HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ and Stereotyping
Written by Li Lai
There is a fine line between satire and stereotype. But when both forms of cultural commentary look and sound nearly identical, how do we differentiate them?
HBO’s Silicon Valley is one such tightrope-walker that has given me pause in recent years. Drawing upwards of 2 million viewers at its peak on premium cable alone, it’s important that we understand what messages are being internalized by those watching.
To lay the groundwork for this exploration, I want to start with the facts. In the following sections I compare HBO’s Silicon Valley with real-life counterparts. Specifically, I analyze recurring characters¹ against the population of Palo Alto, CA, where the show is set, and against the demographics of actual Silicon Valley tech workers.²
Let’s see what we uncover.
The gender representation on HBO’s Silicon Valley is notoriously abysmal. Specifically, women make up an anemic 7 of 39 recurring characters:
Worse is the quality of those female roles. In one episode of Season 4, men talk for 25:39mins as women squeeze in a laughable 9 seconds, pieced together through one-liners delivered by secretaries and a reporter. In fact, across the entire season just 1 of 10 episodes pass the Bechdel Test, which merely requires two women hold a conversation about something other than a man.
Not surprisingly, this leads to an embarrassing season average of women finding just 6.7% of the speaking time³—less than half of their 17.9% share of the recurring cast.
How does this gender inequality compare with real life?
The show fares 31% worse than its real-life setting and 11% worse than the industry average. Interestingly, however, when we slice the industry data to look only at senior management, the HBO show begins to resemble reality:
We can conclude that HBO’s Silicon Valley is accurate to the (extremely low) number of women in senior-level tech jobs where both groups are made up of exactly 17.9% women. However, when looking at share of dialogue, the show does its women a huge disservice by allotting just 6.7% of the speaking time to women while men talk (and talk, and talk) for 93.3% of it.
Less overt is the racial imbalance found in HBO’s Silicon Valley. The show’s breakdown of recurring characters:
And how they look, broken out by gender:
How does the racial diversity of the fictional show compare to real life?
What becomes clear is the overrepresentation of white cast members, who take up 71.8% of the recurring cast despite only making up 60.6% of the population and 44.1% of the tech industry.
The bulk of that difference is due to the underrepresentation of East and South Asians. The share of Asians on the HBO show is 9.1% below their actual population in Palo Alto and a whopping 27.7% below their share of the tech industry. Meanwhile, variances among Hispanic, black, and mixed-race populations are more slight:
If the cast of HBO’s Silicon Valley reflected actual tech workers in region, there would be 11 fewer white cast members and an additional 11 Asian ones. There would also be one fewer mixed-race cast member and one additional Hispanic character.
Perhaps the show resembles senior-level executives more closely than the overall industry, as we saw in Gender? Let’s take a look:
The show does resemble senior-level tech workers a little more closely. But unlike the gender gap, they still shortchange Asians by a significant 15.0%.
While LGBTQ populations are notoriously difficult to estimate, you don’t need hard evidence to know that HBO’s Silicon Valley is batting below average with 0 LGBTQ characters depicted, even briefly, across 4 full seasons.
Instead, the only discussion we see of queer themes is juvenile jokes and which use same-sex attraction as a punchline, such as Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) calling Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) “code gay” for being attracted to who he thought was a female coder but turned out to be Gilfoyle himself. Or Jared calling someone “homo” on the phone in order to sound like a bro. So funny!
In the industry’s ongoing battle to divest itself of a counterproductive, frat-like culture, Ellen Pao’s discouraging portrait of the industry or Google’s sexist internal memo the latest symptoms of how far it has yet to go, Judge’s show mines this inequality for laughs with no qualms about the women and Asians in tech it obscures in the process.
So what can be done? HBO is in a pivotal moment where its social capital has nosedived from what seemed immovable heights. Between multiple security breaches earlier this month and #NoConfederate which protests the upcoming show depicting an alternate history of slavery as imagined by two white men, HBO needs to think long and hard about how it plans to keep up with streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Studios who seem to have a better grasp of the nation’s current mood. While the latter are making strong statements, wooing Shonda Rhimes away from ABC for top dollar or buying up multicultural films like Joon-Ho Bong’s Okja or Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, what is HBO doing to address changing demographics?
Issa Rae’s Insecure is a great start. Westworld, too, is a step in the right direction. But neither excuse the continued negligence of its other shows. As Silicon Valley gears up for a 5th season, I’ll close out this Diversity Check with a quote from Jessica Alice for Junkee:
“It’s not enough for a program…to simply mirror the world’s problems. Realistic it might be; satirical it isn’t. There needs to be an element of subversion and judgement on the status quo. There needs to be critique. As it stands, Silicon Valley is essentially endorsing the lack of gender and racial diversity that inhabits the tech world.”
¹ We define “recurring characters” in HBO’s Silicon Valley as those who appear in at least 3 of the 38 episodes released across Seasons 1–4.
² Tech workers in Silicon Valley, CA are defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at length in this report. Between the two regions they specify, either San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont or Santa Clara County, we use the latter in our study since it encompasses our locational comparison, the city of Palo Alto, CA.
³ Author’s analysis of data captured via arementalkingtoomuch.com.