Once upon a time, at the same time every week, one of my roommates and I had to ditch our apartment (occupied by a few fellow young women) for a guy friend’s abode so that we could watch South Park as it aired — our own TV was occupied by banter delivered at tongue-twisting-speed by The Gilmore Girls, which aired at the same time as our beloved Kyle and Cartman. So when this female fan of shows like Rescue Me, Archer, and The Following read AdAge’s article discussing the popularity of male-targeted shows among women, the first thing I thought was, “I knew it wasn’t just us!”
In fact, the highest-rated cable show among women so far this year is not FOX‘s female-targeted New Girl or Lifetime‘s Dance Moms, but AMC‘s gore-filled zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead. According to Nielsen, the February 10 mid-season premiere of The Walking Dead drew a 5.0 rating/11 share among women 18-49 (almost twice that of its nearest competitor). To give that number some context, shows like ABC’s Once Upon a Time and CBS’ The Good Wife are lucky when the same demographic comes in above a 1.5.
So does that mean that women are seeing past gore and violence to intricate story lines and interesting characters? It’s not that simple. Horizon Media research director Brad Adgate says gore isn’t necessarily a turnoff for women. “If there’s one genre that’s really popular with men and women, science fiction is it—anything that deals with the occult really.” To support his point, Adgate mentions long-running procedurals like CSI and Law & Order: SVU, which boast an overwhelmingly female audience.
It seems we ladies aren’t wading through the scary stuff–we are wholly engrossed in it. Girls may be sugar and spice and everything nice, but we also like to watch shows about serial killers.
Don’t get me wrong, I also love shows women are supposed to watch: I own every season of The Golden Girls, cheer the bevy of female protagonists on Mad Men, recognize myself in the theater nerds of Glee, wait on bated breath for Maggie Smith‘s next zinger in Downton Abbey, and will admit to the occasional unabashed Say Yes to The Dress marathon. And I’m not alone — It’s not that women don’t watch television made for and marketed to them, it’s just that we seem to get something from the grittier dramas and raunchier comedies that we simply don’t find elsewhere.
Katherine Wintsch of marketing consultancy The Mom Complex says that it isn’t just what’s different about male-targeted shows that draws women in, but also a major component that both guilty-pleasure reality shows and grimy, female-skewing shows like Game of Thrones have in common: imperfect characters (many of them female) who just don’t have it all figured out. It seems modern women find both the mother-of-the-bridezillas on Say Yes to The Dress and Lady Stark of Winterfell appealing and relatable in their imperfection (although as far as Game of Thrones is concerned, I freely admit that my girly girl heart would enjoy a show with a little less gruesome animal violence and a little more Jon Snow).
So what’s the bottom-line lesson here, aside from more fuel for the discussion about Americans of both genders becoming desensitized to violence? Maybe it’s time to reevaluate not just how television is marketed to women, but how marketers think of women in general. Maybe it’s time to stop underestimating what women can handle and misunderstanding what we choose to watch/take part in for our own pleasure with what we suffer through while our male counterparts indulge themselves. Or perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that if women find imperfect characters likable and relatable, it may really be time to stop relying on the old advertising standby of waving perfection in our faces, hoping our insecurities and delicate sensibilities will urge us to bite.
“A lot of times, you’ll be watching Honey Boo Boo and then the commercials will come on and it’s a perfect mom in a cardigan and capri pants washing the floor,” said Wintsch. “TV gets it much more than advertisers do. We lose two or three decades when we go to commercial break.”