After going three whole episodes without being sexist, the gender problems of HBO's "Silicon Valley" are back!
Last season at its worst, HBO's Silicon Valley was unfunny, boring, sexist, and insulting to Valley workers who don't fit neatly into the awkward-straight-male-obsessed-with-his-own-penis paradigm.
So call it an improvement, if you will: For the first three episodes, this new season at its worst was merely unfunny and boring -- not sexist and insulting -- as it interfaced with Silicon Valley's "female problem" in a way that at least endeavored toward complexity. Yes, there were still patriarchal undertones, but nothing worse than what's on display in virtually every television show not called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
That is, until now. With last night's "The Lady," Silicon Valley found its sexist mojo back. We should have seen this coming -- I mean, the show wouldn't hire Dan Lyons just to waste his talents for woman-hating, would he? It's a shame too because the previous episode, "Bad Money," was possibly the greatest half-hour of television the show has ever produced, introducing audiences to the hilarious Sean Parker/Mark Cuban/Chris Sacca analogue Russ Hanneman: the ultimate Silicon Valley douche.
At the end of the last episode, the Pied Piper team was faced with the realization that taking $5 million from Hanneman to save their company came with more strings than they bargained for, and that the move was possibly an even bigger compromise than letting themselves be swallowed up by the massive Google-esque corporation Hooli. Nevertheless, Pied Piper retains some level of autonomy with Richard, Monica, and Erlich holding three board seats and Hanneman only holding two -- one of which he gives over to his Eastern European trophy girlfriend Nastia for the night, who's "got some ideas about Jews -- some good, some bad."
But because somebody used his yogurt spoon or something, Erlich refuses to vote in a bloc with Richard and Monica, allowing Hanneman to force his will at the meeting and compel the startup to spend tens of thousands of its precious Series A cash on "swag" -- like Pied Piper foam fingers -- naturally supplied by Hanneman's own marketing company. This joke is nearly identical to the one that closed out last week's episode, when Hanneman bought giant billboards for the company against Richard's wishes, and it's a shame that the character who a week earlier had stolen the show is forced to repeat the same gags with the limited screen time he's given.
One of the best things about last week's "Bad Money" was that it effectively replaced one vulgar boor -- Erlich -- with a much funnier one in Hanneman. But sadly, Erlich is back in full force this week, throwing obnoxious tantrums over silverware and his inability to gain admittance to Sean Parker's charity benefit to save California's forests. Relegating Erlich to the sidelines last week was a smart decision, but sadly this character, who may very well be the most grating figure on television today, can't be brushed off so easily.
Meanwhile, back at Pied Piper's headquarters, Dinesh and Gilfoyle are beside themselves after Richard hires an attractive female coder. Now if this subplot had been introduced last season -- which was often disastrous at depicting women in Silicon Valley -- the pair of co-CTOs would have likely suffered one of their trademark spells of "vagina panic" in their inability to accept that a woman could be just as capable a coder as they. But this subplot plays out much differently and in a way that's almost worse than the overt sexism of Season 1.
At first, Dinesh and Gilfoyle accept the new hire, Carla (Alice Wetterlund), as a welcome addition to the team. We're told that she's the best out there at what she's hired to do, and she appears to be an interesting, well-drawn character as opposed to the mere tropes (hot chick... mother figure... prostitute) that comprise the rest of the show's females. Sure, with her jagged multicolored locks Wetterlund's "badass female coder" impersonation is a bit too on-the-nose. But the show even makes light of that, having Jared (who thanks to the possible addition of a new team member with the same name is now "other Jared" or "OJ") tell her how much he loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
But the purpose this character is designed to serve soon reveals itself to be something beyond... well... beyond that of an interesting character we care about who just happens to be female. Immediately after being hired -- and following a very serious sexual harassment talk from Jared -- Carla begins to terrorize Dinesh and Gilfoyle by pretending that she's paid more in salary and equity than the two original employees, as she totes along a fake Dolce & Gabbana bag and talks of buying a Mercedes with her new paycheck. Incensed, the two file an HR complaint with Jared because Carla has created a "hostile work environment."
Ha ha see? Women can create hostile work environments too! And poor men are just as likely to be targets of sexual harassment as women!
Look, I get it. It's a clever turnaround of the audience's expectations. And on a show that hasn't been accused of depicting women in technology as little more than cupcake app coders -- and moreover on a show that doesn't take place in an environment where real-life sexual harassment against women happens all the time -- it might be an innocent gag. But in this context, the role reversal telegraphs the message that women's claims of sexual harassment don't matter; that if more women were tough and capable of dishing it out like Carla then we wouldn't need to police the behavior of men at Silicon Valley firms. The writers of Silicon Valley may think they're being "post-gender" here or something, but all it takes is one look at the diversity reports at tech firms -- or a look at a Bay Area newspaper during the Ellen Pao trial -- to know that the real Silicon Valley is anything but "post-gender."
Maybe I'm being too hard on Silicon Valley. And again, the mere addition of a female character that is written as something other than a love interest or a gendered annoyance is a happy step forward for the show. On the other hand, it feels a bit too much like a cop-out -- like a way of suggesting that the tech world's gender issues don't really exist, and are merely an overblown symptom of our PC culture gone mad. Maybe that's what the writers really think. If that's the case, they were better off keeping their mouths shut about the whole issue like they did last season. Because at least then, the silence was a fascinatingly accurate reflection of how gender and racial issues go unnoticed and unremarked upon by the Valley's silent majority. Instead, the show's done something much worse -- it's denied the problem entirely in the name of that most insidious -- and mockworthy (come on, Silicon Valley, you're supposed to be a satire!) -- illusion in the Valley: The meritocracy.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]