Halt and Watch This: Representation of Women in Tech and The Importance of Relatable Characters in Film & TV

In an online survey I conducted, two-thirds of respondents thought depictions of female tech experts were “not particularly accurate” or even “very inaccurate”.

by Kay Kollmann on October 18th, 2016

On 10 October, a sigh of relief tinged with sadness was heaved in a small but devoted corner of Twitter as news spread that AMC would renew Halt and Catch Fire for a fourth and final season. Easily the network’s most low-profile drama series, Halt and Catch Fire follows a group of fictional ‘80s tech pioneers as they try (and fail) to build products and run businesses together – first in the Silicon Prairie of Texas, then in Silicon Valley – while figuring out their relationships with one another. The series is a rare example of a moving picture which both revolves around technology and paints the people working with it in a realistic light… including its female characters.

The main characters in Halt and Catch Fire situated around a couch, with the words "Welcome to Mutiny" spray-painted on the wall behind them. Character Cameron is standing on the couch, holding a baseball bat behind her head.

Meet the main characters of Halt and Catch Fire: Joe (Lee Pace), Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy). Image via AMC Networks. 

In an online survey I conducted for my thesis on the portrayal of women technologists in TV and film, two-thirds of respondents thought depictions of female tech experts were “not particularly accurate” or even “very inaccurate”. Thoroughly anti-social Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, works on solving murders; Kate Libby, dream girl of Hackers, helps prevent an oil spill and uncover embezzlement at the company which almost caused it; Sense8’s Nomi has a sensate connection to several individuals all over the planet, who are hunted by people out to kill them; in The Net, Angela Bennett finds out about a fake security program and has to run from its creators, who have robbed her of her identity; M.K./Mika is one of a group of Orphan Black clones who try to avoid capture; Darlene of Mr. Robot helps create global chaos and lands on the FBI’s most-wanted list. More often than not, female hackers, programmers, security experts and related fictional professionals are made to be out of the ordinary; usually, they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and everyday portrayals are few and far between. It might, understandably, be hard to identify with characters like these.

By contrast, Cameron Howe and Donna Clark, the main female characters in Halt and Catch Fire, are rather regular people grappling with comparatively conventional complications in their lives. Cameron is a young programmer originally hired to write the BIOS for an IBM clone, a venture set in motion by a pushy product manager, Joe MacMillan, wanting to make a name for himself. Donna is the wife of Gordon Clark, the engineer responsible for the new PC’s hardware design; she works in quality assurance at Texas Instruments while also bearing the main responsibility for the couple’s two young daughters and household. The first season follows Joe, Gordon and Cameron as they wrestle with the challenge of building a computer from scratch with occasional help from Donna, an engineer by training herself, and ends with the two women partnering up to run a games company together. Their venture becomes the focal point of the series’ subsequent seasons.

Donna and Cameron standing outside of a brick building, reviewing notes.

Donna and Cameron, the “brain trust” of Mutiny, go over notes at their new office in California. Image via AMC Networks. 

I ended up falling in love with the show because its struggling, complicated main characters, who had been placed into all too familiar territory, struck a chord. After the summer of 2015, when AMC took months to decide to pick up the series for a third season, the idea for the topic of my thesis was born. The TL;DR of my research: women knowledgeable about technology only rarely feature as major characters in fictional telecinematic texts, and existing portrayals are often not relatable.

This is a problem; as just one data point, the participants in my thesis survey almost unanimously concurred that fictional depictions of jobs can get audience members interested in pursuing them in real life. At the same time, movies and TV shows mostly fail to get across what occupations in tech entail – and are, additionally, predominantly built around men. What fictional tech often amounts to is that there is something (bad) going on, then a “computer nerd” (most often male, and frequently stereotyped as well) comes in to save the day by rapidly typing on a keyboard, which magically makes stuff happen. I had always been interested in making, but even after computer science lessons in school, I had no real idea about careers in the technology sector; by contrast, I researched how to join law enforcement based on fictional portrayals of it. Of course, human-computer interaction as it typically occurs in real life often does not make for the most compelling material on camera, but knowing that “hey, there are people doing this thing, which is an actual job, which they are into, and for which they get paid” as well as “these are people like (potential future) you, too” can make a big difference. And not even only for young folks: as long as culture and media regurgitate messages about how some work is the domain of only some groups, there will be adults internalising this as truth, and passing it on to others.

To be clear: Halt and Catch Fire is not perfect. It is very noticeably very White. It has moments which make me cringe with second-hand embarrassment, and its characters play too vital a part in too many technological advancements, some of which happen prematurely compared to actual history. When I first started watching it, the series nearly put me off immediately thanks to what looked like a gratuitous sex scene between two characters who had only just been introduced. Slick businessman scouts for talent at college, finds young, gifted, no-bullshit woman coder, they hook up almost on the spot, within the first few minutes of the very first episode? Really? (But not trivially, the scene takes an unexpected turn when the student abruptly breaks off the couple’s romp because she is not going to let him play games with her, kthxbye. Right on!)

It would also be remiss to gloss over the fact the series did not start out focussing as much on its (few) female characters as it does today. The beautifully done, Emmy-nominated opening credits, accompanied by a retro-technoid Trentemøller track, continue to be a reminder of how men originally took precedence over the women: while the names of the two male leads are superimposed on glitchy but still-recognisable images of their faces, Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé, the actors playing Cameron and Donna, are only afforded indistinct silhouettes alongside theirs. In an early interview with the Writers Guild of America, West, only weeks after HACF’s premiere, creators/writers/showrunners, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, confirmed how, computers aside, the show was “about two guys who decide to partner together as underdogs and take on The Man, as it were”.

The switch to centring its female characters only happened with Halt and Catch Fire’s second season – to the delight of numerous critics, some of whom only seemed to be picking up on the brilliantly acted yet severely underpromoted series then; but also to the chagrin of portions of Lee Pace’s fan base, judging from an unending flow of exasperated comments on message boards and reviews alike as the top billed performer was relegated to a secondary thread. Personally, I find characters like his fascinating (his is also the only non-heterosexual main character), but was in complete agreement with the media: the shift of attention towards the two women co-running their own tech start-up was ingenious, and I continue to be pissed at complaints about the series’ “feminist agenda” until today.

Donna and Cameron in a meeting room, both wearing a look of slight disdain, alarm and frustration.

At a meeting with potential investors… who just asked if the women were planning to have children. Uhm. Image via AMC Networks. 

As a fan of the show, it can get lonely as it is. H&CF is a period piece which, compared to others, seems to have the disadvantage of not being set in a distant enough past to intrigue those eager to explore the spirit of days long gone by. Nor is it recent enough to evoke feelings of recognition or reminiscence by younger segments: if you grew up with The Matrix, you might be less inclined to watch Halt than people who grew up with Tron, and if you are not well-versed with computers, you might not be interested either way. For people involved in tech now, including tinkerers and amateurs, or in fact anyone remotely interested in net politics – a topic hard to avoid in times of the cyber – a show like Mr. Robot, while sometimes quite technical, is potentially more gratifying to watch and decode than Halt and Catch Fire, whose level of accuracy is difficult to verify by anyone who did not live tech in the ’80s. Mr. Robot, however, largely failed its female techies, I find, especially its rare woman of colour hacker, Trenton, a recurring character whose on-screen hacktivities had not gone beyond uploading a bunch of files via FTP until very recently in the series.

Halt and Catch Fire’s third season just finished airing, and like others, I am still not done processing its double episode finale, which unexpectedly fast-forwards events four years, to 1990, which sees the protagonists quite changed in some regards, and at the cusp of the Internet era. Given AMC was widely predicted to drop the series due to modest and declining ratings, I understand the creators’ wish to bring the story full circle. Personally though, I could have done without the rekindling of a relationship, the ousting of one character and inconsistent behaviour of another, and would have been left disappointed had this been the show’s actual conclusion. Listening to Cantwell and Rogers talk about their characters (spoilers!) makes it clear, however, they care for them greatly, and there is hope the show’s women writers, who were responsible for some of this season’s most memorable scenes and its not-quite finale, “You Are Not Safe” (Lisa Albert, Alison Tatlock), will be back again as well. I, myself, am a tad melancholic about leaving this period of Halt and Catch Fire behind, but my dial-up modem is ready and waiting for 2017.

Further Reading

Lyle Friedman, Matt Daniels, Ilia Blinderman: “Hollywood’s Gender Divide and its Effect on Films”. Polygraph, 13 January, 2016.

 Todd VanDerWerff: “AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire is set in tech’s past. But it just might be TV’s future”. Vox, 23 August, 2016.