Unfortunately, the app is actually a direct reflection of reality, reminiscent of the recent TitStare app that shocked the startup community at the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference last year. In the show, this app is celebrated, held forth as a standard that Richard, the geeky male lead, is expected to live up to. “This is something people want!” his investor insists. And that’s true: Many people do find apps like TitStare to be “desirable.” What could have been a funny satirical representation is instead a depressing reminder of the realities of the Valley culture.
I hear your protests: “But it’s just a comedy! It’s supposed to make people laugh! It’s not supposed to be real.” That’s just the problem. Silicon Valley hits too close to home, and Judge certainly had no shortage of material to mock. The skewed perspectives on privilege, the asshole “brogrammer” attitude among young (male) techies, the explicit gender gap. As Slate writes, “this is a case of art imitating life.” Or, as Mike Judge himself says in an interview for the same article, “You can’t call it satire when you are showing it like it is.”
So how should we, as viewers, react to the show? Should we be offended? Organize mass boycotts to protest its portrayal of … the truth? Admittedly, Mike Judge is not to blame for the existence of gender bias in the Silicon Valley startup world. However, Judge and the writers of Silicon Valley sitcom are guilty of the sin of omission. The show is a missed opportunity to put change into motion—if we ever hope to transform the realities facing women in Silicon Valley, the first step is to be able to visualize what this change would look like. By failing to even attempt take on this important issue, Silicon Valley encourages audiences to celebrate and endorse this heavily masculine culture.
For Season 2, the writers of Silicon Valley should step outside of the expected and the formulaic and dive into the realm of revolution. How about introducing a female character who revolutionizes the young startup company featured in the show? Have a woman-led startup challenge the work Richard and his band of hoodie-wearing male geeks are doing. Perhaps if enough of us can taste a little bitterness behind the laughter, Silicon Valley—the place, let alone the show—might finally be held accountable for its gender-bias.