I had the latest season of Silicon Valley marked on my calendar for months. After binge-watching the first two seasons in the fall, I literally counted down the days until the season three premiere on April 24th. I’m a huge fan of the show, and I’m not alone: The show has received plenty of praise from critics, including a WIRED cover with five distinct designs. While I remained excited over the months that have built up to the third season, I've maintained a nagging concern that there is a reoccurring theme of women in tech being portrayed poorly. At least in the first few episodes of season three, there is no indication that this will change.
Silicon Valley has a male-dominated cast, that’s no secret. But at first, the great writing on the show entertained and wowed me enough to distract the feminist critic inside me. In fact, I only started to realize what was going on during the rare instances you do see women on the show. Amanda Crew plays Monica on the show. She is the biggest female character, but her role doesn't go very far past her job as an assistant. Monica is smart and savvy, but in a show where every character is so relentlessly funny, she falls flat. Amanda Crew is also considered one of the leads, yet when the show makes magazines, you never see her on the cover. That’s not on a dig on the magazines, it’s an honest reflection of how well the show utilizes her character. It’s a double standard on the show’s part: They want to be able to flaunt a female lead, but they don’t actually want to take the time to create a compelling storyline for one.
Laurie Bream, played by Suzanne Cryer, is even more disappointing. Although her character is introduced as Peter Gregory’s replacement, what sticks out most about her character isn’t her powerful business competence, but rather, her lack of emotion. Even in a show that features some particularly awkward and socially incompetent characters, Laurie Bream is particularly robotic. And unlike most of the male characters in the show, the viewer never gets a good insight into the ambitions of any female characters. Even the programmer Carla, played by Alice Wetterlund, is very removed from the rest of the group. She has great potential in her character and unique dry humor, but it goes to waste for the most part. Early in season 2, the show gives us a glimpse of what it’s like for women in tech when Carla and Monica are constantly encouraged to bond over only the fact that they are women. While a good point, it was limited to a single episode, and by season three, Carla was gone. Silicon Valley may have indulged its critics, but they are far from embracing the women in the show.
At the end of season two, the crew attends TechCrunch Disrupt where the show explains that 15% of attendees are female as opposed to the general 2% population in the tech world. Despite that, the most memorable interactions of the episode are girls flirting with the Pied Piper boys to get free coding help. Every opportunity Silicon Valley has to comment on the representation of women in tech seems to just get thrown away.
Silicon Valley is just part of the pattern in what I’ve deemed the “geek comedy,” which also includes shows like The Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd. These shows are easy to get swept up in because of the quirkiness of their characters, but there is an expense that comes at taking shots at some of the STEM world underdogs and goofs. The Big Bang Theory has probably gotten the most attention for it’s portrayal of women because it is most explicit in its limitations. The three main female characters of the show are also all love interests to the men. Whether it is Bernadette and Amy working as successful scientists, or Penny as the ditzy outsider, the women just can’t win. The women in all of these shows may statistically show the lack of women in STEM fields, but it’s the unrealistic and often times lazy ways these women are depicted that are really harmful.
The British show The IT Crowd also has the same “geek comedy” formula. The female lead Jen Barber, played by Katherine Parkinson, gets the job by faking her way into the tech department. While Jen is better incorporated into the show than the women in Silicon Valley or The Big Bang Theory, the foundation of her character really is just the always disappointing “dumb blonde." While watching the show, I never felt outraged, I laughed because the show is well made and fun. Jen is essentially just a dumb blonde character that benefits from good writing. She is Elle Woods, minus the part where Elle goes to Harvard and proves herself. Female characters just aren’t given the same space for complexity as men on TV.
While these are just shows set in STEM fields, to me they mean much more. All my life, I have loved science and math. Yet somehow, I never thought I was good enough to go into any of these fields. I look around now at boys in my classes who I am at least as successful as, and they are preparing to go often to college and study science. What I’ve realized is that for every bit of me that is a feminist advocating for women in STEM, I saw myself as an exception.
I say this because as a young girl growing up with an interest in STEM, I wasn’t going to hear about women making advanced scientific discoveries. If I were to find role models, it would be through an accessible medium. For me, that means the TV I watched. The one women in science I do remember looking up to was Kari Byron from Mythbusters. Even the voiceovers on the science shows I watched were male. For the general public, shows in the “geek comedy” genre are fun to watch because they let us see inside a world that’s otherwise foreign to most people. They show us the types of people we’d meet, all their weird tendencies and charms and flaws. But they’re not offering the same view of women, and in that way they’re not doing a good job telling the stories they say they’re telling.
As I’ve looked back on shows I’ve enjoyed in the “geek comedy” genre, I sometimes think I should feel guilty about liking the shows at all. When people talk about problematic people, they often say it’s about you loving something, the goodness inside yourself. I think that’s true, but I also think it’s possible to love part but not the whole, to love the smart dialogue and hate the stupid, easy, picking on the little guy stuff. Because if all the fans out there are just full of love, and focus only on that love, nothing changes. I hope this season, things change for Silicon Valley. I don’t need a show that portrays women dominating the STEM field, I just need to see the same sort of realism and nuance given to female characters that are given to their male counterparts.
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