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Women Watch TV Like This, But Men Watch TV Like This

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Over at ThinkProgress, critic Alyssa Rosenberg (whom you should be reading if you aren’t already), has a thought-provoking post on all the new fall shows with female stars, and whether or not  those shows are actually speaking to a female audience. “This was supposed to be a great fall for women on television, but several weeks in, it feels like it may be better at the cause of getting women acting jobs than at providing entertainment aimed at women viewers,” she writes. And she wonders whether a show like Up All Night–with a female and male lead splitting child-care–may say more to women than 2 Broke Girls, featuring, well, two broke girls.

Well, what makes a TV show “aimed at women” depends on what you mean by “aimed at women.” Maybe you mean “aimed at right-thinking women” or “aimed at reflecting women’s lives and concerns” or “aimed at presenting well-drawn, realistic female characters.”

For the purposes of this post, however, I’m going to assume that it means “aimed at attracting, and made in the assumption that it will get, a majority female audience.” (And vice versa for men.) If that’s our definition, here’s the number one clue that a new TV show is aimed at women: It is on primetime broadcast network television. Women watch TV: they have been the majority of the big mainstream-network audience for a long time now and that is only becoming truer as men—especially young men—are peeled off from the audience by things that are not TV.

That said, networks are still going to try to attract men too; they would be stupid not to try to get as many viewers—at least, from a business standpoint, viewers under 50*—as possible. Some shows will try harder to draw men than others, some will focus more directly on getting women.

*(This is unfair and perhaps irrational, but also, as measured by what advertisers will pay for, a fact of life. In any case, it’s the subject of a different post.)

But there seem to be a lot of wrong and outdated assumptions out there about what kinds of shows aim at men and aim at women. Case in point, the assumption that if a series shows off attractive women, it is aimed at the guys. A Deadline Hollywood post that Rosenberg quotes argues that the recently cancelled The Playboy Club had the signs of a show targeted at men:

With a popular mens magazine in the title and the promise of scantly-clad bunnies, the series seemed to be targeting men. But it was at its core a female soap. The confusion with its mixed identity was clearly visible in the pilot, which looked like a soap, felt like a soap and behaved like one until it suddenly veered into dark territory with a murdered mafia boss’ body being dumped in the river.

No. Mind you, I was not in the pitch meetings for Playboy Club—and it turned out to be a show for no one at all—but if it was not intended mainly for a female audience, then NBC knows nothing about primetime TV. (A possibility, but bear with me.) And anyone who argues that a murder mystery somehow makes the show “for guys” should try sometime watching Nancy Grace, The Closer or pretty much any crime procedural, including those rerun on Lifetime. (A similar disconnect emerged when Lifetime announced it would rescue America’s Most Wanted, and it was received as antimatter had merged with matter.) That’s not to say NBC’s claim that the show was about women’s “empowerment” was anything but hooey—and hooey mainly meant to placate critics, not viewers—but if a show needs to be empowering to be aimed at women, then I have clearly dreamed the last 500 seasons of The Bachelor.


An equally weird claim comes up in a recent Adweek piece that puzzles over the bad ratings for Charlie’s Angels: “While Angels is seemingly targeted to men, female viewers 18-49 actually outnumber their male cohorts by a 3:2 ratio.”

Sure, Charlie’s Angels is targeted to men. In 1978. When the original Charlie’s aired, you could make the reasonable argument that it was “jiggle TV” and aimed at giving straight men an excuse to watch women in bikinis in the company of their wives. But even assuming that men watch TV to sneakily ogle boobies—thanks for the compliment!—in the age of Internet porn and the fragmented home entertainment audience, men no longer need Charlie’s, or a PG-13 version of Playboy, for that purpose any more than they do the lingerie ads in the evening newspapers they no longer subscribe to. In 2011, if you put a show on ABC, with three female leads kicking ass and saving women from sex traffickers, on Thursday night leading into Gray’s Anatomy—you, my friend, are targeting women, or you are one crap shot.

Ditto Pan Am, which got reasonably good reviews but also criticism that it was showing a retrograde fantasy of women dressed up pretty to service a male fantasy. Maybe so, but the numbers bear out—as shown in that same Adweek piece—that its audience is very heavily female. (I’m reminded of the charge, back when Big Love debuted, that it was trying to pander to guys with the “male fantasy” of plural marriage. I loved Big Love, but if that was mainly a dude show, I need gender-reassignment surgery; patriarchy or no, it was all about the women.)

I’ve also been seeing, in much of the commentary about Fox’s New Girl, the notion that this was a show made for and catering to guys, because Zooey Deschanel represents a male fantasy known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As a matter of fact, New Girl’s audience is about 60% female, and heavily young women. Which makes sense, not simply because the show has a woman as its star. Deschanel may be polarizing, but (guessing from pure anecdotal experience) it seems she is so mostly among women. Women may love her or hate her; men love her or are indifferent to her. But the (worthwhile) discussion about how she and her characters play into the types of roles available to women has transmuted into the (objectively incorrect) assumption that her show must therefore be for dudes. (And again, I’m a fan. I’m just talking objective ratings here.)


So what does draw men? Dinosaurs and action, it would seem: Fox’s Terra Nova is one of two new shows this season with more male than female viewers. The other? Whitney, though despite bad reviews, the show hasn’t gotten half the “unrealistic male fantasy” criticism that New Girl has. Oh, and, yes, Sunday Night Football (still two-thirds male though the Super Bowl gets a half-female audience), which has probably helped Pan Am’s audience skew even more female. Also, a lot of things that are not on broadcast TV, like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. (Cable is a whole other, intensely gender-targeted world.)

Football, dinosaurs, trucks—we can easily slip into the territory of stupid, easy this-is-what-guys-and-girls-like generalizations here. And I resist those, especially when we start getting into ridiculous claims like the one, around the time Game of Thrones debuted, that fantasy is not for women. Ditto the notion that a show with a critical mass of cleavage is for the boys. In fact, what attracts men or women to a show is not always a matter of the chromosomes in the cast, or the social consciousness, positivity and realism of the messages in the script.

If there’s one thing men and women do have in common, it’s that the mass of them do not watch TV to improve themselves. They watch it to be entertained, to escape, to be engrossed. That might mean women watching a stylish show about air travel when it wasn’t a chore, or men watching whatever sitcom comes on after The Office. There are plenty of armchair-sociology posts I could write about why men watch New Girl or women watch football or anyone watches The Cleveland Show. But for now, it’s just worth remembering that when you assume that a show is “aimed at” one gender, you may be pointing at the wrong target.