The newest season of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire revolves around a computer gaming company that relocates to the Bay Area just as the personal computer revolution of the 1980s is about to take off. What makes it even more compelling, however, are the leaders of this company: two women named Donna Clark and Cameron Howe. Yup, it’s prestige television about two women who run a gaming company—and if you haven’t tuned in before, it’s more than worth your while. For Kerry Bishé, the actor who plays Donna, the show is not only an opportunity to play a complex and unusual role, but the sort of diverse representation she thinks is crucial to changing not only the possibilities for the characters we see on TV, but people in the real world. Bishé talked to FREQ about the gender gap in tech, the erasure of women from history, and why her work on Halt and Catch Fire has been “a gift."
Interview by Laura Hudson
FREQ: One of the things I like the most about Halt and Catch Fire is how many women we get to see playing active roles in this world. You’ve said before that this actually reflects a truth about the early days of the personal computing revolution—that there were more women in computer science then than now.
Kerry Bishé: Yeah, women earned 37 percent of computer science degrees in 1985, and today it’s only 18 percent. I find that statistic so disturbing because everyone assumes that the numbers of women [in tech] are going up, that it’s a lot more egalitarian now, and that just isn’t the case. I think it’s important to talk about that.
FREQ: I’ve heard that initially, computer programming was seen more as secretarial work than a science and so a lot more women were involved even in the very early days.
Yes, back when computers used punch cards, women were the ones doing the computing. It was about form and function. The way that computers were built, they required all of this meticulous work, and that at the time was considered women’s work. I read about this economic study that showed how once a profession becomes open to more women, it pays less. We value not just the traditional work of women less, but any work they do less. It’s a really thorny and complicated idea, the idea of equal pay, the idea of equal representation in different fields. One of the ways that I’m really enthusiastic about working on that, that I really truly believe in, is representation in media. Showing different types of people doing a job makes people in that demographic feel that they can also do that job. It’s such a big deal, and it makes me so happy that we have not one, not two but a number of brilliant women on our show in business and computing. It makes me so over the moon excited.
FREQ: You often hear gaming or tech companies that they can’t hire women because women aren’t interested, that girls just don’t want to do this stuff. Then you look at statistics like that and realize how untrue that is.
Also, I imagine saying things like that to girls who might have been interested in the field creates a self-perpetuating problem. We need more positive role models. And while it’s good to encourage women in science and computer fields, men also have a real opportunity to encourage their daughters and their nieces and their friends to pursue tech as a career.
FREQ: Hearing a statistic like that also makes you wonder, what would the tech world be like today if these companies had maintained a staff that was 40 percent women, particularly with women in management roles. It’s hard to even imagine.
I think that a lot about corporate structures. If women represented 50 percent of the workforce at all levels of corporate control, what would business be like? I really don’t know. I think our show is an interesting exploration of that, of how people work together, and how women work together versus how men work together.
FREQ: I love the relationship between Donna and Cameron, the two women running this company. Cameron is introduced to us immediately as a genius coder, but Donna initially comes across as more of a traditional housewife—and then her brilliance sneaks up on us. I love that it doesn’t pigeonhole just one type of woman as smart or successful in the tech world.
Yeah, I think that it’s really important not to just have only one exceptional woman who proves the “rule” of other women’s incompetence or insufficiency. It’s really important to have a broad representation of the different possibilities.
FREQ: It’s so heartening to see these two women successfully running a computer game company just as this industry was really getting started. It’s a great reminder of the reality of situation, which is that that despite hostility women sometimes face in gaming culture, we’ve been there all along.
KB: It’s a challenge to acknowledge the contributions of women throughout history, because often they get scrubbed from history. I think we have a problem with that, and we don’t value the work that women do enough. It’s a subconscious thing. The are very few monuments to the contributions of women in New York City, so there’s a movement to include more women in public monuments and memorials. That’s a great place to start.
FREQ: Given how often female characters are typecast in such limited ways in the media, how does it feel to play a woman in tech who is such a nuanced character?
KB: I almost forget what a gift it is that these characters are so multifaceted that they can’t be described in a single adjective. I’m very picky about the kinds of roles I want to play. Representation matters to me. People love to talk about “strong female characters,” but that idea is so limiting. I like to think of female characters as complex, whole, and also fallible people. The things that they do badly, their flaws and deficiencies are as important as their skills and positive qualities. Women characters often operate on this single trajectory, but Donna really has had the room to grow and change and make mistakes. It’s one of the biggest fullest characters I’ve been able to play.
FREQ: I love how that complexity plays out in Donna’s relationship with her husband, Gordon. Early on the show, we see her step aside to support his ambitions, but when the reverse happens later on it seems more fraught—there’s this tension.
KB: Their marriage is so interesting. Season 3 details a time in a relationship that I don’t think I’ve ever really seen represented in a show before. It’s a fascinating, very delicate thing because Gordon and Donna have been through the wringer, and in Season 3 once the fighting is over—then what happens? How do you interact? How do you navigate what comes next? For these people intimacy is also deeply tied to their intellect. Intimacy comes to these people when they’re collaborating on a project. They don’t have friends. [laughs] They are their work. That’s how they define themselves and their relationships to each other. I think that’s a fascinating dynamic as well.
FREQ: You once said that it bothered you how easily Donna got described as Gordon’s wife, but now it seems like things have shifted, and she’s the one stepping into the spotlight. I don’t think someone watching the show for the first time this season would make that characterization.
KB: That’s really great to hear. Wouldn’t it be nice if Gordon were referred to as Donna’s husband?
FREQ: What kind of reactions have you gotten to Donna’s character from viewers, particularly as the character has evolved?
KB: It’s funny. I always love when the crew gets the script for the next episode. You can kind of tell a lot about general popular opinion based on the way they respond. It’s 200-300 people that represent a broad range of people. And so often the women will read the scripts and get so excited and tell me, “Donna is such a badass! She’s so tough! I love she does this in the next episode!” And a lot of time the guys on set are like, “Oh man, Donna’s evil!” It’s so interesting to me.
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