In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter for a cover story on Silicon Valley, creator Mike Judge expressed frustration with the notion that his work should employ a diverse cast.
"I don't think you do any service by pretending [Silicon Valley] is half female or half black," he told THR. "And not to pin bouquets on ourselves here, but I think we brought some attention to the gender imbalance by doing this show."
Silicon Valley, HBO's critical darling about the tech industry, has a male-heavy cast. Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr, and Kumail Nanjiani make up the main cast, with Jimmy O. Yang and Josh Brener providing support. Amanda Crew is the only woman principle actor, although Suzanne Cryer plays socially awkward investor Laurie Bream when necessary. (Cryer, for the record, was brought on as a replacement for the late Christopher Evan Welch, who played investor Peter Gregory in the first season.) The show is meant to be a parody of Silicon Valley which, as Judge points out, does have a gender imbalance.
But, as Refinery29's tech writer Madeline Buxton pointed out last October, we don't need a television show to remind us that Silicon Valley has a problem with diversity. After James Damore's modest proposal that women weren't biologically suited to work in STEM and Susan Fowler's catalogue of Uber's offenses against women, it's clear, actually, that there are women and minorities working in tech. They're just not treated that well, and their stories are shuffled to the bottom of the stack in favor of the more lighthearted "tech bros" shtick. Judge's assessment of his TV show — that it's doing us all a service by featuring mostly men and mostly male stories — brings to mind that pissing/raining adage. Judge is clobbering us over the head with white men and calling it a massage.
His argument relies, as a lot of anti-diversity arguments do, on verisimilitude. As a creator, his job is to portray a world as realistically as possible. Who cares if there aren't any women engineers in the main cast of Silicon Valley? That's how a real incubator would be, right? Not exactly. According to Emily Chang, a tech reporter for Bloomberg, Google revealed in 2017 that women account for 31% of its employees, a number that's pretty standard across tech companies. A few significant companies are way ahead of Google: The DNA research company 23andme, according to data from 2016 analyzed by The Observer, is almost 50% women, while Pinterest, Airbnb, and Lyft all had percentages in the low forties. Granted, not all those women employees have to be engineers, but Silicon Valley isn't just a satire on developers. If Judge wants to be super accurate with his numbers, he should have one woman character for every two men. Silicon Valley doesn't even have that.
It does have one female lead: Monica! Let's talk about her. Monica is a venture capitalist. She's ruthless and smart and attended Princeton University. Played by Amanda Crew, Monica is mainly a deliverer of plot development. She's there to advise the guys when things go wrong — foreshadowing! — and explain business developments as they occur — exposition! Against the male developers, Monica is a maternal force, shepherding the "hapless" engineers in their cashmere hoodies away from danger. Monica is a prop, something Crew semi-admits to in the same THR piece.
"I almost cancelled my audition," she admitted, referring to an "unease" with the role. As first written, the piece explains, Monica was a more typical female character, i.e. she was sexy. Interestingly, the original pilot for Silicon Valley script featured two women characters who came to Silicon Valley in search of a rich husband. This version of the script, though I've never read it and it could be horribly offensive, at least takes Silicon Valley from a woman's perspective. If we can't take the jobs within tech, we'll take tech money as best we know how: by marrying into it. HBO rejected this pitch. ("We wanted women, but not like that," an HBO exec told THR.) The pilot was restructured with Monica as the sole woman. Then, with a thin, barely unruly white woman standing at its sidelines, Silicon Valley's pilot was acceptable.
Crew is also not a comedian. The rest of the cast — Middleditch et al — are stand ups and improvisers. The show is successful in part because the comedy-centric cast is so confident in their roles. The chemistry between them is undeniable, whether they are reading lines or goofing off on late night television. The chemistry between the engineers and Monica is nonexistent. Which isn't to say hiring a woman comedian in her place would have been more effective, but I don't think it would have hurt. Hiring women comedians is a sore spot of mine, as men comedians often get a pass for poor acting in favor of bravado/charisma/male privilege. Women comedians, meanwhile, only get roles they write for themselves. The women characters who play opposite comedians are often played by non-comedians like Crew. (Comedy Central's Corporate and HBO's Crashing, much as I hate it, have both employed a lot of women comedians in the years since Silicon Valley premiered. Keep it up!)
In season 2, the show hired Alice Wetterlund, a comedian, to play a woman engineer named Carla. Her storyline centered around the discomfort of the men, who weren't sure how to handle what felt like a "diversity hire."
"We want to hire the best people who happen to be women, regardless of whether or not they are women, that part is irrelevant," Jared (Zach Woods) tells Carla. Her storyline allowed the show to explore some interesting facets of being a woman in tech, although it did so awkwardly. Alas, Wetterlund's character did not return after season 3, episode 3, appearing in a total of six episodes.
Similarly, Yang's character Jian Yang is portrayed as an idiot savant, a mostly silent character there for Erlich (T.J. Miller, who was fired from the show) to mock. Writing for Wired in 2017, Inkoo Kang called out the show for its "toxic Asian stereotypes." Kang pointed out that Jian Yang endures racial slur after racial slur from Erlich, all the while never receiving his own character growth or development.
"None of this is to say that show creators Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky intentionally set out to make a TV show that replicates the Valley’s racial biases — but that's what happened," Kang wrote. An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Without direct effort to counteract TV's insidious whiteness/maleness, things will stay the same.
Silicon Valley can do us a service by portraying stories by and about women and minorities, contrary to what Judge said. There's a lot of tech drama out there, and most of it involves people whom you don't typically see onscreen. A growing part of Silicon Valley, the non-italicized version, is the investigation into gender imbalance and diversity. Why can't Silicon Valley do some investigating, too? Television, comedy especially, isn't just supposed to "represent reality." It's supposed to dismantle it. Introduce an unbalanced force, and stop an object in motion. Mike Judge's comment sounds a lot like "Stick to the Status Quo," which, if I studied High School Musical correctly, isn't going to place him on the right side of history.
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