Jun 2, 2014

Men and Their Computers: Halt and Catch Fire, Silicon Valley and One-Sided Conversations

By Josh Oakley

According to a New York Times article from earlier this year, twenty percent of software developers are women. As sadly small as that number is, you wouldn’t guess even that high judging by Silicon Valley. The HBO sitcom doesn’t purport itself to be a documentary, but even that distance from reality allows it only so much wiggle room. The show didn’t need to become about the discrepancy in gender in the tech world. But every time the issue arose, it always become a joke swinging its dick in the direction of how funny men are. The few women that did populate this world functioned mostly as objects, from Monica (Amanda Crew) to the girlfriend of Gilfoyle (Martin Starr). It was as if Silicon Valley had its point-of-view set, that all of the tech industry is a sausage party, and made a case around the hypothesis. Instead of exploring the roles of gender, or even glancing at them, the show was comfortable to present one side of a case. And the other side doesn’t seem to be available anywhere on television.

Halt and Catch Fire may, in its future, vocalize this opposition. One of the three leads is female, and her role seems to be capitalizing on the opportunities offered during the tech boom era of the 80’s. But in the first episode, at least, her role is clearly defined as “the token woman” of the group. That’s certainly better than nothing, and allows for commentary in the area of equality, but it’s not necessarily a clear solution. The main reason to be cautious going forward with Catch Fire is the fact that the other central woman spends much of the episode being a nagging wife, trying to keep her husband from his dreams. Her reasoning is solid, but this is a show about moving forward, given its position in time and industry. She comes around in the end, but she does so flatly, leaving the door open for future conflict. Nearly all of her dialogue seems written by those that accused Skylar of being the true villain of Breaking Bad. Halt and Catch Fire does have time to prove itself, and deserves that time, but the arrows don’t seem to be pointed in the right direction.

It’s a matter of coincidence that these two shows have their respective finale and premiere on the same night. But it also allows for a broader discussion of this specific vein of representation, or the lack thereof. The opening story of that aforementioned Times article is chilling, showing the complicated nature of gender equality in the tech industry. It would be ideal, of course, to have this specific viewpoint represented all its own in a show written by a woman about women and for everyone. Unfortunately, given the state of female showrunners, this doesn’t seem like the likeliest path to action. But it’s a vital one, as it is in all of art: the more, different people we have to say things, the more, different things will be said. This should be common sense by now, but clearly is not.

So, the temporary solution comes in the form of the current, male writers at least attempting to understand other walks of life. Mike Judge clearly knows how to create female characters of value, but Silicon Valley keeps slipping past any real development. The fact that, as the plot seems to be progressing, more will needed to be added to the cast is a good opportunity for change. Of course, that shift can’t be purely cosmetic. Simply having more women in the background doesn’t do much to change the image the show is presenting (but even that would be a start).

What seems most absurd about the unwillingness to present more voices is the fact that it makes things easier, in all honesty. There are more opportunities for conflict, a larger hiring pool, and plenty of humor to be found in the situation. This is true in both the macro of all television (hire more female showrunners) and the micro of Silicon Valley. The central figure of that Times piece says this of the tech world: “It’s very dangerous for us as a community to say we will only work with people who share our beliefs.” She’s absolutely correct, and though she’s giving a reason for her return to that field, the other side should be thinking the same thing. There is a clear gender problem in programming field. But there’s also something wrong with how the matter is reflected in popular culture. In the simplest of computer language, it’s safe to say that in 2014 it’s time: </gender inequality> for those in the industry and those holding up the mirror.

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