Silicon Valley - Maximizing Alphaness

This past Sunday, HBO’s Silicon Valley said goodbye to its loyal viewers forever. The half-hour comedy focused around San Francisco’s tech scene first aired in 2014 and was created by Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky. The show follows Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his gang of genius coders on their rollercoaster ride to turn their start-up compression company into the next big thing. The crew behind the company, Pied Piper, has managed to make a name for itself whilst narrowly avoiding the direst of circumstances and dodging the many attempted takedowns of their main antagonist, Gavin Belson, the CEO of enemy company, Hooli.

For added context, (from left to right) this is an image of the characters Gilfoyle, Dinesh, and Richard

Also, because I didn’t have a chance to present, please see clip here: Maximizing Alphaness

Episode 4 of season six (the final season), entitled “Maximizing Alphaness” sees the fallout of the most recent development in the Gavin Belson/Hooli and Richard Hendricks/Pied Piper war. For some background, Richard was once a staff programmer for Gavin at Hooli and he left after inventing something called middle-out compression that he decided to pursue in a Bill Gates inspired garage start-up. When Pied Piper was launched, Gavin made it his life’s mission to destroy the defector’s company. Six years later (season 6), Richard offers an olive branch in the form of a mutually beneficial buyout. Gavin, true to form, rejects this offer just to spite Richard. To get revenge, Richard buys Hooli out from under Gavin and with that, he inherits all of Hooli’s employees as well as the controversial app, Foxhole (which is an Ashley Madison for soldiers sourcing prostitutes). This episode provides both an apt portrayal of toxic masculinity as well as an example of lean-in feminism.

The episode’s main conflict comes in the form of Ethan, Richard’s manager from when he worked at Hooli. In an awkward shift of power, Ethan is among the group of Hooli employees unsure of their job status. There’s a palpable weirdness between the two as Ethan’s job is in the palm of his former employee’s hand. Ethan quickly proves himself valuable to the core team of Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gillfoyle (Martin Starr) though is ostensibly met with suspicion as he worked for the enemy. Ethan proposes an invaluable idea that could save Pied Piper a lot of money by using inherited Hooli tech and immediately proves his worth, but Ethan isn’t ready to treat Richard like his superior. Richard’s assistant brings Richard a water that Ethan promptly claims for himself and then he refers to Richard, his new boss and the company’s CEO, by the insulting nickname, “patches.” The nickname apparently originates from Richard’s first day at Hooli when he wore a sweater with elbow patches; fellow Hooli employees picked on him for this quirky style choice. Ethan’s ego does not allow him to overcome the power dynamic that once had him on top. Thus, he acts out.

Later on, Ethan moves a meeting without Richard’s knowledge and starts without him. Waiting at his seat on his arrival is a sweater with the same elbow pads that Richard was once ostracized for and earned him his nickname. When Richard starts telling the story behind “patches,” Ethan cuts him off to say he already shared it. Ethan also belittles Richard by pressuring him to put on the shirt and sharing embarrassing photos of Richard and the heretical coding mistakes he made at Hooli during a presentation to Richard’s employees.

Dinesh talks to Richard after the presentation to try to understand why he would let himself be humiliated like that—specifically asking where his balls are. Richard explains that he doesn’t mind putting his ego aside for the good of the company. Dinesh gives Richard advice saying, “Do you know why the gorillas respected Jane Goodall?” Richard interrupts Dinesh by explaining Goodall worked with chimpanzees to which Dinesh replies, “No. It’s because she could kick their ass and they knew it…You need to assert dominance like Jane Goodall.” Then Dinesh shows Richard the video entitled “maximizing alphaness” which is just a montage of trucks, girls in bikinis, eagles, fires, and other imposing images over heavy metal rock music. Richard’s initial reaction is that the video is the dumbest thing he’s ever seen. Being said, the video serves as a powerful representation of aspirational masculinity; men as hard, brutal, powerful, and dominant—everything Richard is not.

Before going to confront Ethan, Richard desperately watches Dinesh’s suggested video to get in touch with his aggression and hype himself up. Richard politely asks Ethan to stop with the nicknames and embarrassing stories. Ethan nonchalantly replies fine, but then he says he will start calling him “butt stuff” instead (once at Hooli, Richard’s shirt was tucked into his underwear for the whole day). Richard understandably vetoes that nickname and Ethan obnoxiously defies his boss; Ethan says he will call him whatever he wants because he’s the star coder, they {Pied Piper} need him, and they need to keep the star coder happy. Richard responds by punching Ethan in the face, but—to the viewer’s collective amusement—Richard is the only one in the altercation to get hurt (causing a comical HR situation).

Without admitting guilt, Richard is told to apologize to Ethan. As he does, Ethan responds with an apology of his own saying, “I’m just feeling insecure about working for a guy who used to work for me.” This moment of positive vulnerability is undercut by a later scene showing Ethan only apologized because he was threatened by Richard’s assistant.

Since its inception, Silicon Valley has flown in the face of traditional masculinity, setting each of its protagonists in clear opposition with the societal expectations of a man. Distinct from the uber-masculine blue-collar workers depicted in shows such as Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch, Richard and his gang are all romantically unattached coders who sit behind a computer for a living (Lockett, 2011). The stakes are high, but never life-and-death in the physical sense, more in the sense of the ethical impacts on society.

Richard’s lack of masculinity and aggression are perceived as the reason his subordinates don’t respect him and that the only way for him to achieve respect is by subscribing some of the tenets of this aspirational masculinity. Richard’s failure at aggression is indicative of his failure as a man and the acceptance of the tech industry as a male-dominated sphere creates an interesting survey into the interplays of the fragile male ego in the workplace. In this episode, Richard struggles with traditionally female associated issues in the workplace with championing himself, demanding the treatment he deserves, asserting himself, and commanding respect. By putting Richard in this position, perhaps the mainly male audience of the show can sympathize with the women so often made to feel like this in the workplace. Also, in making “maximizing alphaness” and the typical alpha male ridiculous, it may help weed out toxic masculinity as a technique employed by weaker minded individuals.

Additionally, the episode’s B-story follows the only female member of the Pied Piper team, the company’s CFO, Monica (Amanda Crew), provides an intriguing foray into lean-in feminism. Monica runs into her old boss, Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer), while Laurie lunches with the powerful women of tech. Monica feels a bit of FOMO and expresses her desire to rub shoulders with the industry’s most influential women. Laurie explains that the women are together to plan the Women in Tech summit and basically calls Monica a bad feminist for never taking apparent action to uplift and empower women in the workforce. Unconvincingly, Monica dismisses Laurie’s claim and gets herself a spot on the panel, but it reads as a clout-chasing move instead of empowered feminism.

To reinforce Monica’s character as the antifeminist, Richard gives Monica Foxhole’s domain. He explains that having a woman in charge would provide good optics and based on Richard’s text from Monica, “if a bunch of dumb marines want to cheat on their dumb wives, why do I care?” Monica is fine being a female figurehead. In hearing this and in light of the panel, she does a 180 on her position. Richard responds saying, “please make it work, for woman.”

Stuck with Foxhole, Monica sits down with a female employee, Priyanka, to talk about “advancing her career.” Monica passes down Foxhole (which is apparently 90% men and all the women on the app are prostitutes) to Priyanka under the pretense of it being a big promotion and challenge, when the viewer knows she’s only really doing it to get it off her back.

Later on, Monica speaks at the women in tech panel. After giving a dismissive answer regarding Foxhole, Priyanka is instead asked to speak on it. Priyanka fits in the environment much better than Monica, literally and metaphorically, unseating Monica. Priyanka says to a lively and empowered female audience that she called on her network of female coders to unionize the sex workers “because sex work it work” and make Foxhole applicable to female soldiers because the “women who put their bodies in harm’s way,” deserve to put their bodies in “pleasure’s way.” Monica is slowly pushed off the stage during Priyanka and the moderator’s discussion of sex-positive feminism.

While Monica’s storyline helps to develop her character as appropriately despicable, (the show has gotten a lot of flack for its representation of women) it does so while belittling new-age feminism as essentially a load of bullshit that pussy-hat wearing women in a conference room hoot and applaud at. Monica is emblematic of the failure of trickle-down feminism. She is a women in the utmost leadership position that, in her time in power, hasn’t done much to relate to or support the few women below her. When she does lean in, she does it with an ulterior motive. Priyanka’s promotion has nothing to do with her quality as an employee and everything to do with the fact that she’s a woman.

The female director (Liza Johnson) and main accredited writer of the episode (Daisy Gardner) showcase a positive evolution in the series’ behind-the-scenes inclusion though it’s hard, in light of events of the episode, to determine if this is just a move to quell feminist naysayers or if it’s a stab at genuine diversification. Regardless, this episode of Silicon Valley fascinatingly touches on gender dynamics in the workplace. While an intellectual reading of the episode may perpetuate dangerous notions regarding gender, it is in-line with the show’s pessimistic outlook on society and industry. Whether intentional or not, “Maximizing Alphaness” gets to the core of harmful, gendered workplace behaviors in an era of postfeminism and the “end of men” (Gilligan, 2011).

Works Cited:

  • Heather Tirado Gilligan, “It’s the End of Men. Again.”

  • Christopher Lockett, “Masculinity and Authenticity: Reality TV’s Real Men”

  • Vorel, Jim, “Big Mouth’s Valentine’s Day Special Is a Devastating Portrait of Toxic Masculinity”

  • Rebecca Feasey, “Teen Programming: Isolation, Alienation and Emerging Manhood” in Masculinity and Popular Television pp. 45-55

  • Tyler, Imogen. “’Chav Mum Chav Scum’. Class Disgust in Contemporary Britain.” Feminist Media Studies 8:1 (2008): 17-34.

  • Kathleen Geier, “Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?” The Nation

  • Fien Adriaens and Sofie Van Bauwel, “Sex and the City: A Postfeminist Point of View? Or How Popular Culture Functions as a Channel for Feminist Discourse,” The Journal of Popular Culture, 2014.

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