In its first season on HBO, the Mike Judge comedy Silicon Valley successfully lampooned a myriad of real problems in the tech world, from naval-gazing executives to coders competing to create the next app that solves an incredibly trivial first-world problem. But the show failed to address the biggest issue that currently confronts the real Silicon Valley — the one that has made headlines this year from the SnapChat CEO’s misogynist emails to Ellen Pao’s gender-discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins — institutionalized sexism. It’s a missed opportunity on an otherwise funny and astute show.
Silicon Valley focuses on a group of male coders working on a start-up called Pied Piper. The absence of female characters in the show could be, as those involved with the show have argued, its own commentary on the real Silicon Valley, where only 26% of the computing workforce is female. But since the comedy is so eager to take on so many other problems in the industry, mockery of the “woman problem” seems glaringly absent.
The closest the show gets is in its final episode, when a character jokes that the tech market is usually just 2% women, but at TechCrunch Disrupt, it’s 15% women — a veritable meat market. Unfortunately, this one-liner falls flat later when the only women we meet for any extended period of time at TechCrunch Disrupt are a girl who flirts to get men to code for her and an ex who spreads rumors about the main character.
As a woman watching the show, it’s hard not to notice those missed chances for a joke. In one scene, the executive of tech company Hooli (a sort of Google-Facebook-Apple hybrid) talks about how his employees always travel in groups of five: a tall, skinny white guy; a short, skinny Asian guy; a fat guy with a ponytail; a guy with crazy facial hair; and an East Indian guy. But there aren’t any women in this “pack.” Indeed, in the shot of the Hooli courtyard, it doesn’t actually look like there are any women working at the company at all. While that might be realistic—even at progressive companies like Google only about 30% of the employees are female — it seems like a great setup for a joke that never actually gets made.
What’s worse: at times the show trades in some of the laziest stereotypes about women. The female characters who make brief forays into the main coders’ world include models paid to talk to nerds at parties, a lawyer’s hot assistant used by her boss to impress clients, a visiting girlfriend who becomes the object of lust, an ex who spreads rumors about the main character and a stripper named Mochachino. Mochachino — the only woman of color on the show — rightly points out in an early episode that an app called NipAlert (which does exactly what you would think) was sexist. “She shows her tits for a living, and even she was uncomfortable using it,” the creator of the app says, sighing. The joke is less about this hapless coder being sexist than it is about him being bad at concocting app ideas.
The only female series regular was Monica, investor Peter Gregory’s assistant, who acts as an organizer and (in the final episode) a potential love interest. Monica is good at logistics (checking other people into hotels, offering words of encouragement, apologizing to her boss when his employees fail), but she has few creative ideas or motivations of her own.
In this way, Silicon Valley doesn’t just reflect the world the characters live in — it actually reinforces stereotypes. “HBO has an entire show dedicated to Silicon Valley, and there aren’t any positive images of women on that,” Reshma Saujani, the founder of the Girls Who Code program, told TIME last year. She added it to a list that included The Social Network and Jobs of entertainment about the start-up world devoid of female coders. “What it shows is the stereotypical image of what it looks like to be an entrepreneur. Young women who watch these things hear: ‘You don’t look like the kind of person who succeeds. This isn’t for you. You’re not good enough.’ And it’s causing them to opt out of these fields.”
Just 7.7% of characters who work in computer science in TV and film are women, according to research conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media. Advocates for gender equality in tech argue that you can’t be what you can’t see: if pop culture versions of the tech world show that these job opportunities are only available to men, that’s what young people who watch these shows and movies will think.
It’s not the responsibility of a show to defy stereotypes, nor does Silicon Valley have an obligation to inspire young girls to become coders. But people actually defended Kleiner Perkins during the Ellen Pao trial by saying, yes, it’s sexist but not as sexist as other venture-capital firms. That already sounds like a punch line.
The show’s writers are aware of the problem. That’s probably why actress Suzanne Cryer will replace the late Christopher Evan Welch (who played investor Peter Gregory) as the main characters’ boss this season. Cryer assured Variety that her character “doesn’t operate the way women normally operate on television” and will defy convention. “She operates completely cerebrally,” she said. “She has no social skills. I mean, literally the opposite of what women are supposed to do … she’s a math wonk, really. So more than like a geek, she’s a nerd I’d say. She’s a hard-core math nerd and she doesn’t get distracted by emotions.”
That character already sounds way more nuanced than Monica or Mochachino. But what will be more important is what they do with the character. Will she face sexism? Did she have a hard time getting to where she is? Will she have any backstory at all? Will she invest in start-ups that employ female coders? In the show, Pied Piper is presented as revolutionary — accomplishing technological feats that no other company has before. Silicon Valley has an opportunity to be revolutionary in its own way too, effecting real-world change through its representations of women. If only it would take the opportunity to do so.
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