Fabulous roles have never been more abundant for women on TV, but will we have to be satisfied with representation without respect?
On Wednesday, FiveThirtyEight.com published a deep dive into the demographics behind IMDb’s user-sourced TV show ratings, and the headline of writer Walt Hickey’s piece made no bones about his conclusion: “Men Are Sabotaging The Online Reviews Of TV Shows Aimed At Women.”
Whew. Um, wow. Okay.
Is it rude to say… “duh”?
This is not meant as a knock on Hickey and his fantastic article; a very important aspect of the scientific process is running experiments and performing research to confirm (or overturn) what we may think is simply common knowledge. And boy, did he ever.
Hickey notes that the majority of IMDb users are men, and so the majority of ratings are also from men. The specific breakdown shifts for shows that are geared more toward women, however, resulting in a higher proportion of female voters -- and lower ratings from the male user. His analysis showed:
For a show with the IMDb average gender breakdown of 30 percent women and 70 percent men, men rated the show 0.5 points lower than women did, on average. When a show’s raters split evenly by gender, 50-50, men rated the program a full 1 point lower than women did.
The piece opens with the case study of “Sex and the City,” a classic case of an award-winning, long-running, critically well-regarded show on a prestige network (HBO) which has been dragged down several rating points by male raters who presumably find its stereotypically feminine trappings and interests frivolous:
Nearly 60 percent of the people who rated “Sex and the City” on IMDb are women, and looking only at those scores, the show has an 8.1. That’s well above average. Male users, though, who made up just over 40 percent of “Sex and the City” raters, assigned it, on average, a 5.8 rating. Oof.
Yeah, oof. That’s an enormous disparity in ratings, and it’s hard to imagine that men are simply that much more discerning. I mean, they're also giving sky-high ratings to "SportsCenter," so come on now.
But times are different now, right? Sure, it’s a shame that “The Sopranos” and even “Seinfeld” have been hung on the walls of the audiovisual Louvre for the past decade, along with, as the years passed, “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad,” and “The Wire,” and “True Detective,” and “Game of Thrones,” while “Sex and the City” is remembered in perpetuity as a sort of scripted version of “What Not to Wear.” Still, we’ve come a long way, baby, since the turn of the millennium, and now women are all over TV and getting in on the prestige game and the respect that goes with it.
Looking through the demographic ratings breakdown of shows like “Scandal,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Broad City,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Orphan Black” and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” the trend holds true. And these are not among the shows most heavily tilted toward women, like “Pretty Little Liars” or “Dance Academy,” but generally well-reviewed, mainstream shows with diverse audiences nonetheless defined by their strong female leads and/or lady-friendly themes (whether that’s scathing feminist commentary or love and relationships).
Who doesn’t love Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal”? Men. Most users who rated the show on IMDb were actually women, and they averaged a rating of 8.3. Men averaged 7.3, a full point lower.
What about “Jane the Virgin,” the show so good it basically made America embrace the telenovela as primetime entertainment? That’s even more rough. Far more women rated the show -- and deemed it worthy of an average of 8.1 -- but the men who did rate it were deeply unimpressed. Their average rating was 6.9.
Whether you like the show or not, that rating seems suspiciously low for such a critical darling. (Hey, I loathe "Game of Thrones," but I’m not going around rating it as objectively bad on IMDb just because I don't enjoy watching bearded men speechify while watching naked courtesans stimulate each other to orgasm.)
Even female-led shows that seem to cater to more traditionally masculine interests like stoner humor, violent fantasy and sci-fi, or superhero universes -- that is, “Broad City,” “Outlander,” “Orphan Black,” the recently canceled “Agent Carter” -- seem to suffer dings from male users, who rate each of the aforementioned shows at least 0.6 points lower, on average, than female users.
Here's an intriguing juxtaposition: Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” which stars Shiri Appleby, takes on the interpersonal scheming and corrupt business machinations behind a “Bachelor”-esque reality show. The similarly pulpy melodrama “House of Cards,” on Netflix, stars Kevin Spacey as a conniving politician. Metacritic’s weighted scores, calculated from reviews by professional critics, show the two received similarly positive review coverage; in fact, it’s the first season of “House of Cards” that received several outright pans, while Metacritic’s selection of reviews for “UnREAL” ranges from tentatively flattering to glowing.
Let’s go to the viewers. “UnREAL” gets an average rating of 7.5 from men. Not bad! But “House of Cards” gets an average rating of 9 from men. Hmmm. (Women gave the shows, respectively, average ratings of 8.1 and 8.9.) Something appears to be going on here that has little to do with "UnReal" being a show of dramatically poorer quality than the over-the-top political soap in which a U.S. senator has an affair with a reporter and then pushes her in front of a subway train.
One of the most frustrating things about this, as a woman who loves TV geared toward women (less blood and guts, more thorny relationship dilemmas, please) is that such an overwhelming consensus of opinion can quietly pressure us to change our opinions, or modulate how we express them in public. Publicly saying you think “Sex and the City” is a really high-quality show isn’t a neutral thing, like saying you love “Frasier” or “Lost” or “Breaking Bad.” It’s an invitation for people to sneeringly ask you whether you think you’re “such a Carrie,” or to say, "But you seem so smart!," or to take it upon themselves to explain that you might find the show fun, but it’s obviously not good. It’s so stigmatized, despite its enduring popularity, that in 2013 The New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum wrote a rousing ode to the show -- as a defense of it.
In this era, when I feel like I’m swimming beatifically in a sea of superb female-driven TV shows, from “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Broad City” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to “UnREAL” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” -- and many more I haven’t even gotten to, though friends and colleagues keep urging me that “Orphan Black” or “Outlander” or “Scandal” is a must-watch -- I rather optimistically take it for granted that men are coming around. But it seems like it’s going to take a lot more than excellent shows with female leads and well-executed, traditionally feminine themes for the cultural standard to shift. When it comes to prestige TV, it’s still primarily “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective,” late venerated shows such as “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos,” and the like that fit the approved cultural script.
It's worth noting, though FiveThirtyEight's analysis focused on male-female dynamics in rating, that this doesn't just apply to women's TV shows; "prestige" TV often means not just glossy, high-budget, carefully crafted TV, but blindingly white TV. The classic prestige TV show features mostly male and mostly white starring roles, with "The Wire" standing as the exception that proves the rule.
Critics and women are, based on the evidence Hickey presents, ready to give this script a full rewrite to make it as inclusive as we like to imagine 2016 has come to be, but the men have yet to see value in changing a script that’s been working just fine for them the whole time. As it stands, men are probably going to continue confidently maintaining a cultural standard that deems TV shows geared toward women to be automatically just not quite as good as shows geared toward their princely selves -- simply because they’re not that into it, and they think people should know.
The flip side of that: Women end up spending time and energy defending their opinions about the shows they admire if they don't fit that masculine mold, and even the possibility that their girly shows can be just as worthy as the vortexes of testosterone we call prestige television. Or we just internalize it, call well-crafted (if, of course, problematic) shows like “Sex and the City” or “Girls” our “guilty pleasures” while making sure everyone knows we love really quality shows like “Louie” and “The Walking Dead.” And we get absolutely nowhere.
That might be the most disheartening result of all.
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Follow Claire Fallon on Twitter: @claireefallon