Reel Women: HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ Needs More Women
Mike Judge’s new HBO series ‘Silicon Valley’ is a clever, insightful, and at times satirical look at the tech industry in the heart of Silicon Valley, following a group of young upstarts as they endeavor to launch a new platform that will (hopefully) revolutionize data consumption. And while the show has one smart and assertive recurring female character, its dominantly male perspective became alarmingly clear following last week’s episode, in which the men attended TechCrunch Disrupt, an expo where they were set to unveil their hard work before a massive crowd of techies. Aside from ancillary characters who exist merely to drive conflict, where are all the women?
Don’t get me wrong: I love ‘Silicon Valley,’ and although the show has had some bumps in its startup season, Judge is doing what he does, back home on television and utilizing his own background in the tech industry to craft a wonderfully funny portrait of young, introverted techies just trying to make a name for themselves in a world inundated by technology, where practically anyone can make an app for just about anything these days. At its best, the show is fiercely clever and incisive, and at its most okay, the show is ‘Entourage’ for nerds, but it’s never bad or even mediocre.
The trouble is with the lack of women represented on the show, which features six leading men and two dominant recurring male characters, and only one recurring female co-star: Amanda Crew’s Monica, who acts as assistant to the late Christopher Evan Welch’s brilliantly eccentric Peter Gregory. Monica is smart, assertive, and in the most recent episode, better at navigating the industry than her male counterpart -- Zach Woods’ Jared, the business manager for Pied Piper, the startup company which serves as the focus of the series. And while Monica is a strong female presence on a show that otherwise lacks female representation, it’s simply not enough.
When the gang hits TechCrunch Disrupt, Monica herself makes it a point to warn the guys that the tech world is typically 2% female, but that this event boasts 15% women, to which Martin Starr’s character jokes that it’s practically a “meat market.” But the only women we really see at the event are ancillary and not really tech-involved. One is a young woman representing social media for her fledgling cupcake business, who flirts her way into getting the guys to help her with coding for her website. Another is the wife of a judge for the competition, who winds up sleeping with one of the main characters. And the last is a girl who once dated lead character Richard, and who tells anyone who will listen that he is obsessed with her. Each of their plots is in service to the male perspective, and each of them exists only for the purpose of conflict. Looking back on the female characters who’ve appeared on the show in its first seven episodes, the same holds true: a stripper who stirs up awkward sexual excitement, conflict, and acts as a maternal character in a time of crisis; and a long distance girlfriend who comes for a visit, only to be used as a pawn in a spiteful game that incites competition amongst two men in the house. There is one recurring female character whose name I had to look up: Patrice, a tech executive who mostly stands in the background, but who is at least credited in four episodes and while she doesn’t get to say much, at least she doesn’t seem to exist solely to aid in the creation of conflict for the male characters.
The show’s problem with women only became really evident last week, when its sole recurring female character took time to point out the vast discrepancy between the presence of men and women in the tech industry. True, the show is reflecting depressing real world statistics: men outnumber women seven to three throughout the tech industry, despite the fact that women hold over 41% of all science and engineering degrees. Even worse: according to another report, the quit rate for women in the tech industry is 56%. But here is where Mike Judge and the writers of ‘Silicon Valley’ have an opportunity, and one they still have time to correct in the future. Being based in reality shouldn’t prevent the show from offering an optimistic alternative to said reality and presenting a fictional narrative counterpoint that is both inspirational and aspirational, while still retaining its satirical lens. The show can still hilariously acknowledge the realities of the world on which its based, but because it operates in the realm of fiction, they have an opportunity to portray a more balanced world.
In last week’s episode, even female background extras were exceedingly limited. Women do work in the tech industry, and women want to work in the tech industry, but judging by the alarming statistics, it’s not a female-friendly environment. ‘Silicon Valley’ could stand as an example, where women are a more regular presence on the show, and thus feel more included. Whether they’re cast as employees working at fictional mega tech company Hooli, or just a healthy amount of background extras sprinkled into a scene like the one at the TechCrunch Disrupt event. And I’m not talking about casting women as eye candy or women in administrative roles as assistants, but women just perceived as equals and not limited to the dominant male perspective of the series -- women who can code and build websites and launch apps. This is a show about a group of young men in Silicon Valley, and the showrunners are clearly writing from their own perspective, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t find more space for women. And if they could cast more regular female characters along the lines of Monica, that would be ideal, but the least they could do is find equal representation for women on the screen -- even if that fictive representation isn’t true to the unfair reality.
By normalizing the equality of women in fictional media, we’re sending a message to people in the real world about the presence of women in our workplaces and our lives. Give the fictional ‘Silicon Valley’ more women, and let’s see if the real Silicon Valley takes notice.