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 subjective over taking stances formed via an overt perspective, 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 value, that’s the real disservice — to men and women alike in the Valley, and to the art of satire, which went brought up against 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]



As the douchebags start piling up in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” maybe Erlich isn’t so bad?



Forgive the lateness of this: I’ve been stuck at Sterling Cooper writing 19,000 words about the Mad Men series finale and all 91 other episodesSilicon Valley isn’t anywhere near the same level as Mad Men in terms of documenting the emotional contours of a workplace. Nevertheless, “Homicide,” this second season’s sixth episode, touches on a number of salient issues facing workers in the new tech economy — and most fascinatingly, accurately paints the Valley as just as ruthless, cutthroat, and “douchey” as any industry where people stand to make cash by the fistful.

When a sector like tech begins to mint millionaire founders and billionaire companies with some regularity, it invites a different kind of worker. James Currier, a Valley veteran, PayPal investor, and CEO/Founder of the advisory and investment firm Ooga Labs explained this shift to me a few months ago.

“The new language that is so much about the money is attracting a certain different kind of personality types,” he said.

So the type of person who twenty years ago would have joined an investment bank on Wall Street now rides West to San Francisco to plant a flag and collect some of that ever-ballooning cash, at any cost. And the characters in “Silicon Valley” this week encounter a number of these individuals who are driven more by greed than any high-minded ambitions of changing the world.

The episode begins with Hooli debuting its much-anticipated compression algorithm Nucleus — a direct competitor and existential threat to Pied Piper –by using it to host a digital-only UFC fight that can’t be seen on cable. (At first this felt like weird product placement for UFC, but it’s fairly realistic. None of the more popular sporting events or leagues are likely to dare go digital-only at this early stage of the cordcutting game). And in a rare bit of purely good news for the Pied Piper gang, the big unveiling is a disaster. Not only does the feed catch and stutter, it outright freezes, right at the climax of the fight.

That gives Monica an inspired idea. Pied Piper should host its own livestreamed event. As for the event, one of Erlich’s old college buddies is the head of a Red Bull-style energy drink company called “Homicide” that is sponsoring some Evel Kneivel-esque daredevil stunt. The negotiations between Pied Piper and Homicide’s CEO Aaron Anderson (nicknamed Double-A) appear to be going swell until Double-A tells Richard that the deal is off if Erlich is involved. Apparently the two weren’t friends in college at all — Erlich says he “incubated” him, but “inebriated” is more like it, as Double-A and his friends only hung out with the curly-haired dope because he was a couple years older and bought them booze. Of course, audiences can’t blame anyone who’s fed up with Erlich. As I’ve written in the past, he’s not a character you love to hate like, say, Mad Men‘s Pete Campbell. You just hate him.

But Erlich’s character is undergoing a shift. He’s always been a goon, but in the first season and for an episode of two of the second he was framed as a “cool” goon, getting high all the time, brashly dropping his balls on conference tables in business meetings, and possessing some secret knowledge others don’t. But over the past few episodes it’s not just that Erlich’s pathetic — the show wants you to think he’s pathetic It does so by juxtaposing Erlich against other assholes — like Russ Hanneman or in this case Double-A — so we can see that in some respects Erlich is just as obnoxious, though he’s not as successful in business. Erlich subscribes to the motto “fake it ’til you make it” — the only trouble is, Erlich never made it. And so now the writers are framing Erlich more like the hapless yet sympathetic Dwight from The Office — which is a good move because if Erlich isn’t funny or interesting or an effective businessman, he should at least be sympathetic.

The writers are beginning to manage this not just by making viewers feel sorry for him, but by showing that Erlich has Richard’s back, no matter what. He’s loyal. And considering some of the horrible people we’ve encountered on Silicon Valley and in Silicon Valley, that’s not nothing. He backs off from Double-A when Richard asks him to, and also warns Richard that the “Homicide” founder is probably going to try to screw him over. After all, “Double-A” really stands for “Double Asshole.” Now what Erlich fails to tell him is that the nickname stems from a condition Double-A has, requiring him to wear a colostomy bag at all times, meaning he pretty much has “two assholes.” But I believe that has more to do with Erlich’s stupidity and that there was no malice in the move.

And it’s a good thing he did warn him, because that puts Richard on alert. Richard notices that despite their prearranged agreement, Double-A consciously failed to put Pied Piper’s logo on the stream, thus neutralizing the PR benefit it was designed to create. And what’s worse, after Richard pulled out of the project, Double-A went to another compression company EndFrame — the same company that a few episodes ago invited Pied Piper to their offices for a conversation about fundraising, only to “brain-rape” them in Dinesh’s terms and steal their technology.

This is the Silicon Valley of 2015. And contrary to many other pop culture depictions of the industry, it is cock-full of assholes, double-assholes, and deca-assholes who if they were born two decades earlier would be screwing families out of savings with Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street. And we should commend Silicon Valley for depicting tech startups not as sunshine entrepreneurs innovating in a rainbow sky, but as ruthless operators that participate in the worst kinds of corporate douchebaggery.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]