Hackers vs. HBO’s Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley writes women out of existence. It matters, and we need to talk about it.

I recently re-watched Hackers. Wow did I love that movie. I first watched it when I was in college in the mid-90s: the first boom of the internet, when tech seemed subversive, radical, shiny, disruptive. It portrayed women as intrinsic, unquestioned members of the tech community. But when media writes women out of the tech industry, as HBO’s Silicon Valley does, it hurts current and future members of the tech industry and decreases the total talent pool available to tech.

My sister and I were raised in a gender-neutral way. Adults have jobs and careers and it’s just what you do. My parents ensured my sister and I received incredible educations. Growing up I wanted to be, in turn: an archaeologist, a doctor, an immunologist, a lawyer, a judge, a chemical engineer. Once, while in college, I told my parents I was thinking of majoring in Philosophy. They told me that I had to graduate college with a marketable skill that would allow me to get a decent, living-wage job, and if I wanted to major in Philosophy they were no longer going to help me pay for college. I couldn’t afford to spend a private university education on a Philosophy degree. This did not make me bitter or feel more than momentarily oppressed; I decided my parents were right. But absent was any discussion that my financial calculus should incorporate a husband’s earnings. It was my job to make sure I could take care of myself and meet whatever financial goals I chose to set.

In short, I was raised in a way that never associated my intellectual ability or my career potential with my reproductive organs. In the vein of Simone de Beauvoir, I was not raised to first think of myself as a girl. I was simply myself.

Of course I saw that the old world was badly gendered. But here I was, living in a new era! I remember — I remember— knowing at the age of 4 or 5 that Geraldine Ferraro was the candidate for Vice President and that meant that women could do anything. I remember Sandra Day O’Connor being appointed to the Supreme Court and knowing it meant that the world was changing. I remember knowing that the United Kingdom was run by a woman and that no doors would be closed to me.

(Because of these memories of my own I think I can appreciate how powerful a symbol President Obama’s election was for Americans of color.)

The Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union collapsed, and to me, this meant that ideals of self-determination were replacing the intellectual hold of fascism. The world was getting better, and here came the Internet, with its promise of instant communication and free information. It is in this context of expansive possibility for the future that I first watched Hackers.

In Hackers, anyone could participate. Hackers were women. Hackers were people of color. Hackers were Japanese, Nigerian, Russian, French, Arabic, anything. Hackers were weird. Was the movie a utopia of egalitarianism? Well, no, the main characters were still five dudes and one gal—the character Kate Libby. But at least there was one woman. In addition, two of the males were nonwhite and one other, Cereal, was subtly non-gender-normative. Hackers was at least 50% non-hegemonic.

Hackers, 1995. The hackers face arrest after hacking the Ellison Minerals Gibson mainframe to stop a virus from creating an ecological disaster.

Hackers may not have technically passed the Bechdel test — I don’t think Kate, played by Angelina Jolie, spoke to another female in the film—but Kate was nonetheless a prime mover. She drove the plot as more than a love interest; she was one of the team who helped bring Lauren and Eugene to justice and defeat the Gibson virus.

Kate was the Scarlett in G.I. Joe. The Princess Leia. Teela and She-Ra. The character that showed me that I could have a meaningful place in this world where things happened.

Hackers believed that I could participate in this future. Hackers said that it was okay, normal, for me to have a place here. Hackers portrayed tech culture as a place where anyone could be accepted. Hackers fit with the historical narrative that I had been experiencing all my life: women and men can fix the world, together.

Hackers made me realize why I am so angry at and disappointed in Silicon Valley. I couldn’t get through the first few moments of Silicon Valley without wanting to cry. As bad as the tech industry’s gender problems are, Silicon Valley presents a world utterly without women of significance; where, at best, women are whores and objects. Unlike the men I’ve worked with in the Bay Area, none of the characters even seem to even be aware that it makes you an asshole to perceive women this way:

“Not even the Goolybib guys are talking to girls,” says one character as the group walks through a party whose guests have self-separated by gender. (Because the Goolybib guys are now rich, clearly they should now have access to women.)

“They don’t have to,” replies another. “This house talks to girls.” According to Silicon Valley the women of the Bay Area are generally the types who grew up learning that they should try to fuck their way into financial security rather than earning it themselves, and the men are okay with the essential calculus that their money buys them female attention. It’s insulting to me and it’s insulting to the vast majority of male colleagues I’ve worked with.

Party guests in the opening scene of Silicon Valley, S1 E1.

In the show, Hooli is the big Google-like company where two of the main characters work. In reality this type of company tends to have a relatively high proportion of women engineers and employees, at least compared to startups and the VC world. When a group of engineers realizes that Richard, the main character, has created amazing piece of technology, the group is all-male:

When Hooli CEO Gavin Belson is observing groups of programmers, he notes they travel in packs of 5. Five guys, he says specifically, and each of the 3 example groups shown is all-male. In reality, even if only 20% of engineers are women, we should still see 1 in 5 women.

Silicon Valley, Episode 1: Hooli CEO Gavin Belson only sees men when he sees engineers.

Silicon Valley is an homage to men. Silicon Valley is peculiarly white. Silicon Valley has a penis. Even the hip-hop performer at the opening scene’s party (Kid Rock) is a white man.

Silicon Valley is satire. It satirizes startup culture in particular, which has even fewer women than the Valley’s 20%-female engineering departments. It’s not a documentary. But satire —nay, art, period—is successful to the extent that it is emotionally honest and provocative. Fiction confronts us with timeless truths, gives insight into human character and the human condition, and lets us relate to and empathize with other people. Satire is successful to the extent that it is honest; otherwise it’s no more than a hatchet job.

And Silicon Valley is bad because it cannot even conceive a truth where women participate in the world it skewers. Women are not real enough to be made fun of. Women have no place in Silicon Valley. Even the almost-thoroughly-idiotic The Internship had a token female engineer in its group of main characters, and there were plenty of background female characters:

The Internship (2013), has a plausible number of women and minority characters. It feels real in that sense.

Halt and Catch Fire, a historical drama about the early PC industry that is set to air in June 2014, was able to manage 50% female leads. And these women are both engineers who participate in the story of the series.

Marketing imagery for Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

What makes me the saddest is that somehow director and writer Mike Judge thought that it would ruin his story, weaken his show, to have women as characters, extras, and background participants in the culture he’s portraying. It felt dishonest to his satire to have women participating. To Judge, women don’t matter when you tell the story of Silicon Valley. To him, I don’t matter. I am a blip, an irrelevant detail that can be glossed over.

It matters whether we portray the tech industry with or without women because how the industry is perceived affects people’s ability to see themselves in this world or not. It matters because when children see women participating in tech culture, they learn that it is okay for women to be in the tech industry, and that women can hold lucrative jobs and become billionaires and be significant participants in this business.

But Silicon Valley teaches viewers that the tech industry is not a place for serious women and women of intellect. It teaches that women do not belong in the tech industry.

I take this seriously because I was positively affected by having female role models, both fictional and real. I still am: I see women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg and I’m reminded that, yes, it is possible, even when I find myself, yet again, the only woman in the room. Men—white men—don’t viscerally realize how important it is to have these role models because they’ve never been without them.

I take this seriously because as a startup cofounder and hiring manager, I have a really hard time finding enough designers and engineers to hire. I want the pool of candidates to increase in size and to not be artificially limited by irrelevant factors like gender and race. I don’t want that pool to be limited further by Hollywood portrayals that write out even the few women we do have in tech.

I take this seriously because I have a 13 year-old stepdaughter—a daughter, really, since her mother passed away, and I assumed the responsibility of being a full-time parent to her and her older brother. I want her to know that she can choose a job or a career based on her talent and her interests and that any path is open to her. I want her and her brother to be able to look to both women and men to solve tough problems.

I want you to take this seriously too. I want you to see it as weird and shocking that there are no women in Silicon Valley. I want you to complain to your friends, family, and kids that Silicon Valley is tone-deaf for not having any main female characters. I want you to believe that anyone with engineering talent deserves to be in this world, and if those talented people get the impression that they are not considered legitimate participants by the people who are already here, they will take their talents elsewhere and our industry will collectively be the worse for it.

Hackers of the world unite.