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Progressive programmes: screen testing female, BAME, and LGBTQ+ representation in sitcoms

Since the first UK sitcom launched on our TV screens in 1946, we’ve been hooked and have spent hours laughing with our favourite characters.

Friends watching sitcoms together

In the past year especially, most of us have had more time to nostalgically rewatch our favourite shows, revisit iconic TV moments or seek out something new to keep us entertained during lockdowns.

Whether you love a ‘classic’ or a ‘modern’ sitcom, representation is important. Increasingly, networks have realised that consumers want to watch shows that are a reflection of society, and that includes diverse main characters. Here at Uswitch, we’ve analysed the best rated English language sitcoms of the last 50 years to determine how female, BAME, and LGBTQ+ representation has changed. 

Using the highest ranked and voted for sitcoms from IMDb’s comedy sitcom list, we’ve split the best sitcoms into ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ for comparison. If the sitcom started and ended before 2010 we’ve considered it as ‘classic’, otherwise you’ll find it listed as ‘modern’. Check out our full list of the best ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ sitcoms below:

Female representation in sitcoms

Our research found that the best rated 'modern sitcoms' have started to narrow the male to female representation gap with 65% male main characters compared to 35% female. According to ONS’s overview of the UK population: January 2021 report 50.6% of the UK population is female. Therefore, there is still progress to be made to reflect this on our screens. 

This is an improvement however from the highest rated ‘classic’ sitcoms, as only 27% of their primary characters identified as female.

However, it isn’t enough to have representation on screen, the quality of representation is important too. We applied the Bechdel Test to each sitcom to determine if the female characters added value to the show instead of reinforcing stereotypes. As long as the sitcom *‘generally’ had at least two women present and talking to each other about a topic that didn’t involve a man, throughout the duration of the show, we considered it to have passed the Bechdel Test. 

Not only have the 'modern' sitcoms cast more women in recurring main character roles, but the quality of the character roles have also improved. 80% of the top rated ‘modern’ sitcoms passed the Bechdel Test, compared to just 40% of the ‘classics’. 

While it’s great to see improvements in female representation on screen, more needs to be done behind the scenes. 100% of the ‘classic’ sitcom creators identified as male, while only 20% of the ‘modern’ sitcoms had female creators. 

BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) representation in sitcoms

Representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in ‘modern’ sitcoms has tripled compared to ‘classic’ sitcoms (18% from 6%). Only three (The IT Crowd, Entourage, and Red Dwarf) of the top rated ‘classic’ sitcoms had at least one main character that identified as a person of colour.

In comparison, two thirds of the ‘modern’ sitcoms have a primary character who identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic. 

As of the 2011 UK Census, 40.2% of London residents identified with either the Asian, Black, Mixed or Other ethnic groups. However, London-set modern sitcoms, Peep Show (0%) and People Just Do Nothing (25%), do not reflect this with BAME-identifying main characters on screen.

Additionally, less than half of the ‘modern’ sitcoms *‘generally’ failed the DuVernay Test. This test takes into consideration the following: are any characters of colour whitewashed or played by actors of a different ethnicity; do the characters of colour pursue their own goals separate from the white characters; do the characters of colour preliminary talk about race; do the characters of colour fulfil harmful, simplistic, or racist stereotypes; is the director, writer and/or creator representative of the story’s culture. 

Unfortunately, while there has been an improvement from the ‘classic’ to ‘modern’ sitcoms (7% pass rate to 47%), many sitcoms have failed to represent black, Asian and minority ethic people without reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

LGBTQ+ representation in sitcoms

10% of the best rated ‘modern’ sitcoms’ main characters identify as LGBTQ+. This has increased from just 1% of primary characters in the top rated ‘classic’ sitcoms. However, only 53% of the ‘modern’ sitcoms actually have an LGBTQ+ main character. 

Broad City is the most representative LGBTQ+ ‘modern’ sitcom with 50% of its six main characters identifying as LGBTQ+.

Additionally, only half of the eight ‘modern’ sitcoms with an LGBTQ+ character *‘generally’ pass the Vito Russo Test. This test takes into consideration: whether a character that identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender is included; the character is not solely defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity; the LGBTQ+ character is significantly tied into the plot; and not included to provide colourful commentary, paint urban authenticity or set up a punchline.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schitts Creek, Modern Family and Broad City were the only ‘modern’ sitcoms to pass the Vito Russo Test. 

Award winning representation 

Modern Family is one of three of the top rated sitcoms, ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ included, that passed each representation test. It is also the sitcom from our list to have received the most award nominations and award wins. 

People Just Do Nothing, Peep Show, and This Country were the only ‘modern’ sitcoms to fail all three representation tests. On average, they all received less award nominations and wins compared to ‘modern’ sitcoms that passed at least one representation test. 

In recent years, many award ceremonies have received criticism for a lack of representation in their award nominations. The LA Times reported that from 2015 to 2019, 82% of the nominees in 19 prime-time Emmy categories were white.

However, 2020 saw a record year for authentic representation in Emmy nominations, especially for Black and LGBTQ+ actors and performers. Schitt’s Creek won nine awards on the night, with many openly identifying members of the LGBTQ+ community being nominated for awards.

Additionally, more than 30 people of colour were nominated for Emmy acting awards, however representation was lacking for Asian and Latinx nominations. 

It isn’t just the Emmys that have been called out for a lack of diversity. The Bafta Film Awards came under fire in 2020 after no female filmmakers were named for best director for a seventh consecutive year, and only white actors were selected for the four acting categories. The academy has since made 120 changes to its awards to increase diversity, including adding 1,000 new committee members. 

While the Golden Globes, Emmys and BAFTAs currently do not have specific  representation awards, there are television accolades that focus primarily on celebrating and awarding representation. The Dorian Awards given by GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics honours the best in television, from mainstream shows to LGBTQ+ focused programmes. Schitt’s Creek won the best TV comedy and best LGBTQ TV show awards in 2020, while actors of the sitcom also won individual awards for their roles. 

Representation is important. TV programmes are a reflection of society, and therefore should include a diverse range of people in their primary cast of characters. While our research shows that representation has improved in the top-rated ‘modern’ sitcoms, networks must continue to make significant contributions to ensuring representation of female, BAME and LGBTQ+ people on our screens. 

Ready to watch a new sitcom? Make sure to compare the best TV and broadband deals first to ensure you are ready for your next series binge.

Methodology

To find the best English-language sitcoms of the last 50 years we used IMDb’s Comedy Sitcom list sorted by descending user rating. 

To clean our resulting list we filtered out adult animation (e.g. Rick and Morty), and only included the highest rated series of Blackadder (all three are highly rated). We also excluded shows where the creator and/or writer was criminally investigated.

We then arranged our list by the highest IMDb rating and the number of people who voted for them. To categorise our desired list into ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ we split the shows by years. If the show finished or was still on air after 2010 it was considered ‘modern’, the rest were categorised as ‘classic’. 

We also used IMDb for the main creator (or writer if not applicable) and cast list (to be considered as part of the main cast the character had to be included before the 'expand all' selection) and resulting facts. 

We then categorised diversity and representation in each show based on the main characters. To have been counted, characters had to explicitly describe their heritage, sexuality and gender. 

*We also wanted to find out how this diversity holds up to accepted diversity media tests. The tests we did use were created for film, however none such criteria exists for TV shows. To mitigate this we say ‘generally’ pass. We relied on:

These questions ask: 

  • Are there more than two characters of such identity? 

  • Do they speak to a character of the same identity? 

  • Do those characters speak about something other than relationships and their identity?

  • Do these characters play into stereotypes?

  • Vito Russo specific: do these characters have their own narrative, and are more than a ‘token’?

  • DuVernay specific: does the creator/writer represent the culture? 

To have passed we considered characters from the main character group and the creator of the show (where applicable).  

Additional sources:
Guinness World Record for the first television sitcom