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Sexism and consequences at TechCrunch’s annual award show

Sexism and consequences at TechCrunch’s annual award show


An AOL executive apologizes for the host’s offensive remarks, but what about the rest of the bullshit?

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For the past eight years, TechCrunch has hosted a bizarro tech world version of the Oscars called the Crunchies. The industry gets all dolled up, walks the "green carpet," and watches Silicon Valley insiders present trophies for categories like "Best On-Demand Service" and "Best Overall Startup." At the eighth annual Crunchies last Thursday, the best startup award was handed to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, while outside demonstrators protested Uber’s privacy violations, treatment of its drivers, and distaste for the rule the law. One sign said, "UBER DESERVES A HIGH KALANICK."

It is not lost on TechCrunch that the founders and investors celebrated at the Crunchies are no longer starved for attention or validation. Perhaps to introduce a little more awareness of the bubbling absurdity, in recent years TechCrunch stopped using its own writers as emcees and hired comedians. You can watch the Crunchie intros get more caustic as the class tension rises. Last year, John Oliver told the audience: "You’re no longer the underdogs, it’s very important you realize that," and then riffed on ways they were "pissing off an entire city."

The Crunchies get more caustic as the class tension rises

The real joke, of course, is that a tech blog got Oliver to show up in the first place. This time, TechCrunch got T.J. Miller from HBO’s Silicon Valley, to host at Davies Symphony Hall. Twice, he referred to himself as a court jester. "That’s why you invited me here. That’s how fucked up all of you are," he said.

But the mood of the audience didn’t seem masochistic to me. Like Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, Oliver and Miller were paid to hassle the audience just enough to allow everyone to enjoy an extended evening of self-congratulations with a clean conscience.

Then, mid-way through, Miller began to make the same missteps as Gervais. Within the span of a few minutes, Miller called a woman a bitch three times and casually threw out a racist remark. (You can watch the video here starting at about the 1:34:00 mark.) The first instance was when an audience member annoyed him by taking a flash photo.

Miller: That’s the perfect time to take flash photography. That shows how tech savvy you are. There’s three buttons you can choose: flash on, flash off, or auto, a.k.a. being kind of a rude bitch.

The audience groaned, and Miller encouraged their disappointment.

Miller: Whoaaaaah. I couldn’t wait to come to San Francisco, you guys are so cool about being teased. You’re not that precious here.

A few minutes later, Miller had another off-the-cuff interaction, this time with Gabi Holzwarth, a violinist who plays at tech parties and the girlfriend of Travis Kalanick. She piped up after Miller made fun of Kalanick and Shervin Pishevar, a venture capitalist invested in both Uber and Shyp, a delivery company where Holzwarth started working. (Pishevar did not attend the event.)

Miller: And the Crunchie for not constantly stepping in shit goes to Travis Kalanick. So does the Crunchie for constantly stepping in shit. Guys, if you’re worried they’re here, talk to Sherv, he’s down with it.

Holzwarth: [inaudible]

Miller: Is that Sherv? How are you doing, Sherv? Wait did a woman just say that’s me? Hey, look, Asians aren’t supposed to be this entitled in the United States.

The audience groaned again.

Miller: And that’s why you guys will never be as loved as Los Angeles. It’s all too precious, you can’t joke about it. She’s yelling that she’s Shervin Pishevar. Are you fucking nuts? That guy has seeded the most successful companies in the tri-state area and I’m talking about California, you bitch.

Holzwarth: Did you just call me a bitch?

Miller: I did not call you a bitch. I called Shervin Pishevar a bitch, but you seem to think you’re him.

Shortly after that, Miller spotted Holzwarth’s dog on her lap and asked her to explain how she got it into the venue.

Miller: Miss do you have your dog here? Is that real? Hold it up so everyone can see. [Cracks up] Oh my god, I’m going to ask you not to be funnier than the comedian tonight.

Then, he asked her to explain Shyp:

Miller: [to Holzwarth] You press a button? A physical button or a digital button? [to audience] What is this bitch from Palo Alto?

These are all examples of punching down, even if Holzwarth keeps interacting with him and there's some light-heartedness in between. Perhaps inured to it at this point, the audience just laughs.

The next morning, Katie Jacobs Stanton, Twitter’s vice president of global media, who was at the Crunchies to accept Twitter’s award for "Biggest Social Impact," wrote a piece on Medium called "My first and last time at the Crunchies." She mentioned the bitch incident (although the quote is a little off) and said she was thankful she hadn’t brought her daughter to the event. Ouch. Reports from Recode and Daily Dot also emphasized Miller’s remarks towards women.

By Saturday, AOL exec Ned Desmond had issued an apology, along with a rather patronizing history lesson implying that those who were offended just didn’t get the jokes. TechCrunch also confirmed that Miller would not be invited back.

If you were present, or watching the live stream, you might have been startled, if not offended, by some of the remarks that the host, standup comedian T.J. Miller made on stage. It’s also possible you found a lot of the show hilarious, which many people did.

There is no definitive line between funny and offensive. Comedy has a long history of being used as a tool for satire and commentary. Many at TechCrunch, however, feel badly about some elements of T.J.’s performance. The use of derogatory slang to refer to women or minority groups is unacceptable at any event TechCrunch runs, period. And we know many others feel the same way, even if it’s hard to find the words to say so. We’re sorry.

This is the second apology for sexist remarks at a TechCrunch event made in as many years. It served Desmond well, conveniently turning the focus to Miller, who is representative of a certain breed of comedian, not the tech industry. I love the show Silicon Valley. I laughed at many of Miller's jokes that night, at least before he over-indulged in something backstage and turned the closing remarks into a dizzy loop-de-loop. If AOL was concerned with making women feel welcome, Miller's history of sexist jokes is easy to find. But blaming Miller distracts from all the cringe-worthy, if not offensive elements at the Crunchies that were not "startling" in the slightest.

The succession of men on stage started to look like a parade of lawsuits

For example, at some point in the evening, the succession of men on stage started to look like a parade of lawsuits. Between Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel; the co-founders of YikYak; Sean Rad, the former CEO of Tinder; and TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, there were three allegations of stolen co-founder titles from close friends, one sexual harassment lawsuit, and one suit for defamation. Arrington filed the defamation suit, against his ex-girlfriend Jenn Allen for alleging that he physically abused and raped her. Arrington was giving out the Crunchie for "CEO of the Year," which went to Marc Benioff, the Salesforce CEO and philanthropist who encouraged other companies to join him in his 1 -1 -1 pledge. Describing Benioff on stage, Arrington said: "Sometimes somebody is so good you want to punch him in the face."

You could see the myth-making that smooths away those rough edges happen over the course of the evening. In his acceptance speech for "VC of the Year," Jim Goetz from Sequoia Capital gestured at the "group of Southern boys that are building a herd," referring to the co-founders of YikYak, the anonymous gossip app that recently secured a $400 million valuation. "A year ago we were just two Southern boys playing ping pong," they said when YikYak accepted the Crunchie for "Fastest Rising Startup."

The unofficial prize for the most ongoing lawsuits, of course, goes to Kalanick, who is currently facing a potential class action from drivers who allege they have been denied the rights of full-time employees. If the Crunchie voters were being real, they would have given Kalanick "CEO of the Year," too. He’s the executive everyone in Silicon Valley wants to be.

It is naive to expect much from an awards show. (It's an awards show!) Why would the Crunchies celebrate diversity or true technological innovation when the industry itself doesn't prioritize that? Making Miller a scapegoat helps mask deeper issues.

It's naive to expect much from an awards show (It's an awards show!)

This was not the year for self-awareness. This was not the year for fear about what happens if the funding dries up or the profits never materialize. They could invite Miller to make fun of them because nothing really stung. You may resent us, but you can't keep up with us. Miller's interminable closing bit was one long haymaker, spinning in circles and only punching himself. He said at least a handful of different versions of the sentence: You are shaping American culture and maybe global culture. The only difference I can put forth is starring in Garfield 3D. Oliver sung a similar tune in 2012, telling the Crunchies: "You’ve done companies that changed the world, I’ve voiced a Smurf."

The Crunchies reinforce the certainty that these startups have already made a difference, which may explain the lackluster response to the civics segment of the show. Angel investor and philanthropist Ron Conway, the white-haired "godfather of Silicon Valley" reprimands the crowd like a disappointed principal for shirking their duties as a citizen of San Francisco or the South Bay (for him, the East Bay doesn’t exist). After Conway scolds the audience, he touts the achievements of, a civic group for tech companies that's widely regarded to be a dud, despite his efforts. Last year, Conway took the podium with Mayor Ed Lee, a man-sized political puppet. This time, the local official was London Breed, the first female president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 16 years.

Breed talked about growing up down the street in a public housing development in an apartment with five people that cost $700 per month. She appealed to the bootstrappers in the audience — the presenters for "Best Bootstrapped Startup" acknowledged that the days of self-sufficiency are over. "You have created new jobs and new revenues for the city," she said, "Yet right or wrong your success has also created tension." Breed acknowledged the protestors outside, and she almost had me until she added, "But to them I say, 'What is your solution?'"

Silicon Valley prides itself on a solutionist worldview. Founders are told to think of a problem and then build a company that solves it. They invent problems no one has just to say it's been fixed. She should have asked the auditorium.