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Gender in Lead Roles: Top TV Show Breakdown

Gender in Lead Roles Header

Is there anything more satisfying than finding a TV show that feels like it was created just for you? There’s no doubt that we live in the “golden age of television” with more of a variety of content available for the average consumer than ever before. With quality of programming on the rise, millions of people settle in front of the TV each night searching for a show that appeals directly their particular taste.

What draws you in and makes you a binge watcher? Is it characters you can relate to? Is it a desire to feel empathy with a lead? Might the gender of the main character play a role? If that’s the case, there is a long way to go to create a legacy of gender parity for TVs leading players.

To get to the numbers, we looked at trends behind the 250 internationally top rated TV shows on IMDb and analyzed gender statistics in the most popular programs since 1950. The idea was to discover what, if anything, is beginning to balance when it comes to representation on the most critically well-regarded TV. Were more female leads beginning to propel highly-ranked shows that critics and consumers love?

Gender in lead roles: 7% women, 61% men, 32% both.

The very first U.S. TV sitcom, The Goldbergs (the original from 1951), starred a female protagonist in Gertrude Berg. In addition, arguably the most iconic American sitcom I Love Lucy has aired on millions of television screens around the world. Seemingly this would prove that women in leading roles could garner ratings and praise. However, research indicates that since 1950, only 7% of the most critically acclaimed TV lead roles have been played by women.

Currently, the first female led program featured on the IMDb 250 top rated TV shows list is The Crown helmed by Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, coming in at #58, which notably only came out in 2016. That means that the top 25% of shows ranked internationally have leads played by either men, or (like #42: Seinfeld) are ensemble based. Check this table to see the gender gap in lead roles in all 250 TV shows listed:

Ranking TV Show Name Male/Female/Both
2 Game of Thrones Both
4 The Wire Both
11 Dekalog Both
13 True Detective Both
16 Westworld Both
22 Pride and Prejudice Both
32 Friends Both
33 Twin Peaks Both
37 Freaks and Geeks Both
38 Gravity Falls Both
41 Fawlty Towers Both
42 Rome Both
43 This Is Us Both
45 The Simpsons Both
50 It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Both
51 The Office Both
57 Six Feet Under Both
58 The West Wing Both
60 Steins;Gate Both
67 Deadwood Both
69 Skam Both
71 North & South Both
74 Battlestar Galactica Both
78 The X-Files Both
82 The Shield Both
88 Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan: Tsuioku Hen Both
90 Shameless Both
92 Spaced Both
94 Downton Abbey Both
98 Young Justice Both
99 Battlestar Galactica Both
100 Star Trek: The Next Generation Both
109 Friday Night Lights Both
111 One Piece Both
112 Samurai Champloo Both
129 Coupling Both
133 The Newsroom Both
136 Rurouni Kenshin: Wandering Samurai Both
146 The IT Crowd Both
151 Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Both
154 Suits Both
155 Black Books Both
159 Futurama Both
168 Permanent Roommates Both
170 Community Both
171 Carnivàle Both
175 Modern Family Both
176 Scenes from a Marriage Both
177 State of Play Both
179 Generation War Both
183 Utopia Both
198 The Kingdom Both
199 Summer Heights High Both
200 Southland Both
201 Hellsing Ultimate Both
202 My Mad Fat Diary Both
203 Bleak House Both
210 Fringe Both
211 M*A*S*H Both
212 Lost Both
215 Boston Legal Both
216 I Love Lucy Both
222 Stargate SG-1 Both
223 Pushing Daisies Both
225 Scrubs Both
227 Broadchurch Both
228 The Get Down Both
230 Banshee Both
234 Baccano! Both
15 Fargo Both
27 Stranger Things Both
29 Sarabhai vs Sarabhai Both
30 Black Mirror Both
31 Seinfeld Both
47 The Crown Female
62 Dragon Ball Z Female
65 Hunter x Hunter Female
105 Parks and Recreation Female
123 Neon Genesis Evangelion Female
124 The Bridge Female
127 Dragon Ball Female
153 The Legend of Korra Female
167 Wentworth Prison Female
178 Big Little Lies Female
181 Happy Valley Female
190 Naruto: Shippûden Female
194 Borgen Female
214 Broad City Female
221 Olive Kitteridge Female
224 Anne of Green Gables Female
226 Dragon Ball Z Kai Female
1 Band of Brothers Male
3 Breaking Bad Male
5 Rick and Morty Male
6 The Sopranos Male
7 Sherlock Male
8 Avatar: The Last Airbender Male
9 Firefly Male
10 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Male
12 The Twilight Zone Male
14 Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Male
17 Batman: The Animated Series Male
18 Death Note Male
19 One Punch Man Male
20 Cowboy Bebop Male
21 House of Cards Male
23 Monty Python’s Flying Circus Male
24 TVF Pitchers Male
25 Das Boot Male
26 Arrested Development Male
28 Over the Garden Wall Male
34 Only Fools and Horses…. Male
35 Narcos Male
36 I, Claudius Male
39 Blackadder Goes Forth Male
40 The Grand Tour Male
44 Oz Male
46 The Return of Sherlock Holmes Male
48 South Park Male
49 Dragon Ball Z Male
52 Archer Male
53 House Male
54 Taboo Male
55 Attack on Titan Male
56 Chappelle’s Show Male
59 Peaky Blinders Male
61 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Male
63 From Earth to the Moon Male
64 Top Gear Male
66 Lonesome Dove Male
68 Long Way Round Male
70 Horace and Pete Male
72 Dexter Male
73 Daredevil Male
75 Nathan for You Male
76 The Thick of It Male
77 Better Call Saul Male
79 Legion Male
80 Black-Adder II Male
81 Curb Your Enthusiasm Male
83 Doctor Who Male
84 Berserk Male
85 QI Male
86 The Daily Show Male
87 Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion Male
89 Black Adder the Third Male
91 Mystery Science Theater 3000 Male
93 Brass Eye Male
95 Yes, Prime Minister Male
96 Fullmetal Alchemist Male
97 The Night Of Male
101 Yes Minister Male
102 Louie Male
103 Generation Kill Male
104 Leyla and Mecnun Male
106 Mr. Robot Male
107 Mad Men Male
108 Kardes Payi Male
110 Adventure Time Male
113 The Bugs Bunny Show Male
114 Father Ted Male
115 Gomorrah Male
116 Impractical Jokers Male
117 Flight of the Conchords Male
118 John Adams Male
119 Monster Male
120 Justice League Male
121 Justified Male
122 Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Male
125 House of Cards Male
126 Boardwalk Empire Male
128 Homicide: Life on the Street Male
130 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Male
131 Peep Show Male
132 Dragon Ball Male
134 The Office Male
135 Ash vs Evil Dead Male
137 Vikings Male
138 The New Batman Adventures Male
139 Spartacus: Gods of the Arena Male
140 The Colbert Report Male
141 Whose Line Is It Anyway? Male
142 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Male
143 The Prisoner Male
144 Atlanta Male
145 Agatha Christie’s Poirot Male
147 The Venture Bros. Male
148 The Angry Video Game Nerd Male
149 Luther Male
150 American Crime Story Male
152 Mr. Bean Male
156 I’m Alan Partridge Male
157 Behzat Ç.: Bir Ankara Polisiyesi Male
158 Hannibal Male
160 Spartacus: War of the Damned Male
161 Silicon Valley Male
162 Erased Male
163 Sons of Anarchy Male
164 The Knick Male
165 Jesus of Nazareth Male
166 Isler Güçler Male
169 Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace Male
172 Police Squad! Male
173 X-Men Male
189 Endeavour Male
180 Jeeves and Wooster Male
182 Entourage Male
184 The Larry Sanders Show Male
185 The Muppet Show Male
186 Parasyte: The Maxim Male
187 Mushi-Shi Male
188 Yu Yu Hakusho: Ghost Files Male
189 Doctor Who Male
191 Mr. Show with Bob and David Male
192 The Walking Dead Male
193 Roots Male
195 Brigada Male
196 Samurai Jack Male
197 Red Dwarf Male
204 Trailer Park Boys Male
205 24: Live Another Day Male
206 Top Gear Male
207 Supernatural Male
208 The Inbetweeners Male
209 BoJack Horseman Male
213 Prison Break Male
217 Star Trek Male
218 The Young Pope Male
219 Terriers Male
220 Extras Male
229 Please Like Me Male
231 24 Male
232 The League of Gentlemen Male
233 A Bit of Fry and Laurie Male
235 Trigun Male

Though not close to balanced, female protagonists in highly ranked programs have increased over the past 30 years, reaching about a 70 percent to 30 percent split in the early 2000s. Trends toward parity have actually started to wane more recently. Ensemble-based shows are gaining ground and this trend seems to be digging deeply into female led programming but not male.

Gender in Lead Roles Over Time

By delving into specific genres of TV, we were able to present a glimpse into what kind of programming most allowed for the success of female leads. Out of the just 17 purely female-led programs, the majority were classified as drama with only two, Broad City and Parks & Recreation, classified as comedies. Both of these shows are from the last decade, demonstrating a potential uptick in women-led comedy for the future. Groundbreaking shows like HBO’s Insecure (starring Issa Rae) or Crazy-Ex Girlfriend (starring Rachel Bloom), while not on this list, might still make waves as they begin to reach a broader audience.

Women in Lead Roles vs. Genre

To look at a more general metric beyond TV criticism, a fascinating study by USC’s Annenberg School reported that out of the 11,306 speaking characters they evaluated in shows from 2014 – 2015, only 33.5% were female. That being said, television had much better speaking role parity than film. When studying leading roles, 42% of TV series regulars were female.

Streaming-service based TV presented the most females as principal characters (44.2%), followed by broadcast (41.6%) and cable (41%). This seems to imply some improved representation during the golden age of television, with film lagging well behind (33%). However, if we look behind the scenes, the situation continues to be pretty extreme. According to this same study, male directors outnumber female 5 to 1.

Gender of Speaking Roles in Film, Broadcast, Cable and Streaming: 33.5% female, 66.5% male.

An audience for women’s programming is already in place and it turns out women watch significantly more TV than men. According to Techcrunch, a 2012 Nielsen study indicates that women actually spend about 40 more minutes watching television per day — 4 hours, 11 minutes for women with men consuming only 3 hours 34 minutes. It’s plausible that as recognition of gender equality issues continues to rise, and opportunities for expanded female-led programming becoming available, all consumers (but especially women) are more likely to gravitate toward shows that have females in the lead role.

Socially, it is clear that the issue of gender parity is gaining in importance. A recent dust up at Adult Swim, for example, regarding a lack of women directors, garnered national attention and led to several resignations from the network. Simultaneously, women in entertainment, as well as those in hundreds of other professions, have been speaking out about the gender gap, giving the topic broader attention. For example, in interview with the Evening Standard, film star Rachel Weisz quipped, “It’s clear women…are not represented enough in leading roles… But the problem isn’t film, the problem is culture – women in all positions across the board. Everything is out of control.” Below are 5 women working in entertainment who have been outspoken regarding gender equality:

Women in Entertainment on Gender Equality. Meryl Streep- No one has ever asked an actor, 'You're playing a strong-minded man.' We assume that men are strong-minded, or have opinions. But a strong-minded woman is a different animal. - 60 Minutes, December 18, 2011;
Sandra Bullock- I always make a joke: 'Watch, we’re going to walk down the red carpet, I’m going to be asked about my dress and my hair while the man standing next to me will be asked about his performance and political issues.' - Variety;
Rachel Weisz- 'It’s clear women aren’t paid as much; they’re not represented enough in leading roles. But the problem isn’t film, the problem is culture – women in all positions across the board. Everything is out of control.' — Net-A-Porter, August 25 2016;
Kathryn Bigelow -'Gender discrimination stigmatizes our entire industry. Change is essential. Gender neutral hiring is essential.' — Time, 2015;
Kerry Washington - 'Having your story told as a woman, as a person of color, as a lesbian, or as a trans person or as any member of any disenfranchised community is sadly often still a radical idea. There is so much power in storytelling and there is enormous power in inclusive storytelling and inclusive representations.' — GLAAD Vanguard Award, March 2015

To bring things back under “control,” television that is designed to target specific audiences is on the rise. Hopefully this trend will mean that, in future, a lack of gender parity will not only be a question of improved visibility, but one of viable shows that garner acclaim and make equal representation more profitable.


When referring to the Top 250 IMDb shows, we pulled the gender of the lead role, air date and ranking. To ensure the most accurate results, we removed documentaries that weren’t suitable for the study, which cut the control group to 235 TV shows. We made note of more ensemble shows with several lead characters of each gender and eliminated these from the overall findings. However, we must acknowledge that this is a subjective list and that several seminal female-led programs i.e. Girls, Rosanne, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sex & The City, The Golden Girls, Mary Tyler Moore and many more did not make this list as it was based on one specific metric. The IMDb Top TV Shows list used in this study was pulled in May 2017 and may not mirror the current rankings because the list is updated frequently.


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