"Silicon Valley" And Responsible Satire

April 21, 2014   •   By Will Butler

WITH THE MICROPHONES set and the cast of HBO's Silicon Valley settled into their places on stage for Q&A, a female audience member was the first to stand: "I worked in Silicon Valley for 10 years and this was spot on. You guys are brilliant and this was hilarious," she began. Most people at the show’s premiere last month agreed, giddy at the return of our beloved satirist Mike Judge. Then the woman lobbed: "But I was curious — and this isn't meant to be a challenging question — are there any plans to have female characters down the line who are engineers?”

The crowd of roughly 650 rippled with appreciative applause. The cast was caught off-guard, but the question maybe shouldn’t have surprised. Over the course of the first two episodes, of what may be HBO’s most pointed and relevant satire to date, we had seen little evidence of female involvement.

On most counts, Silicon Valley is a strong show. It’s witty, benefitting from sharp, veteran comedy writers, timely edits, deep research, highly detailed production design, and a comedic ensemble with near-scientific chemistry. Mainly, Silicon Valley stays in the pocket, lovingly lampooning familiar stereotypes associated with Northern California’s now-infamous tech bubble. There are douchey “brogrammers” with zero workplace etiquette, inside jokes pitting systems architects against java developers, hyper-eccentric venture capitalists, and idealistic CEO and VP-types who endlessly quote empty slogans like “it takes change to make change” and “we’re not just building software; we’re making a difference,” or “we’re changing the world.”

But for all its ya-yas, the show plucks plenty of low-hanging fruit. Within the first few minutes the core (male) ensemble shares jokes about jism, meeting “chicks” on Asperger’s message boards, and the gender parity at tech events being reminiscent of a “Hasidic wedding.” This coasts almost inconspicuously within the ambiguous political correctness parameters of paid-TV comedy. There are other elements, however, that read as jokes, but in fact are not. Mike Judge, the writer, cartoonist, and sometimes star of Beavis And Butt-head, Office Space, and King of the Hill, is a masterful creator, but hardly someone you’d bother confronting with a Bechdel test. He also rarely writes TV for live-action actors. But as he said in a recent interview with San Francisco Magazine, in trying to make Silicon Valley as real as possible, some of the most realistic parts of the show come off as “too absurd to be real.” Misogyny included.

The main example of this all-too-real representation is how women are constantly implied, but rarely seen. Amanda Crew plays the exception: Monica — a savvy executive assistant and “lean-in” type to make Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg proud (she literally interrupts men talking, and is even shushed at one point in the third episode). Crew, just like her character, has potential to be more than a side plot in Silicon Valley, but she could easily end up playing to type, or relegated to love interest.

Otherwise female faces are sparse. On the way to work in episode one, our protagonists lament (“this place is a shithole”) while sitting in a cushy, Google-style charter bus. They pass a white-haired woman on a folding bicycle, notable only for her lopsided helmet, vest, and a squint. They sigh and dub her “Miss Palo Alto 2k14.” In episode two, the ensemble reaches a level of transcendent male nerdiness when an exotic dancer shows up and they prove so unattuned that she is baffled, bears the brunt of the joke, and must walk out in a huff, relying on her male bodyguard to collect for her sex work. These are subtle examples but it’s clear that, early on, the lines are blurring between holding a mirror to the real Silicon Valley’s vices and just making fun of women.

Then there are instances, in this regard, where Silicon Valley almost preempts reality. Take Nip-Alert, presented in the show as a nascent app that “gives you the location of women with erect nipples.” As Judge tells it, the writers came up with the idea before the joke app’s real-life cousin, Titstare, was touted in the real Silicon Valley. Developed in the show by Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti (portrayed sympathetically by Josh Brener), the Nip-Alert gag is a pinnacle achievement for satirists like Judge: to render an absurd situation so socially in-tune that it actually comes true. The presaging continues with the show’s key plot point when our hero (Thomas Middleditch) develops an algorithm that could revolutionize the industry, and an insane bidding war begins, much like the ones the real SV has seen in recent weeks. Of the companies who want in on the action, some are fake — the main competitor, Hooli, is a dead ringer for a company like Google — but other namedrops, like Andreessen Horowitz and Elevation Partners, are real-life, active VC and private equity firms. Ultimately, Silicon Valley is painstakingly real, with really meaningful exceptions.

So Silicon Valley did it’s research; but faced with a flesh-and-blood woman of Silicon Valley, who wants an accounting of why her embattled demographic is underrepresented, they were a little unprepared. Who would answer the call?

T.J. Miller, a rising standup comedian and the acerbic attitude behind Erlich Bachmann, the main antiheroic foil in Silicon Valley, realized no one knew what to say and took up the question with perhaps too much gusto. Miller's onstage demeanor that afternoon was proving a little hard to separate from his role as the brash and comically redundant mentor figure in the show. Almost still in character (and wearing a gold grill in his mouth), he addressed the woman's question vigorously, first with a barrage of ironic dismissals and flippant remarks about a glass ceiling. There was some laughter, but when the jokes settled, the woman remained, to her credit, waiting patiently at the microphone for a simple and sincere answer.

Miller addressed her again: "What do you think the ratio is, of men to women, as engineers in actual Silicon Valley?"

Someone near me yelled, "Not enough!"

The questioner said calmly into her microphone, "There's not a lot, but they are there."

But Miller was simply setting himself up for a rhetorical rant. It came, rapid-fire: "Do you think [the show] is an accurate representation of how many men and how many women are active in Silicon Valley? It is a bit of a boys’ club wouldn't you say? Isn't that the reason you're asking why there aren't more female characters? Maybe what you should be asking is, Silicon Valley" his voice getting louder, "why do you, as source material for this HBO show, not have more women working in your world?"

The woman, composed, interrupted, "because they don't know how to talk to girls."

"The guys don't? Or maybe women don't know how to make nerds feel comfortable!" Miller was not backing down from the role of loose cannon. As the crowd began to laugh, he continued to yell louder over the din.

Personally, if I hadn't seen Miller just the night before, in his native environment hosting a standup comedy showcase, disposing of drunk hecklers in the same manner, I might've pegged him as the culprit here. Even through my surprise at his remarks, I could faintly understand the point he was trying to make, albeit thinly. That is, does the HBO program, as a satire, have any responsibility to be progressive? Does Silicon Valley the show have the responsibility to portray anything other than the familiar, nerdist, male-dominated tropes that still hold back Silicon Valley the place?

By the oldest measure of how a "satire" should function, the answer is no. Horace, the Roman poet who pioneered satire in its more comedic and forgiving form, found it sufficient to simply hold a mirror to society’s shortcomings. Through the ages, as this classical form of satire has held on, rarely does it provide a prescription for social improvement so much as a heaping of witticism and adherence to what the literary critic Northop Frye called "militant irony." Militant irony never backs down; it is the terra firma occupied by shows like South Park, The Simpsons, and King Of The Hill. Relentlessly offensive and often inaccurate representations don't need to be perfect, so long as they are executed with a wink. That's what satire is.

On the other hand, the late David Foster Wallace tried to warn us of the exact situation that occurred at Silicon Valley’s premiere. In an extended, mind-altering 1993 essay about American television called “E unibus plurum,” he outlines the mentality behind modern militant irony, explaining, to some degree, why that woman’s question was not being answered: “The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is a variation on a sort of existential poker-face.” This poker-face, played so well by Silicon Valley’s cast that day, might seem to come with the territory. But here is the scary part:

“Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig.”

And today, in settings like this, women who are vocal about sexism or even casual misogyny are obliged to tread lightly, and may even count themselves lucky to be considered priggish over hysterical.

Wallace continues, hammering in the nails, “And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel; the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny.” The “new junta,” he calls it.

To be clear, Wallace was an avid TV-watcher, and he remains clear that TV is entertainment and not the “true evil.” He merely calls it “a cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon.” Granted, it was 1990 when he wrote those words; before The Sopranos, The Wire, and the renaissance of television that we are seeing today.

Truly we're not talking about 1993; nor Mike Judge’s cartoon-land; nor ancient Rome. We're not even talking about regular television, for that matter. HBO is the network that has dedicated entire programs to poor black kids in Baltimore, harried American soldiers, psychiatric patients, and more recently given an unprecedented voice to young women and gay men — the network where, even in the brutal and violent patriarchy of Game of Thrones there are glimmering, strong female roles. HBO’s programming, at its best, even at its silliest, strives to resonate with our humanity. Judge, despite only having created animated series for more mainstream networks, surely can't be oblivious to the critical eye of an HBO audience in 2014? Or the show’s co-producer Alec Berg, an old hand at HBO and a Seinfeld alum; is he thinking about this at all?

Of course they are. In a surprising turn, the third and fourth episodes of Silicon Valley are helmed by expert female directors. Tricia Brock (who’s directed episodes of The L Word, 30 Rock, and Breaking Bad, among others) took on episode three last night, though it was mostly about margarita machines, sesame seeds, psilocybin, and spirit quests. Maggie Carey, who directed one of last year’s most notably female-driven and sex-positive summer comedies, The To-Do List, will perhaps bring something new to episode four.

Not that these female directors necessarily have any obligation to adjust the show’s male-dominated tone. It’s Silicon Valley’s prerogative to skewer the culture however it wants to. And that afternoon, Judge, ever tight-lipped about his political and social views, did make a few sympathetic remarks about underrepresented demographics, in addition to pointing out that his ex-wife is an engineer. Finally, after the ‘will there be women’ question beach-balled back and forth clumsily between his cast members onstage, Judge conceded, a bit.

"The answer is yes," he assured, pausing and backpedaling slightly, "we've talked about it."

The whole interaction between the showrunners, cast, and the woman at the microphone lasted only a few minutes, but it was the most remarkable takeaway from the premiere, continuing to play out in my mind as each new episode airs. Though Silicon Valley has big ambitions as satire, the people behind it seemed to be carefully avoiding the show's core critiques. Their reluctance to speak about reality could perhaps be excused as a premiere-day gaff — though Miller just recently told Mashable that the show was like “Asperger’s Entourage,” which bodes ominously for how it will continue to treat gender. Whichever way Silicon Valley progresses, it should make us think about what happens when a satire is all-too-real and refuses to break character — or, what a mess can be made by the slow bleed of militant irony.


Will Butler is a reporter, critic, and editor native to the San Francisco Bay Area.