Amanda Vickery on the Gender Divide in Historical Documentary Audiences

12 08 2011

There are plenty of historical documentaries on TV. Many deal with war and diplomacy, while others examine social historical topics, such as If Walls Could Talk, the history of different rooms of the house. To what extent are the audiences of these different types of historical documentary are segregated by gender? In a blog post, prominent British social historian Amanda Vickery takes a hard look at the ratings data.

She writes:

Unsurprisingly, military history delights significantly more men than women, though it is not a male preserve. Among last year’s broadcasts, The Battle of Britain – the Real Story drew an audience of 63 per cent men and 37 per cent women, while 59 per cent of the viewers of The First World War from Above were male. But once you move off tactics to the lived experience of war then women reclaim the territory. More women than men (55 per cent) watched the Kindertransport Story. At the other end of the spectrum, Revealing Anne Lister, Sue Perkins’ exploration of the 19th-century world of a Halifax lesbian, drew a majority female audience (60 per cent). But again it’s worth noting that the remaining 40 per cent didn’t switch off in a huff.

There may be some lessons here for history lecturers. Even though teaching history in a university is fundamentally different than producing a documentary for entertainment, educators do need to keep in mind what sort of subjects are likely to attract the attention of different groups of students, for we are not immune to market forces and the need to appeal to large audiences. A good educator knows that even serious education must include at least some entertainment value if you are to keep a diverse group of young adults interested.

Amanda Vickery is the prize-winning author of The Gentleman’s Daughter (Yale University Press, 1998) and Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England(Yale University Press, 2009). She is Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London, where she teaches British social, political and cultural history. Readers may be interested in her radio series Voices from the Old Bailey,  in which she presents dramatised extracts from gripping Old Bailey court cases from the 18th century and discusses with fellow historians what they reveal about the period.




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