HBO's "Silicon Valley" creators once again punt on sexism issue
satire [n]: the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc
There are two major criticisms brought against HBO's Silicon Valley: The first is that it just isn't that funny, at least when compared to some of Mike Judge's other films and television shows, including Idiocracy, Office Space, and King of the Hill. The second, less subjective critique is that as the preeminent commentary on the new tech economy, the show has failed to properly address one of the biggest issues worthy of said commentary facing the industry: sexism. Over and over again, commentators have taken the show to task over how it does more to play into the gender biases of Silicon Valley than it does critique them. And every time, the show's creators provide a variation of the same defense: We're just telling it like it is.
Today, in an interview with Bloomberg TV's Emily Chang, Judge once again heard these complaints, and once again he attributed the show's lack of gender diversity to a desire to accurately reflect the skewed demographics of the tech industry.
"I think if we just came out with the show and every company was 50 percent women, 50 percent men, we'd kinda be doing a disservice by not calling attention to the fact that it's really 87 percent male," Judge said. "We're taking jabs at 'em for it. It's different than endorsing it."
It is different than endorsing it. And if Silicon Valley were some cinema verite look at the industry -- a drama that prioritized searing realism and detached documentary over light, sarcastic embellishment -- then that would be a valid defense. But this line comes just a few seconds after Judge repeats, "It's satire, it's satire," and as he reiterates here, the show is supposedly "taking jabs at 'em for it."
Silicon Valley is indeed satire in some ways -- in fact, its best moments are satirical. But it tends to pick and choose what subjects are worthy of "satire" and what subjects are worthy of "realism," and its selections often defy reason. Russ Hanneman, for example, the douche supreme who makes his debut in this season's third episode, is obviously a satirical extrapolation of one-hit wonder Silicon Valley jerk-offs, bringing to mind comparisons to Sean Parker, Marc Cuban, and Chris Sacca. There's no reason for restraint in depicting this character -- I doubt even the most ardent douches listen to Limp Bizkit's "Nookie" like it's still a thing, but that detail underwrites both the character's all-encompassing bad taste and his obsession with the turn of the 2000s, when Hanneman made all his money.
So why this devotion to realism over commentary when it comes to depicting gender issues? I understand the show's desire to get the little technical details right -- that viewer who really understands relational databases will appreciate the verisimilitude at no expense to the average audience member. But the show could be so much more enlightening -- and funnier -- if it didn't portray Silicon Valley sexism as-is and in a vacuum. The most egregious example of this comes late last season when a female coder -- the only one we've seen thus far -- demands help separately from Gilfoyle and Dinesh in cleaning up the code for her, uh, "cupcake app." Seriously.
When it's Dinesh's turn to glance at the code, he's surprised by its elegance. And for a moment, the show appears to be meeting stereotypes halfway, instead of playing into them entirely. But then it's revealed that Gilfoyle was the one who wrote the code anyway! The female coder -- the one. female. coder. -- has been revealed to be a total cupcake charlatan.
Under Judge's prevailing rationale, he might say something like, "We're just accurately depicting how the average Silicon Valley bro thinks of women in this industry. That may be true, but without providing a counterpoint to this narrative, a viewer with no contextual knowledge of the Valley might think, "Oh, I guess the reason why there aren't many women in tech is because their interests and talents are limited to baking cookies, not code." When in reality, the reason there aren't many women in tech is because shows like Silicon Valley reinforce the notion to both sexes that women don't belong here.
Now, the show has gotten better in its second season, introducing Carla (Alice Wetterlund), a woman who is as talented or moreso across a number of developer disciplines than Pied Piper's male coding wunderkinds Dinesh and Gilfoyle. But in her debut, she exists primarily to terrorize the male members of the team to prove that women are just as likely to perpetrate harassment and "workplace hostility" as men, despite the opposite notion suggested by countless HR meetings. The way the show treats Carla as an equal is a vast improvement over last season's deafening silence from technically-minded female characters. And moreover, this upending of audience expectations surrounding how Carla would like to be treated -- and how she likes to treat others -- in the workplace is a welcome perspective on the gender issues facing Silicon Valley. But it's only one perspective. And in the absence of giving voice to other contours of this complex issue, it not only suggests that harassment against men or women is "no big deal," it suggests that workplace harassment against men is equally as bad as harassment against women. Anybody who believes that belongs at a men's rights conference, not writing for a major television show.
Silicon Valley is the show it chooses to be. If I didn't have an interest in writing about it each week, I would not watch it, and that's fine. It's not for me. But by continually punting on one of the most serious issues facing the Valley, that's the real disservice -- to men and women alike in the Valley, and to the art of satire, which when highlighting injustices against women, in and outside of Silicon Valley, can lead to some of the funniest and most trenchant comedy out there. Just ask Amy Schumer, whose show is the funniest program on television today, and far funnier than anything the dude writers at Silicon Valley have ever conjured.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]