Tech TV: Silicon Valley vs. 'Silicon Valley'

Media depictions of tech are rubbing some viewers the wrong way—but the entertainment industry is not the real problem.
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Media depictions of tech are rubbing some viewers the wrong way—but the entertainment industry is not the real problem.
(Illustration: Susie Cagle) 

(Illustration: Susie Cagle) 

The ad was hot pink, shameless, and practically screaming: “CALLING ALL GIRLFRIENDS OF SILICON VALLEY—Are you a confident, glamorous, and outgoing woman who’s dating or married to someone working in the tech industry? Do you have a fabulous lifestyle, a great group of friends, and live life to the full?”

The casting call for “a docu-series for a major American broadcaster” was so awful as to be hilarious, while still remaining awful. But it wasn’t much of a surprise.

Producers of fiction, “reality,” and everything in between are scrambling to craft and package entertainment around this tech boom, with results so far ranging from the hilarious to the cringe-worthy. Even at their best, these depictions do a disservice— facile stories, obvious characters, blatant plot lines. They’re shallow, simplistic, or they miss the mark altogether.

Despite what “the Mission” has come to connote, in reality, the 94110 is still quite racially and economically diverse—tech’s employee shuttle buses may run through there often, but residents’ employment is split across industries.

But that’s not what anyone is really upset about.

If Girlfriends of Silicon Valley was a warning shot across the bow of the Bay Area’s remaining self respect, 94110 was a direct hit. The show about life in San Francisco’s Mission District advertised an open casting call and didn’t limit the race, gender, or age of the show’s potential characters, but their descriptions were clearly coded as young, white, and techie. Despite what “the Mission” has come to connote, in reality, the 94110 is still quite racially and economically diverse—tech’s employee shuttle buses may run through there often, but residents’ employment is split across industries.

In a comment section on SFist, local sentiment was not exactly subtle.

“Gross.”

“No.”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”

Now in its second season, Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley is by far the most skillful show in this line-up, earning consistent praise from industry insiders and local outsiders alike. In interviews, Judge expresses little, if any, sympathy for his techie protagonists. But it's the supporting female characters, few and far between, who suffer some of the show’s greatest indignities, often acting as props to play out clueless, if not misogynistic, behavior from the male leads.

In the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo took the show to task for its recent episode, “The Lady,” which made an effort, albeit a remarkably half-assed one, at addressing the tech industry’s well-known trouble with women.

“[I]n going for the mildly amusing I wonder if the producers missed a chance to make a more grandly subversive defense of gender diversity,” Manjoo wrote. “Why should Pied Piper hire a woman? Because diversity might shake up the cozy way of doing business at the company, and perhaps make the whole team better at their jobs. But nobody here is interested in making that case.”

But whose job is it to make that case?

Manjoo’s critique seems only to emphasize just how troubled Silicon Valley—the industry and place, not the show—really is. If we are relying on an HBO comedy to argue sincerely for tech companies to hire women engineers, this situation is far more dire than many might hope. If we are pleading with Mike Judge to put more women in tech on TV, then women in tech have already lost.

Locals groan and squirm, fearing these incomplete, even false TV narratives might become the dominant stories about this place and time—that women in tech will forever be shunted to a pink corner of history, that the Mission neighborhood’s past will be paved over and re-constructed like a glassy, $1,500-per-square-foot condo building. These shows are missed opportunities for diversity, complexity, and realism. But do they really matter?

If we are pleading with Mike Judge to put more women in tech on TV, then women in tech have already lost.

They could make a stronger critique of the valley. They could address issues of race, gender, and inequality head on. It probably wouldn’t be very funny—these are serious structural industry problems, after all. Sometimes life does imitate art, and more female role models in tech—even fake ones—could have some positive impact on the pipeline of girls going into engineering fields. But would investors and founders really have their minds changed about women’s role in the industry by a strong—and fictional—female protagonist? Would a fake company that supports fake powerful women do much to shift the dynamics of the industry?

This dissatisfaction ultimately feels misplaced, and a little desperate. Is this fictional start-up really the problem, or is it real start-up culture that privileges the contributions of men over women? Is a “socially awkward” engineer character “addicted to vaping” what’s wrong with San Francisco’s Mission District, or is it the high, no-fault eviction rate for longtime residents?

While we tilt at windmills, the industry continues to concentrate wealth, ignore government regulation, and operate with an extreme bias toward white men. Television has no moral obligation to craft a more socially just society. For that, we’d do well to operate in reality, rather than in fiction.

The Crooked Valley is an illustrated series exploring the systems of privilege and inequality that perpetuate tech's culture of bad ideas.

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