We can quibble about where it stands in the TV canon, but “Sex and the City” has seven Emmys and a suite of Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards. It ran 94 episodes through six seasons on a premium cable network. Any reasonable person should concede that “Sex and the City” was an above-average television program (at minimum). You don’t need to think it was a perfect show, or even an outstanding one, but I think most people would agree it was better than average.
At least, that’s what I thought until I saw the program’s remarkably poor score according to IMDb’s user ratings when I analyzed the data history of HBO. “Sex and the City” has an overall rating of 7.0 on a scale from 1 to 10 — the average score of an English-language television series with 1,000 or more ratings is 7.3. So why did a show roundly considered seminal in the now ubiquitous genre of driven-New York-women-make-a-go-of-it programming score so low?
Yeah, it’s men.
Nearly 60 percent of the people who rated “Sex and the City” on IMDb are women,1 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.
Ratings on the internet are inherently specious, and ratings aggregated from user reviews even more so. To distill a work of art down to a single number, you have to strip out an immense amount of meaning and context.
And for a perfect example of this, all you have to do is look at how men rate TV shows aimed at women compared with how women rate shows aimed at men. When you rely on the wisdom of the crowd on the internet, you risk relying on the opinion of mostly men.2 Seventy percent of IMDb TV show raters are men, according to my analysis, and that results in shows with predominantly female audiences getting screwed.
IMDb allows users to rate films, television shows and television episodes, and for any given show, the site provides a helpful gender breakdown, including the show’s overall rating according to each gender and precisely how many men and women gave each rating. Looking at the data for allEnglish-language television series with 1,000 or more user ratings, we’re able to get a sense for what shows both men and women like, and what shows they value differently.
Overall, there is a lot of agreement between the sexes. Looking at shows with 5,000 or more ratings, here are all the programs rated 9 or higher by men and women, with the mutual picks in bold:
|TOP SHOWS FOR MEN||TOP SHOWS FOR WOMEN|
|SHOW||MALE RATING||SHOW||FEMALE RATING|
|Game of Thrones||9.5||Game of Thrones||9.4|
|The Wire||9.4||Breaking Bad||9.3|
|Rick and Morty||9.3||Last Week Tonight||9.3|
|The Sopranos||9.3||Avatar: The Last Airbender||9.3|
|Last Week Tonight||9.1||Firefly||9.2|
|Avatar: The Last Airbender||9.1||Rick and Morty||9.1|
|True Detective||9.1||True Detective||9.0|
|The Twilight Zone||9.0||The Twilight Zone||9.0|
|Monty Python’s Flying Circus||9.0||Monty Python’s Flying Circus||9.0|
|Arrested Development||9.0||Arrested Development||9.0|
|Batman: The Animated Series||9.0||Freaks and Geeks||9.0|
|Only Fools and Horses||9.0||QI||9.0|
|House of Cards||9.0||Downton Abbey||9.0|
So generally men and women like a lot of the same shows. But there are also shows that appeal predominantly to one gender or the other; here are the shows with the most-skewed audiences:
|MALE-DOMINATED RATINGS||FEMALE-DOMINATED RATINGS|
|SHOW||% MALE||SHOW||% FEMALE|
|Board James||97||When Calls the Heart||85|
|James & Mike Mondays||97||The Lizzie Bennet Diaries||84|
|Fifth Gear||97||Hollywood Heights||84|
|Match of the Day||96||Jane by Design||84|
|Half in the Bag||96||Dance Academy||84|
|SportsCenter||96||The Carrie Diaries||81|
|The Big Breakfast||96||Beautiful People||81|
|Pardon the Interruption||96||Instant Star||80|
|Halo: Nightfall||95||Higher Ground||80|
|The Angry Video Game Nerd||95||Mistresses (U.S.)||79|
|MASK||95||The Lying Game||79|
|30 for 30||95||My Mad Fat Diary||78|
|Watchmen||95||Make It or Break It||78|
|Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles||95||Switched at Birth||77|
|Silver Surfer||94||Chasing Life||77|
|Spider-Man Unlimited||94||Young Americans||77|
|Street Hawk||94||Pretty Little Liars||77|
|G.I. Joe||94||Lip Service||77|
|Star Wars: Clone Wars||94||Emily Owens M.D.||76|
|Playmakers||94||What Not to Wear||76|
|Spawn||94||South of Nowhere||76|
|Star Wars Rebels||94||Hart of Dixie||75|
|Godzilla: The Series||94||The Paradise||75|
The shows with the largest proportion of male raters are mostly sports, video game web series, science fiction and cartoons. The programs with the highest proportion of female voters are — at least the American ones — mostly from The CW and Freeform, the new name of the network previously called ABC Family.
This list is pretty hilarious. Beyond the top 25, shown in the table above, male-dominated shows of note include: “Blue Mountain State” (92 percent male), “Batman: Beyond” (91 percent), “Batman: The Animated Series” (90 percent), “The Shield” (90 percent), “Ballers” (90 percent), “Justice League” (90 percent), and “The League” (88 percent). “Star Trek: Enterprise” is the most male-heavy of the various official live-action Trek enterprises, while “Battlestar Galactica” still managed to grab 15 percent of its ratings from women, which is somewhat shocking.
For women, other skewed programming includes “Private Practice” (71 percent female), “Gossip Girl” and “Gilmore Girls” (67 percent each), “Grey’s Anatomy” (60 percent), “Scandal” (60 percent), and “One Tree Hill” (59 percent).
But looking at these extremes, another pattern emerges: The most male-dominated shows are very skewed, while the most female-dominated shows are less so. The 25th-most-male program has 94 percent of its ratings from men. The 25th-most-female show has only 75 percent of its ratings from women. This is even more pronounced in the larger set:
Now, if men didn’t feel compelled to crap on shows that plainly aren’t aimed at them, this might not be a problem.
That doesn’t appear to be the case.
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.
We can also drill down and look at the percentage of IMDb users who assigned a 1 rating to programs, the lowest score. Among shows with at least 10,000 ratings (566 programs of our overall set of 2,514), men and women gave out 1s at about the same rate: 2.8 percent of male votes were a 1, while 2.1 percent of female votes were a 1. So one gender is not particularly more negative than the other.
But that’s for all shows with more than 10,000 votes. When you look at shows that have at least 10,000 ratings and raters who skewed male or female, a different picture emerges. Of the top 100 shows that skewed male, 3.3 percent of female votes were 1 out of 10. But of the top 100 shows that skewed female, 6.7 percent of male votes were 1 out of 10. That’s a pretty huge difference.
The overall effect of this imbalance is profound. Among shows with 10,000 ratings or more, the average rating of the top-100 male-skewing shows was 8.2, while the average rating of the top-100 female shows was 7.4.
Now, some guy with an egg as a Twitter avatar could argue that shows with female-heavy audiences are lower-quality. I come not to praise “Say Yes to the Dress,” but to bury it. The inherent aesthetic value of “Teen Mom 2” is not on trial this day. But these are obvious cases, and they have equivalents on the male side. I could just as easily have said “The Man Show,” which put Jimmy Kimmel on the map and removed Adam Carolla from it. I could say the same about “Beyblade,” which tried to build an emotional journey anchored by spinning tops. And then there’s “The Angry Video Game Nerd,“ a misogynistic web show whose sycophantic Wikipedia entry made me pine for hemlock in my coffee. Everybody watches crap. Men, women, everybody.
But the data doesn’t support the contention that female-skewed programming is inherently worse: Women gave their top 100 shows, on average, a 7.8 rating, about the same score they gave the top 100 male-dominated programs, 8.0. But here’s where that Twitter egg’s perception might come from: Men gave their top 100 an average score of 8.2 but gave the top 100 female-skewed shows a mere 6.9 average ratings. Shows with more than 10,000 ratings are inherently popular and yet men thought the programs in that group that skew female were below average.
The larger point is this: Distilling any work into a single number strips out a substantial amount of meaning. I’m far from suggesting that television shows need to have their ratings segregated by gender or that a show’s fan base should have a larger say in its overall rating. But ratings taken as an aggregate obfuscate crucial detail. They can smooth over dramatic imbalances in demography that belie a thoroughly unscientific sample. They have the habit of lumping the divisive among the universally mediocre. And as long as they purport to underscore the true value of a work, they undermine people’s ability to find new and interesting material just because a subset of passionate and vociferous dudes on the internet somehow hold it in low regard.
To understand the whole picture, you need to dive into the data. Whether you like “Sex and the City” or not, its score is being sabotaged by one gender; it’s time to ask whether user scores are truly as objective as they purport to be.
|Women rated lower||Beavis and Butt-Head||-1.2|
|Star Wars: Clone Wars||-1.1|
|Men rated lower||America’s Next Top Model||-2.6|
|Keeping Up with the Kardashians||-2.5|
|Sex and the City||-2.3|
|The Carrie Diaries||-1.8|
|The Mindy Project||-1.6|
|The Secret Life of the American Teenager||-1.5|
|The L Word||-1.5|
|Beauty and the Beast||-1.4|
|Pretty Little Liars||-1.4|
|Drop Dead Diva||-1.3|
|That’s So Raven||-1.1|
|Rizzoli & Isles||-1.1|
|The Lying Game||-1.1|
|The Vampire Diaries||-1.0|
|Mike & Molly||-1.0|
|Beverly Hills, 90210||-1.0|
|2 Broke Girls||-1.0|
|Sabrina, the Teenage Witch||-1.0|
|One Tree Hill||-1.0|
|Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments||-1.0|
|Hart of Dixie||-1.0|
|Switched at Birth||-1.0|