In the 1980s nearly half of the workforce in computing was made up of women, despite the durable stereotypes about the gendering of computing that were being created. The notion that computing in the 80s was completely dominated by men is not wholly undone by AMC’s series Halt and Catch Fire, even though the show seems to be trying to invest its version of history with the contributions of women. Two of the four main characters are women, both of whom are allowed to be dynamic and interesting as often as they can get around the stereotyping of the show’s initial setup.
The show takes place on the cusp of the personal computing revolution of the 1980s at a struggling firm in Texas. Lee Pace’s character Joe swoops in to pluck Scoot McNairy’s Gordon from obscurity and coerce the firm into supporting a personal computer project. Predictably, Gordon’s wife Donna is the foil to her husband’s misunderstood genius with repeated pleas about the financial welfare of their family, which includes two young daughters. Donna’s motherly practicality is no match for the ambitions of Joe and Gordon. The PC project moves forward when Donna eventually gives Gordon her blessing after he apologizes and washes a few dishes.
To program the new PC they hope to build, Joe ‘recruits’ a wayward young college student named Cameron Howe. After grilling her in a class visit, Joe follows Cameron to an arcade to question her further where an awkward sex scene comes to a screeching halt when Joe says, mid coitus, “This doesn’t mean you get the job.” Joe ultimately convinces Cameron to join the project with the same promises he made to Gordon about fulfilling one’s potential, chasing dreams, and building something great. Cameron goes to work at the firm where the show’s visuals highlight how out-of-place the young, vaguely androgynous punk-rock programmer is in the white collar world. It is clear that Cameron will be the creative energy of the project and the wild-card.
Halt and Catch Fire wouldn’t be worth writing about if not for the intriguing women who counter the predictable, boring arc of Gordon and Joe’s (read: Wozniak and Jobs’) technological triumph. Although it takes a while to get going, the writers sometimes allow Donna and Cameron to grow past the stereotypes with which they are introduced. Donna, who works at Texas Instruments and who worked on a failed PC project with Gordon in the past, proves to be just as technically competent as Gordon and certainly far more skilled than Joe, who is jjust a savvy salesperson. But her work for TI is often equated with clerical, pink-collar work because it is placed in opposition to Joe and Gordon’s creative, financially risky and innovative PC project. Early on, Gordon snaps at Donna that the stakes are higher in his world because he doesn’t “just” do quality assurance for calculators.
Later in the same episode, Donna is called in to clean up a potentially disastrous data loss on the PC project where she has to confront Cameron. Donna asks if Cameron keeps a list of files, to which Cameron replies viciously that you can’t just hold up the ‘flow’ while creating to do ‘some mindless bookkeeping.’ This exchange is written in explicitly gendered terms- Cameron doesn’t want to be mothered; Donna says that Cameron is “a mess” and definitely needs a mother just then. Even after being called in by Gordon for her specific expertise, Donna has to first prove her competence to the other male engineers. As she works through the highly repetitive task of recovering the data by hand, Cameron and the male characters wander the building brooding and doing nothing to help, presumably because their brainpower must be reserved for creating, not menial work like data recovery. Donna discovered that Joe actually stole Cameron’s backup disks by recognizing that the vacuum cleaner that supposedly caused the power surge wouldn’t have been used in a room with no carpeting. She confronts Joe saying, “I don’t know about you, but I would have used a mop.” Donna uses her housewife knowledge to solve the mystery-- her technical skills were ultimately meaningless.
The show constantly uses similar incidents and visual cues to remind us that Donna is a housewife first and a gifted engineer second. No matter how often Donna proves her technical ability, she is consistently undermined by her appearance and her responsibilities to her home and family. In the data recovery scene, she is actually wearing a shirt with a pink collar. Donna always dresses in staid, feminine conservative clothing, has lots of cooking and childcare scenes, and drives a station wagon. Since Cameron has none of the same responsibilities and her appearance is intentionally androgynous, she is able to fit into the space of creativity and innovation that is normally reserved for men.
In the end, what the show provides are two competing stereotypes about women in computing. While Donna’s character probably hews closer to the real history of computing and Cameron to our preferred technological mythology, they are both representative of the kinds of stereotypes about women that became crystallized in this period. The generally-understood history of women in computing (and women in science and technology in general) is the story of the ‘singular genius’ or that of the ‘pink collar’ clerical worker. Consistently placing women in either of these two groups makes it difficult to imagine characters that might transcend these types.
Donna ultimately becomes part of the team, though she is never considered of equal status with Cameron, who is still the creative driving force of the project. Using both of these types and writing interesting interactions for the characters is a big step in the right direction, but there is much work to be done. The second season of Halt and Catch Fire is airing now, and it seems to be making improvements in its handling of women. Only after Gordon and Joe’s project succeeds do Donna and Cameron team up to work on something new, though Donna again ends up the mother figure of the uncouth and unwashed startup Mutiny. Cameron gets to create; Donna has to call the power company and sigh about the condition of the communal fridge.
We like to think and write about television because we are fans but most importantly, we believe that it is vitally important to be critical of pop culture representations of history in order to understand the ways in which cultural myths are formed, become durable, and might be eradicated. Halt and Catch Fire is too internally ambivalent about the women in the story for me to find a clear side on which to bring the hammer down. I see a lot of the problematic stereotypes about women in computing repeated and reinforced by the show, but I also see moments that allow the characters to subvert their ‘types’. Under the surface might just be the nuanced position on women that we have been looking for, but they are going to have to get Donna out from behind all the stovetops and vacuum cleaners for me to be sure.