How HBO is trapping women in the half-hour comedy: A minute-by-minute investigation

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For those of you who still aren’t over the season finale of Westworld, I’m with you. Not only is Westworld a crazy show giving us thrill after thrill from a cast of incredibly well-executed characters, but it also gave us an ensemble cast led by strong female personalities. While Dolores and Maeve’s empowerment has been refreshing (even in a world full of rape and heteronormative sex), let’s not forget that having such characters lead an hour-long HBO show is a huge step for the network.

At first glance, HBO appears to offer plenty of women-centered shows on their roster, like Veep, Girls, and Insecure. But if you take a closer look at the content and the length of these shows, there’s a clear gender disparity. While the women-centric shows tend to be short, lighter comedies or relatable takes on everyday life, the “serious,” in-depth spectacles—HBO’s hallmark—are not only longer, but are mostly left to the men.

So, in the words of Carrie Bradshaw, we couldn’t help but wonder: Just how much space do women get on HBO?


We looked at every scripted, live-action adult series produced or co-produced by HBO since the network began airing original TV shows in 1983 to see how much airtime women-centered shows actually got. We defined women-centric shows as shows that featured a female protagonist or protagonists, or a majority-female ensemble cast. If the ensemble cast seemed evenly split, we deferred to the gender of the show’s creator. (For instance, Treme was considered men-centric despite female leads in an ensemble cast due to David Simon and Eric Overmyer, who created the show. Westworld, on the other hand, was considered women-centric due to its female protagonists and co-creator Lisa Joy—though that was a bit of a debate.) We did not include sketch comedy, animated, children or teen, or unscripted shows. Miniseries or anthologies were also eliminated.

Of the 62 HBO-produced shows we included based on the Wikipedia page on HBO’s programming, only 12 shows, 19.3%, were women-centric. (Only two of the 14 shows are led by women of color, specifically black women: Insecure, and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which HBO co-produced with BBC.)


But if you break down the shows by the minute, the disparity is even worse. We added up every episode of every season for each of the 63 shows on the list. Out of 79,322 minutes or 55.1 days of programming, women-centered shows added up to only 13,812 minutes (9.6 days). That’s only 17.4% of the total.

Ten of the 12 woman-centric shows are listed as comedies that run 30 minutes or lessTrue Blood is the only female-led hour-long drama, and Westworld was the only hour-long drama with an ensemble cast we considered to be woman-centric.


You may have noticed that shows like Girls and Enlightened, listed as comedies, are actually pretty dramatic. So why are they not considered dramas? According to the Television Academy, shows that are 30 minutes and less are considered comedies regardless of their content, and shows that are more than 30 minutes are considered drama. Apparently, the vast majority of woman-geared programming on HBO is only worth 30 minutes.

So sure, HBO may have a handful of strong, award-winning female-led comedy-drama shows, some more dramatic than others, but clearly HBO doesn’t seem to trust women to take on hour-long shows. And on HBO, that often means prestige drama, complete with enormous budgets, elaborate sets and costumes, more deliberate cinematography and art direction. Women can and will be included, strong women characters can and will be created—but most of them aren’t deemed strong enough to carry prestige on their own.


Again, other men-centric series do have some phenomenal women characters who often steal the show, and it’s not like women don’t watch them and feel included. HBO may never have been a beacon for intersection feminist television shows, but it has given us strong, compelling, and iconic female characters like Carmela Soprano from The Sopranos, Kima Greggs from The Wire, Deadwood’s Calamity Jane or Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen. But these are standout women who will always be secondary to male characters.

Simply put: Having only 20% of your shows created by and/or starring women—and then relegating them to “comedies”—is not enough. It’s a sign of progress that six of the 12 women-centric HBO shows are on its current roster (Westworld, Veep, Divorce, Insecure, The Comeback, and Girls). And Westworld is certainly a refreshing (if imperfect) step in the right direction. But it’s clear that for HBO, most of the time, that coveted hour of prestige drama is best left for men.


*The 12 women-centric shows we included are: Veep, Divorce, Insecure, Enlightened, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, The Comeback, Girls, 1st & Ten, Getting On, Sex And the City, True Blood, and Westworld.

Update: previously, our list of HBO shows erroneously included The Boring Life of Jacqueline, which is an HBO Digital production apparently not even fit for airing on television, let alone for an hour. We have taken that show out and updated the data accordingly.

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