Booth babes and gay panic bring down last night's episode of HBO's "Silicon Valley"
We’re recapping each new episode of “Silicon Valley,” HBO’s surprisingly not-terrible comedy-drama that follows a group of young Palo Alto developers as they deal with the absurdity and stress of building a company. We’re adopting the “Alan Sepinwall” style of television recaps so you’ve been warned: Here, there be spoilers.
There are few shows on television more schizophrenic than HBO's "Silicon Valley." Some episodes smartly take on cultural and socio-economic issues in the Bay Area, acting as critiques of Silicon Valley's frothy tech boom, cult of entrepreneurship, and problematic gender and race politics. But other episodes, like "Proof of Concept" which aired last night, only confirm outsiders' worst perceptions about Silicon Valley. Even worse, they do so without adding any commentary on why the tech world's white-male-dominated culture might not be such a good thing.
This week Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and the rest of the Pied Piper team go to TechCrunch Disrupt to demo their compression algorithm at the conference's big startup competition. The show's production designers do such a faithful job recreating Disrupt's sea of startup booths that TechCrunch itself was impressed. To bring evem more authenticity to the scene, the producers went so far to enlist nearly two dozen startups from Disrupt SF 2013 as extras. Naturally, not all the startups were real, but these fake companies result in some of the episode's best gags. One company calls itself Spinder - "Tinder for spinsters."
Unfortunately, the banners and booths are some of the only authentic things about the episode. "Proof of Concept" showcased some of the most appalling examples of sexism we've seen from the show. With the exception of scantily-clad booth babes, the only women introduced here act as little more than love interests for the Pied Piper boys. In the most egregious example, Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) meet a blonde, peppy founder behind a startup called Cupcake.ly, as if the only company a woman is capable of running involves baking. What's worse is that this woman is so helpless that she has to ask Dinesh and Gilfoyle for help writing Java code.
That this is the show's first and only portrayal of a female founder is offensive not only to women but to the tech world at large. No one doubts that women in technology and other male-dominated fields face sexism, whether it's overt or more subtle. When Buzzfeed's Katie Notopoulos and Katie Heaney crashed Disrupt NY earlier this month, it wasn't difficult to find a man who represented the most shameless of the tech world's attitudes toward women. Immediately after decrying sexism in tech, the gentleman remarked, "Yeah, another thing I noticed — and I think this is an interesting observation — and I don’t mean to sound sexist, is, the women here are really attractive.” Classy, bro.
But Notopoulos and Heaney also found plenty of smart, talented female entrepreneurs, along with men who at least on paper treated women as equals, not objects. With the exception of Monica (Amanda Crew), whose presence on the show feels more and more like mere tokenism every week, the women of "Silicon Valley" operate solely to induce either anxiety or arousal for the show's protagonists. And when given a perfect opportunity to portray women who possess the same intelligence and drive as the male characters, the show drops the ball colossally.
Granted, by embracing this worldview the show drives home how sexist attitudes toward women are often bred by the "Boys' Club" culture that still exists in tech and other areas of working America. But more often than not, I don't think this is an intentional strategy -- some of the writers may be as clueless about women as the characters. It's a shame too because last week's episode offered a critical and nuanced depiction of sexism that made me more excited about the show than I had been since the premiere.
But hey as long as "Silicon Valley" is feeding into the worst cultural tendencies of male privilege, why not throw some "gay panic" in there too? Dinesh develops a crush on the Cupcake.ly founder after taking a peek at the beautiful code he thinks she's just written, but which was actually written for her by Gilfoyle. (Because of course women can't write code! Ha ha). After Gilfoyle reveals that he is the true genius behind that lovely code, Dinesh becomes highly disturbed. You mean to tell him those butterflies in his stomach and loins were caused by a man? Does that make Dinesh gay? We sure hope not because, whoa, that's gross!
In case the audience's inner frat boy needs even more fodder for its heteronormative biases, one of Richard's exes mistakes Jared (Zach Woods) and him as a couple. The subplot is too much of an afterthought to be offensive, but it still serves to further the show's boring straight male perspective.
"Proof of Concept" is not without its charms. A montage of the startup competition is a frightening and hilarious orgy of bullshit that rivals Erlich's riotous psilocybin-induced brainstorming session in Episode 3, complete with "social-mobile-local cloud-based data solutions" that will all somehow "change the world." But like it's done too often in the past, "Silicon Valley" saves the satire for the easy targets instead of homing it on the thornier societal issues looming under the surface. And with this episode, the show lacks more than just ambition. It lacks class.