Ever since the first lady geek laced up her Doc Martens and learned to code, TV has fallen for the hackergrrrl. She’s Abby (Pauley Perrette) on NCIS, with those Emily the Strange pigtails, sharing a keyboard with a male colleague because she can’t fend off firewall attacks on her own. She’s Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) on Criminal Minds, with her zany glasses, accidentally leaking FBI intel because she’s too busy flirting with a knight in a role-playing game. She’s goth Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) on 24: Live Another Day, being rescued by Jack Bauer. In other words, she’s a cliché: She dresses like an independent thinker, but she sometimes acts like a damsel in distress.
On AMC’s new ’80s-set drama Halt and Catch Fire, she’s Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), an asymmetrically coiffed, camouflage-pants-wearing programmer who plays arcade games, knocks back shots, and hooks up with former IBM exec Joe (Lee Pace) just hours after meeting him. She’s such a male fantasy, she might as well have sprung fully formed from the skull of a guy who worships Steve Wozniak and shops at Hot Topic.
That’s not to say that hard-drinking, freewheeling female engineers don’t exist, or that only men want to see them on screen. At a time when women make up only 26 percent of computing jobs, Cameron could be the ultimate female fantasy, too: a boys’-club outlier who happens to look like Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful. Yet there’s something manipulative about casting Cameron as a glass-ceiling breaker when her character isn’t any more progressive than a nuclear-physicist Bond girl. Joe needs her at his company, Cardiff Electric, to help him compete in the personal-computing race. She may be smart, but she doesn’t pose any real threat to the male hero because she’s mostly there to aid him in achieving his dreams.
Granted, there weren’t many women at the forefront of personal computing. But that makes Halt and Catch Fire’s portrayal feel more strange. The only other woman here is Donna (Kerry Bishé), who built an early computer in the ’70s with her husband, Gordon (Scoot McNairy). The couple’s story mirrors that of Dorothy and Gary Kildall, who created an early operating system that was wiped out by IBM’s PC DOS. Dorothy was a pioneer, but Donna is just a scold, trying to stop Gordon from taking a job with Joe because he needs to make more money for the family. As they argue about his prospects, Gordon brings up the Symphonic — their masterpiece — and their kids interrupt to ask what that is. “It’s a silly computer that Mommy and Daddy built that didn’t work,” Donna says. Gordon corrects her: “The Symphonic was the best thing your dad ever did.” You can practically hear Dorothy Kildall’s place in history getting erased.
Donna and Cameron are just characters; they shouldn’t have to represent the best and brightest of all womankind. And it’s hard to judge them by the pilot alone. But let’s hope future episodes reveal more complex minds, and that other hackergrrrls will follow. Until then, we don’t need any more Camerons reverse engineering IBM computers on TV. If anything needs to be reverse engineered, it’s the tired clichés behind her character.