Does HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ Need a Peggy Olson?

The comedy’s lack of women is shamefully true to life. Would adding a female coder help or hurt the show’s ability to satirize the tech industry?

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Since its debut, the HBO show Silicon Valley about the tech world in Northern California, has been criticized for its lack of female characters. There’s only one recurring female character, in fact: Monica, the henchwoman for Peter Gregory, the savant-like tech billionaire who funds Richard’s project, Pied Piper. 

And the few other women who appear don’t come off so well: For the penultimate episode, the Pied Piper posse—five men and Monica—headed to TechCrunch Disrupt where the two dueling coders, Gilfoyle, the cocky nerd and self-proclaimed Satanist, and the sweet, shy Dinesh, try to impress a girl at a nearby booth. She wants help with her Java code, and separately and unbeknownst to them, lets each guy take a stab at fixing it.

Dinesh, who didn’t know that Gilfoyle had written the code that he was looking at, was turned on by the code, even though the girl was not really his type (blonde, banal sorority girl hot). The guys of Pied Piper—minus Erlich, perhaps—are mostly good guys. It’s endearing to think that the reason Dinesh was turned on by the girl was the fact that she could code, not that she looked like a basic blonde, as he later admitted to everyone.

But this plot point seemed to enrage some in the tech world. Andy Baio, who help build Kickstarter, tweeted: “HBO’s Silicon Valley finally portrayed a female tech founder—who sleeps with programmers so they’ll write code for her. Fuck that show.”

The New Republic ran a piece titled: HBO’s Silicon Valley’s Boring Sexism, arguing that more women should be on the show and could be even more interesting to watch. Another piece asked, “Does Silicon Valley Have a Woman Problem?”

The outrage is understandable. Other than Monica, the only time women have appeared on the show are as objects of lust that the dorky men of Pied Piper don’t know how to deal with. In the pilot, Erlich, the only one who has any game, hires a stripper to celebrate their newfound riches, except the socially awkward and sexually repressed guys don’t know how to enjoy such a service. In another episode, Gilfoyle, invites his girlfriend over for the weekend. Once again, the female energy in the house is completely disruptive, particularly to poor Dinesh, who has been tricked by Gilfoyle into thinking that his girlfriend wants to sleep with him. Adding insult to injury, at a party, the only girls who talk to the nerds are hired actresses. 

While the dearth of women on HBO’s version of Silicon Valley is a problem, in a way the casting sheds greater light on the no-ladies problem IRL. As Monica jokes when they arrive at TechCrunch Disrupt, “Normally the tech world is 2 percent female. For the next three days? 15 percent.”

Silicon Valley, the real one, is largely male, as Google’s recently published numbers attest. Only 17 percent of the technical employees are women; indeed, as Silicon Valley, the show, sharply satirized by having the TechCrunch booth girl reveal to Dinesh that she ran their Twitter account, many women in tech are working in the marketing, social media, publicity, advertising, and copywriting side of the business. They are not building apps or getting rich.

So it’s not a stretch to imagine that many of the men in tech sector are completely lacking when it comes to socializing with women and would behave in ways entirely similar to Gilfoyle and Dinesh (and Richard, who gets a little obsessive over an ex). Silicon Valley, the show, is in the crudest terms, showing, not telling.

It’s arguable that the show’s lack of women helps send up the problems inherent to a nearly all-male workforce IRL. If the show’s creator Mike Judge had chosen to make one of the coders a woman, how would that have changed the dynamic? Would we have seen the issues that women in tech have been complaining about for so long played out so clearly? Or would a female coder turn into a Peggy Olson figure, making Silicon Valley less a light-hearted, but pointed satire, and more of a dramatic, heavy work?

It’s almost certain that the finale’s tour de force, a scene in which Erlich insists the ragtag crew soldier on in the conference, even if “I have to go and personally jerk off every guy in the audience,” would never have happened. The scene—perhaps the most epic dick joke ever filmed for TV—found the geeks solving a complicated math problem: if they only had 10 minutes and 800 dicks and could beat off four at a time, how would it be possible? The discussion triggered an a-ha! moment for Richard, who ran into his bedroom and starting coding an entirely new—and winning—compression engine.

Silicon Valley’s nearly all-male cast highlights the real-world issue—a frat-boy, bro-like culture permeating the previously nerdy worlds of tech (the so-called brogrammer) where apps like Snapchat (used mostly for sexting) and Tinder (a hook-up app) and Titstare (an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits) to be created, oftentimes by creators that exhibit awful bro-behavior in their personal lives (see: Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel’s skeevy, leaked emails).

There are fewer female CEOs in Silicon Valley, fewer women serving on boards of companies. On the other hand, one CEO was captured on video beating his girlfriend but wasn’t cast out of the industry.

In an all-male environment, the dick jokes abound, the guys say sexist stuff without realizing they are being sexist—because there are no women to confront them. Ten-minute long dick jokes likely do not happen with women in the room. If HBO put a woman in the mix, you might not get the unfettered bird’s-eye view of what it must be like—at least in some circles. And while Silicon Valley isn’t a documentary, it is accurate enough to be a mirror of sorts for the industry to the outside world. You watch it and think, It would be horrible/awkward to be a woman in this room.

The show is in its infancy—with only eight episodes for the first season—and has been renewed for a second. In that time, Judge may introduce more female characters that aren’t girlfriends, strippers, or girls playing dumb to get guys to do their work for them. And perhaps, Dinesh will finally meet a cool girl—one who can actually code.

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