In the Era of Gamergate, ‘Silicon Valley’s’ Satire of Sexism in Tech Plays It Too Safe


Warning: This article contains Silicon Valley Season 2 finale spoilers.

As Season 2 of HBO’s tech satire Silicon Valley came to a close last night, a venture capitalist power-play took shape.

That power-play: Raviga Capital leader Laurie bought Russ Hanneman’s shares in Pied Piper in order to control the majority of the start-up’s board seats. After finding herself impressed by Pied Piper’s technical capabilities for the first time ever, Laurie makes the rational decision that her predecessor — Peter Gregory — likely would have too: with streaming video capabilities like that, the company can’t afford to be mismanaged by Richard anymore.

As has been the case all season long with this new character, who represents the 4 percent of tech VCs who are women — and one of two female characters added in the second season of the Mike Judge comedy — Laurie’s gender doesn’t appear to factor in to how her decision is portrayed on the show. Erlich doesn’t even get an opportunity to call her a cold-hearted bitch, or worse. But her decision does sit in direct opposition to those of her overly nice and hyper-organized assistant Monica, who often seems to be looking out for Pied Piper’s interests more than Raviga’s — and who, at the end of Season 1, emerged as a would-be romantic interest for Richard. Both differ quite a bit from Carla, Pied Piper’s first (albeit temporary) female coder, whose skills not only demanded respect from Dinesh and Gilfoyle, but whose edgy hackergrrrl cynicism had her leveraging her gender into pranks that suggested she — gasp — earned more than both of them.

All this is to say, Silicon Valley’s take on gender — which is easy to justify as representative of the industry it mocks — improved in the Season 2, with the show diversifying its portrayals of women in tech. The show might even pass the Bechdel test now, so long as conversations about Richard are considered strictly business talk. But in light of Gamergate, high-profile sexism scandals at Snapchat and GitHub, and Ellen Pao’s (failed) gender discrimination lawsuit against VC heavyweight Kleiner Perkins, Silicon Valley could be offering up more eviscerating satire on this particular issue. The series has given us some insider critiques of tech’s most ridiculous excesses — such as the notion of cultural “disruption” that adds a layer of self-importance — so why not be bolder when it comes to the Valley’s gender gap and institutionalized sexism?

Rebel coder Carla, complete with asymmetrical haircut. (courtesy of HBO)

“I think if we just came out with the show and every company was 50 percent women, 50 percent men, we’d kind of be doing a disservice by not calling attention to the fact that it’s really 87 percent male,” creator Judge recently told Bloomberg. “We’re taking jabs at ’em for it. It’s different than endorsing it.”

But those jabs could barely be considered punches. The show’s most memorable moments along those lines revolve around Dinesh and Gilfoyle writing code for a beautiful women who tricks them into writing code for her cupcake app, or hapless HR head Jared nudging total opposites Monica and Carla to be friends because they’re both female. Much of Silicon Valley’s humor is built around obvious targets in tech (your eccentric social web leaders, for one), and yet, the most obvious issue is treated so conservatively. (And while we’re talking about obvious angles, Judge and co. never fail to set up Dinesh and Erlich as tongue-wagging tech nerds stumbling over themselves when a hot woman shows interest, despite such a narrative being wildly played out since the invention of computers.)

While Silicon Valley made some efforts this season to represent women — who in actuality make up something like 26 percent of the computing workforce — the show’s writers didn’t exactly drive home any points regarding misogyny in the field, despite it being so ripe for satire. The problem lies in the fact that even a comedy intended to mirror an industry ends up as a representation of it. Silicon Valley offered up a strong season all around, but when it comes to misogyny, Season 3 owes it to the women of tech to go in a hell of a lot harder.