In which I have feelings about Halt and Catch Fire and the portrayals of science ladies in media
A few nights ago, I finished season one of Halt and Catch Fire. I first put it on as background noise while I was working on sending out a galley mailing at work, because my Penny Dreadful rewatch was getting a little too NSFW and I forgot that I had meant to watch the apparently awful Fleming miniseries starring Dominic Cooper. And honestly, I expected Halt to be awful, too. I figured I’d watch an episode, get fed up, switch back to Penny Dreadful, and just keep shielding the screen whenever there was too much blood and writhing on the screen to be appropriate for the workplace.
But then, a series of magical things occurred. The First Magical Thing was the title sequence. It was computer-y! It had a super catchy instrumental song! It looked like Tron kinda! The Second Magical Thing was the aesthetic. I’ve been describing it — in my head — as Friday Night Lights meets Tron. It’s all the 80s computer goodness you could want, topped with all the compelling character drama you deserve. And it’s glorious.
The Third Magical Thing should have been Cameron Howe, but she didn’t win my over at the start. She looked like a stereotype, to be completely honest — super short hair and an awful dye job, super ~edgy~ clothes, too-good-for-this attitude. I knew she was the young, tech-savvy ingenue, and I found that boring. I’d seen it in all the commercials, and blah-blah-blah, whatever. All told, it took me probably two full episodes to finally fall desperately in love with and support and pledge my life to Cameron Howe, and I’ll discuss why I hate myself for my initial feelings below the cut.
No, the Third Magical Thing, for me, was Donna Clark.
It’s all kind of a blur now, but when Donna first showed up on-screen, I’m pretty sure it was at the Clark house, and I’m pretty sure she had just come home from work. (I only watched this, like, a week ago, I should remember, sheesh.) Regardless, Gordon (oh, Gordon) started babbling about his awful day and their kids needed help fixing this Speak and Spell, and then, suddenly, Donna was hunkering down to fix the damn Speak and Spell and talking computer shop with Gordon. And she wasn’t talking about it in an “I’m so exasperated by all this technological mumbo-jumbo that my lady brain will never comprehend” kind of way, and she wasn’t fixing the toy because she had to, because Gordon was being useless. She got it.
And that’s when I realized I’d been expecting Donna to be a secondary character, and I was expecting that because she was a woman. Because when do women who look like Donna — hardworking moms with poofy 80s hair and sensible shoes — get to be straight-up, down-home nerds? Answer: according to Western mass media, they don’t.
That’s the moment I fell in love with Halt and Catch Fire. Yes, I like the corporate espionage angle and the interpersonal drama. And yes, I think it’s superbly acted. I think it’s subtle and I think it understands the time period and its characters like not many shows I’ve ever seen do. But I fell in love because the Tough Programmer Chick was allowed to be soft and vulnerable without it being seen as a flaw, and because the Middle Class Mom could kick ass and take names in the workplace without being ragged on for “neglecting household duties.” The men are still very much the focus of the show (I’ve read that that changes in season two, and fingers crossed!), but the women, at the very least, are able to be real, whole, three-dimensional people.
And I fell in love with Halt and Catch Fire because it showed me how wrong I’d been. It was wrong of me to assume Cameron was going to be nothing more than a Lisbeth Salander clone, closed-off and gritty and forever bent over a computer keyboard, ignoring all else. It was wrong of me to assume that Donna couldn’t be into computers. I did a double-take when they mentioned her job with Texas Instruments, and again when they alluded to her at Berkley. A lady? Working in science? What is this, 1983?
Women working in computer science, whether it’s a modern setting or thirty years ago, shouldn’t be the exception; they should be the rule. Women should be engineers and programmers and designers, and they should be building portable computers from the ground up and they should be designing games and writing print drivers or whatever the hell it is computer people do! I have absolutely no science or mathematical talent, but I fully support women who can — who have — who will — get up every morning pumped to do some algebra and ready to take on the world, one line of code at a time.
[Spoilers below for the end of the first season of the show! Look for the next break to continue reading if you don’t want to be spoiled!]
In the season one conclusion, a twisting, dramatic, and ultimately pretty gut-wrenching turn of events leads to Cameron turning her back (rightfully so) on Cardiff Electric, where she’d been the programmer working on their new portable computer, and Donna leaving her job at TI. Cameron dives into the world of tech start-ups on the Silicon Prairie, creating a gaming company called Mutiny, where no one has job titles and everybody is expected to put in 112% to make something mega-super-bitchin’. Cameron offers Donna a job, and not because Donna is spiraling down into a pretty dark place or (not entirely) because the show needed Donna to be, like, a human being again, but because Cameron needs her. Donna’s computer skills in no way undermine her abilities to be a wife, a mother, or a breadwinner; they accentuate them. It’s a rare show that allows a woman to proudly wear more than one label.
After initially declining the job offer, Donna accepts in the season finale and joins the Mutiny family. I don’t know what the fallout will be, but Gordon seemed supportive, so I have high hopes! (Though this show thrives on completely realistic misunderstandings and frustrations and arguments that feel very real, so I have to admit that I’m a little worried what that might all mean for my new favorite nerd couple.)
Regardless, I can’t wait to see where everything leads, and I can’t wait to see what walls Cameron and Donna manage to bust through. It’ll be sad to see them working so hard, knowing that women will have achieved comparatively so little, even in 2015, and especially in their chosen field. But it’s heartening to see some small female representation finally getting it right on American television.
(Everyone watch Halt and Catch Fire, thanks.)
(I don’t work for AMC. I promise.)