Do IMDb, Television Academy Have a Problem with Women?

Does a recent analysis of IMDb’s user ratings of women-centered shows extend to the Television Academy?

Earlier this week, stats-based website FiveThirtyEight published a piece that studied the way gender directly affects IMDb ratings of television shows that are, more or less, “skewed” in targeting one gender over the other. The piece proposes that the members of the opposite gender sabotage shows that are not “made” for them. In considering this analysis, I have to wonder whether or not the same bias extends to the Television Academy and the Emmy Awards.

Writer Walt Hickey found men’s influence on female-skewed shows to be overwhelmingly more present in television shows than women’s influence on male-skewed shows. At the heart of the piece, he highlights the the way the true value and merits of a television show aren’t being assessed properly or fairly if people purposely vote down a show that is simply not targeted at them. The problem becomes gendered because, according to his findings, men make up 70 percent of the voting base on IMDb, which disproportionately favors the judgment of people who have lived from the male perspective.

Television Academy

The example Hickey uses to justify his theory and to put his statistics into perspective is Sex and the City. The show’s overall score on IMDb is 7.0; when broken down, the average score by women for the HBO series was 8.1, whereas men rated it at 5.8, which is a huge disparity. He questions this fact considering Sex and the City’s laudable reputation in general, having won several Emmy awards (one for Outstanding Comedy Series) and a plethora of Golden Globe awards. Hickey makes a point to acknowledge that differing opinions exist and everyone is entitled to their particular view, but objectively, it’s probably not a stretch to say a show with the record of Sex and the City is not subpar.

This is not to suggest men who do not enjoy Sex and the City are misogynist, but their position of power over more disenfranchised voices allows for insidious, unconscious sexism to permeate through art forms.

When I read this piece, I found it to confirm observations and struggles I have battled as an IMDb user and as someone who is active participant among the film and television community. The reality of the situation is that products made for the (heterosexual, white) male audience dominate just about any medium and art form, and more times than not, it is members from that group of people who are allowed to vocalize their opinions and establish their interpretation of quality.

In a way, the quandary FiveThirtyEight describes mirrors the problem with the entertainment industry, and most institutions, at large: only some voices are heard about quality, and similar people given the power to make artistic decisions about what kinds of shows are produced in the first place. It’s a circular journey. Television shows (and movies for that matter) are created targeting men, and those shows go on to be well received by men who have the privilege of watching and loudly expressing their views.

For this FiveThirtyEight article to make sense, one has to accept, more or less, that there are “girl shows” and “boy shows” based on target audiences, which is a sentiment I personally dissent but understand is a cultural reality. But with that, shows aimed at men are often recognized as the industry standard. Shows aimed at women are forced to the sidelines as trivial and foolish. Men – in particular heterosexual, white men – are granted the privilege of having the power to express how they feel about artwork, even when it’s not made for them.

The territory FiveThirtyEight uncovered does not live in a vacuum. It lives and breathes in just about any forum of subjective discourse about television and media. Because they outnumber women specifically with voting on IMDb but in general areas of power, men have the power to dictate what’s “cool” and “not cool.” Even the hint of femininity and a non-heterosexual, white male perspective in film and television projects can tarnish a project’s status as shown with Sex and the City’s take on “modern women” and women’s agency over their sexuality.

Television Academy

The IMDb debacle can be applied to the politics of the Emmy races. Women-driven comedy series especially tend to do well. Sex and the City actually won the Emmy for Comedy Series, and Veep, the incumbent winner, has a woman protagonist. Yet, particularly in the Drama Series race, a woman lead is toxic to their chances of being voted into the club. Recent years of The Good WifeBates Motel, and The Affair all come to mind among others. That makes sense when considering the fact that men historically make up the majority of Television Academy voting blocks.

Shows that dominate the drama series race rarely feature “female-skewed” shows. Some have broken through such as Orange is the New Black which works in even deeper ways than just gender equality, but with intersecting sexuality and racial components contributing too its success too. Orange is the New Black, in its heart, has evolved to an ensemble show and has a particular advantage of being on Netflix, the industry’s cutting-edge method of watching media.

But don’t be deceived by shows that would seem to fit the bill for “female-skewed” shows breaking past the cool “boy shows.” Homeland, a series which has been riding a comfortable wave through the Outstanding Drama Series category over the years, shouldn’t be counted as a “female-skewed show,” since the female protagonist was coupled with a male, co-lead counterpart for the first three seasons and, despite Carrie being the main character, it’s still a story being told largely from a masculine perspective.

Shows like The Good Wife and Scandal that are not afraid of the fact that their sole lead characters are capable, complicated women are not even allowed to be in the conversation for awards like Outstanding Drama Series. We live in the days of male-centric shows dominating the big category at the Emmys. The worst example of this anti-female-protagonist shows at the Emmys was in 2014. After having its most critically acclaimed season ever, The Good Wife was trampled over in the Outstanding Drama Series category while the cooler, “male-skewed” shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and True Detective reaped the rewards.

Similar to that of the author in Hickey’s original FiveThirtyEight article, the point I’m trying to make is when “male-skewed” shows are raised to the highest standard more easily than their “female-skewed” equals (in quality), it’s difficult not to see how cultural privilege is working to advance some shows (“boy shows).  Conversely, other shows not manufactured for the (masculine, straight, white) audience are presented to look inferior. It’s a circular cycle of cultural oppression.

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