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‘The New Female Antihero’ (excerpt)

The New Female Antihero explores how misogyny undermines television’s strong female antiheroes and how that, in turn, stunts our culture’s ability to embrace feminism.

The New Female Antihero: The Disruptive Women of Twenty-First-Century US Television
Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman
University of Chicago Press

The Why

Why the rise of the female antihero now? To answer this question, it’s helpful to think about the changes in television programming over the last few decades, changes that have largely resulted in television legitimating itself through masculine storylines and charismatic male leads. The story goes something like this: in the late 1970s and 1980s, serialized narrative migrated from daytime soap operas (popular from the 1950s onward) to prime time. This migration took two forms. Domestic dramas such as Dallas (CBS, 1978–1991), Falcon Crest (CBS, 1981–1990), and Dynasty (ABC, 1981–1989) embraced their roots in soap opera and actively courted a female audience. At the same time, workplace dramas like Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981–1987) and St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982–1988) introduced elements from serialized programming—ongoing character development, season-long plot arcs—but resisted the “soapier,” more feminized elements of daytime TV. Not surprisingly, Hill Street Blues won scores of Emmy awards, while Dallas and Dynasty remained popular with audiences but were largely shut out of the awards circuit. The primetime serials of the ’90s and early aughts followed the Hill Street Blues playbook; shows like NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993–2005), ER (NBC, 1994–2009), and The Practice (ABC, 1997–2004) were set in police stations, hospitals, and law offices, and combined their season-long arcs with serious artistic ambitions. When HBO premiered The Sopranos in 1999, the masculinization of soap opera appeared complete. The Sopranos is openly sentimental, unapologetically serial, and invested above all else in family ties. Yet its bloody action sequences and law-breaking protagonist protect it from associations with soap opera’s femininity. As Elana Levine and Michael Newman point out in Legitimating Television, separating “respectable” serialized drama from its roots in soap opera depends upon explicit acts of defeminizing—emphasizing endings, soft-pedaling the narrative’s serial elements, and butching up “soapy” content with violence, profanity, and toxic masculinity.

Once serialized narrative broke free from the female characters, domestic concerns, and daytime television slots that had relegated it to the scholarly sidelines, it gained respectability in both the male-dominated film industry and the status-conscious academy. Analyses of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad were published in flagship film studies journals, and popular nonfiction books like Difficult Men and The Revolution Was Televised identified the male antihero as the dominant TV protagonist of the new millennium. The age of “prestige” or “quality” television was born, and it was oriented almost completely around men. Of course the masculinity of prestige TV was in no way homogeneous. As Michael Albrecht and Amanda Lotz have pointed out, the men of turn-of-the-twenty-first-century TV were complex and multidimensional, as interested in showcasing nuanced depictions of masculinity in crisis as they were in reaffirming heteronormative ideals. But within this complicated tapestry of male-identified programming, women and female-specific concerns tended to be relegated to the sidelines. This is not to underestimate the importance of groundbreaking shows like Sex and the City, which, as Emily Nussbaum has pointed out, “was sharp, iconoclastic television . . . daring in its conception of characters.” But, as important as it was in setting the stage for the female antihero, SATC’s formulaic strategies and insistence on happy endings meant that it stopped short of moving prestige TV to its next phase.

All this has changed in recent years, as complicated, gritty, norm-defying female characters have emerged in droves. While scholars have begun to examine this new protagonist, it’s fair to say that she has not been showered with the same love and attention that Tony, Walter, Don, and Vic received when they first debuted. Often her emergence is explained as a variant of that of her male counterpart. According to this logic, the female antihero, like the male antihero before her, has appeared on television due to industry-driven reasons. Specifically, the movement from a mass audience to a variety of niche viewers—enabled by cable networks, streaming services, and online platforms (a phenomenon known as “narrowcasting”)—has allowed for less traditional women to occupy center stage. Margaret Talley narrates the female antihero’s appearance in just such industry-driven terms, identifying the success of male antihero protagonists, narrowcasting and other technological shifts in television production, and the growing influence of female writers and showrunners as the causes of “the anti-heroine[’s recent appearance] on the televisual landscape.” Critics such as Kevin O’Keefe and Yasmin Omar take a similar line, arguing that the female antihero has emerged because “women control the remote” and (increasingly) the writers’ room.

More recently, scholars have widened the critical lens, going beyond industry-driven accounts. Milly Buonanno’s important transnational study of the antiheroine in the crime drama attempts to understand this new female figure partially through Raymond Williams’s concept of the “structure of feeling.” Julia M. Mason sees the rise of female antiheroes as a response to the onslaught of good mother messaging or “the new momism.” Other scholars have considered the emergence of disruptive women on television, while not necessarily labeling them antiheroes. Diane Negra, Jorie Lagerwey, and Julia Leyda identify a “female-centered television” that began in 2008 as a response to the Great Recession. Lagerwey and Taylor Nygaard see this new programming as shoring up white fragility in the context of a reactionary political climate. Kristin Warner attributes it to a complex loop with women audiences eager for fare reflective of their experiences and desires. Following these scholars and others, we contend that, as significant as industry imperatives remain, they alone cannot account for the rise of the female antihero. Our take on the reasons for her emergence is the subject of the following pages.


In arguing that the pervasive presence of the female antihero is a function popularity to gendered transformations in the socio-economic landscape. After all, the dawn of the twenty-first century is a deeply conflicted time for women. On the one hand, they enjoy greater opportunity and advantages than ever before: they make up a majority of the American workforce, occupying more than 50 percent of managerial positions in 2019 (up from 26 percent in 1980). The number of wives who outearn their husbands has also steadily increased over the past three decades, going from 17.8 percent in 1987 to 29.3 percent in 2013. Women graduate from college at a higher rate than their male counterparts—in 2016 women earned 57.34 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—and are more likely than men to pursue postcollegiate education. of more than simply changes in the television industry, we mean to tie her In secondary schools, the trends are similar, with girls increasingly outperforming boys across a range of subjects, even in the STEM fields where they traditionally have not thrived. (Similar statistics exist in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.) In her controversial book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin quotes one man’s response to these developments: “Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of ’em graduate from college. They go into space and do everything men do, and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way—these females are going to leave us males in the dust.”

Rosin, along with many academic sociologists, credits women’s advances to the shifting economic landscape of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. With the decline of traditional manufacturing jobs and the rise of the service and digital economies, women have emerged as the ideal workers, possessing not only the “soft skills” of communication, empathy, and team-building but also the capacity to thrive as “flexible workers” under fluctuating and unpredictable labor conditions. Add to this the increase in women-friendly legislation that has dramatically curtailed discrimination and helped ensure equal access, and one sees how women have emerged as the key to the twenty-first-century economy. Hillary Clinton summed up this position in her 2016 APEC address: “When we liberate the economic potential of women, we elevate the economic performance of communities, nations, and the world.” Liza Mundy, author of The Richer Sex, echoes this assessment in her notion of “the big flip”—a trend in which women in the United States, Western Europe, and East Asia are fast becoming the primary breadwinners for their families.

Mundy is optimistic about these economic transformations, as are other commentators who tie them to women’s improved status more generally. Reihan Salam claims that the global financial crisis has precipitated “the death of macho,” allowing women to claim more equitable positions not only in their jobs but in their homes. Rosin reports that in American fertility clinics in the new millennium, up to 75 percent of couples showed a preference for girls, a massive turnaround from the “firstborn son” privileging that has characterized most of history. Industry analysis reveals that moviegoers now prefer films that star women rather than men, and films that pass the Bechdel Test outperform films that don’t. These transformations have impacted girls and young women, who feel encouraged to take seriously their own agency and potential. They increasingly marry and have children later (or not at all), choosing instead to focus on their careers and self-development.

And yet, despite these advances, the news is hardly all positive. Women’s wages, especially in the managerial sector, are still far lower than their male counterparts, and women are underrepresented in the wealthiest sectors, constituting a tiny fraction of CEOs in Fortune Global 500 companies. While college-educated unmarried women tend to make salaries on par with their educated male counterparts, their earning potential plummets when they have children, and it never recovers. The news is even grimmer for women of color, who earn far less than the average woman’s 80 cents on the male dollar—Black women earn 61 cents; Latina women, 53 cents. And while women now make up a majority of the workforce, they are increasingly sequestered in low-paying professions, such as teaching and social work. Surveying these developments, education scholar Jill Blackmore queries, “So do girls ‘succeed’ when they largely, except for their middle and upper class sisters, enter a highly gender-segmented and polarised labour market in which they are concentrated in underpaid, casualised, feminised and non-unionised jobs?”

On the socio-cultural front, the news is similarly disheartening. Despite the lip service paid to “girl power,” studies show that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety and depression. There is also evidence that the changing economic picture has had devastating consequences on domestic relations. As the erosion of traditional manufacturing jobs has deprived men of their role as breadwinners, incidents of domestic abuse have gone up. Boys in “trouble” and in “crisis” have given way to men who lean on women, often to the point of exploitation. Toxic masculinity has become part of the political landscape as well; a third of the men on the current Supreme Court have been accused of sexual misconduct, and the forty-fifth president has boasted about grabbing women by the genitals. The future of reproductive rights is uncertain, members of the LGBTQ+ community are under attack, and women continue to do most of the housework, a majority of childcare, and exhausting amounts of “emotional labor.” It seems that reports of patriarchy’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

This ambivalent story about the status of women has been the subject of recent feminist inquiry. In Future Girl: Young Women in the 21st Century, Anita Harris argues that girls have been constructed as the “vanguard of a new subjectivity”—exemplars of possibility and promise during a deeply unstable moment. “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the creation of the contemporary social order and citizenship is achieved in part within the space of girlhood,” Harris writes. “[The future girl] is imagined, and sometimes imagines herself, as best able to handle today’s socioeconomic order.” Through her persistence, drive, and capacity for self-invention, the girl will buoy the rest of us, or so the story goes. Angela McRobbie offers a similar assessment: “The meanings which converge around the figure of the girl or young woman, are . . . weighted towards capacity, success, attainment, enjoyment, entitlement, social mobility and participation. The dynamics of regulation and control are less about what young women ought not to do and more about what they can do.” At the same time, these scholars clarify, girls and women live and labor under difficult conditions, adversely affected by the same developments that afflict others: “a changed labor market, economic rationalization, and a devolving of responsibility onto individuals.” There is, then, a disconnect between the popular story of “future girl” and her lived reality, and this creates tremendous pressure for young women, who imagine that their failure to succeed results from ineptitude rather than from social and institutional forces. To fall short of being “the amazing bounce-backable woman” (in Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad’s memorable phrasing) is to fail fundamentally as an individualized female subject. In this context, systemic critique is impossible, as is social transformation.

Mainstream feminism has become complicit in the logic of “future girl,” insofar as it often adopts the vacuous rhetoric of female empowerment. Buttressed by a consumerist mentality that encourages spending as a sign of agency, this brand of feminism promises that “The Future Is Female” (as emblazoned on countless T-shirts) and that “Girls Can Do Anything” (as a new fragrance by Zadig & Voltaire is called). Not only does this feminism mask the fact that it is largely affluent white women who are interpellated by empowerment rhetoric, it also leaves many cold. As artist Audrey Wollen notes, “I felt kind of alienated by contemporary feminism, because it demanded so much of me (self-love, great sex, economic success) that I just couldn’t give.” In place of “girl power,” Wollen chooses “sadness” as a way of acknowledging the difficulty of being female in the current moment. As she puts it, “Feminism doesn’t need to advocate for how awesome and fun being a girl is . . . [O]ur pain doesn’t need to be discarded in the name of empowerment.” Wollen’s “Sad Girl Theory” bears resemblance to the anti-optimism of Lauren Berlant, Jack Halberstam, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Sara Ahmed, all of whom point to the ways that everyday culture asks us to buy into an aspirational fantasy of “the good life,” while keeping that life ever more inaccessible. In this context, sadness, failure, and shame might constitute a kind of resistance, or, as Halberstam puts it, “not succeeding at womanhood can offer unexpected pleasures.”

We might think of the new female antihero as responding in a similar register. In comedy, she rejects the can-do pluck of a Mary Tyler Moore, opting to meet the achievement mandate with a mixture of skepticism, boredom, and contempt. When SMILF’s Bridgette Bird is encouraged by her spunky friend Nelson to make a vision board—“ Everything amazing in my life I manifested through visualization,” Nelson tells her—Bridgette replies, “I’m gonna need some magazines, and some tape, probably scissors,” and then adds, “I’m gonna need a dream too.” Her response constitutes a recognition that what’s lacking is not simply the material props needed to build a success narrative but also the aspirational fantasy itself. In hour-long dramas, the female antihero has no shortage of dreams and ambitions, but here, too, she suffers from a sense that she’s battling extraordinary odds and that unrelenting shows of physical and mental prowess are necessary to achieve even a modicum of respect. Perhaps this is why female antiheroes in dramas—from Damages’ Patty Hewes (FX, 2007–2012) to Scandal’s Olivia Pope—are famous for their physical flawlessness and unerring professional record. These are women who recognize that the occasional screwup is not an option. “I missed something once before; I won’t, I can’t let that happen again,” Carrie Mathison tells her mentor Saul in the opening credits to Homeland. “It was ten years ago,” Saul responds, referencing 9/11; “everyone missed something that day.” Carrie’s response captures the pressure that the twenty-first-century young woman feels to be infallible: “Yeah, everyone’s not me.” Her words are the perfect bookend to Bridgette Bird’s “I’m gonna need a dream too.” That is to say, both the dramatic and the comedic antihero know what they’re up against, but the former compensates through massive displays of strength and invulnerability while the latter often simply sits back and accepts her own powerlessness.

Both responses are attempts to “break the wheel” (as Daenerys Targaryen would put it), to disrupt a system that at once demands women’s success and strips them of the tools and the level playing field for attaining it. It’s easy to see how this works in comedy. When Girls’ Hannah Horvath quits her well-paying job, dons unflattering clothing, and continually chooses a relationship where she’s denied respect, fidelity, and sexual pleasure, she seems to be staring down the terms of empowerment feminism and saying “no thanks.” In drama the story is a bit more complicated. Protagonists like Elizabeth Jennings, Carrie Mathison, and Olivia Pope are products of contemporary feminist ideology, women whose physical prowess, professional success, and resistance to male authority have been made imaginable by the social and political gains of the last fifty years. (This is true of Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, too. Their stories may be set in some vague Middle Age, but their ambition and take-no- prisoners attitude is clearly a function of the current cultural zeitgeist.)

And yet, what might look like feminist success stories are, on closer inspection, evidence of a system out of whack. These women get the job done, but only by going into hyperdrive, vanquishing their enemies through betrayal, manipulation, and homicide. Their goal is rarely justice; more often they’re chasing greed, pleasure, and self-promotion. (Olivia Pope speaks of wearing a white hat, but this conceit is hard to swallow as she slides into increasingly immoral behavior—fixing an election in season 2, beating an enemy to death with a metal chair in season 5.) And in the end, as we will show, the female antiheroes of television dramas are rarely successful. Their story arcs read like a parody of feminist victory—rather than shattering the glass ceiling, Cersei Lannister finishes out Game of Thrones by literally being buried under falling rubble. We argue that these dramatic antiheroes set the stage for their comedic sisters. Having attempted and failed to achieve empowerment in the liberal feminist tradition—through striving, confidence, ambition, and physical strength—they make room for the women who reject these values altogether.


This depiction of the female antihero—as a figure of resistance and critique— is somewhat at odds with the general consensus concerning representations of women in media. Critics and scholars tend to see television shows of the 1990s and early aughts as largely populated by superficial figures: sex-positive consumerists like Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals; adorkably conflicted thirtysomethings like The New Girl’s Jess Day (Fox, 2011–2018); and gurus of self-care, motherhood, and domesticity like the women of Desperate Housewives (ABC, 2004–2012) or Rachael Ray of 30 Minute Meals (Food Network, 2001–2012).

According to these analyses, female protagonists on television appear contented and empowered, even as they largely define their satisfaction in narrow consumerist terms, reinforcing traditional norms. For example, in her New York Times op-ed on Sex and the City, Catherine Orenstein calls out the series for its facile vision of female empowerment:

The heroines spend most of their time on shopping, cocktails and one-night stands. Charlotte dreams of bridesmaids’ dresses. Miranda frigidly “dates” her RiVo, while nymphomaniac Samantha—a blond bimbo who combines old-fashioned objectification with postmodern “do me” feminism—plows through the Kama Sutra. And in one episode Carrie discovers that she has only $957 in savings—but $40,000 in designer shoes in her closet. . . . [W]hen did haute couture fashion and prêt-à-porter men come to eclipse all the other elements of independent womanhood?

Diane Negra levels a more nuanced critique against shows like Providence (NBC, 1999–2002), Judging Amy (CBS, 1999–2005), and Gilmore Girls (WB, 2000–2007), all of which “proceed from a retreatist impulse” in which the female protagonist questions her professional trajectory in favor of conventional values.

Significant in these critiques (and many others like them) is the charge of postfeminism—the idea that turn-of-the-twenty-first-century television reflects a landscape at once informed by the pervasive presence of second-wave feminist ideals and running at full tilt away from these. In the current moment, the argument goes, feminism has become deeply familiar, a household word and cultural meme, as evidenced by Beyoncé’s use of the word “feminist” as giant neon backdrop during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. At the same time, feminism, as it is depicted in popular culture, is largely a toothless phenomenon, often amounting to little more than the freedom to shop, have great sex, and indulge in self-making. Andi Zeisler sums it up in her 2016 book We Were Feminists Once: “It’s a feminism that trades on simple themes of sisterhood and support—you- go-girl tweets and Instagram photos, cheery magazine editorials about dressing to please yourself.” Often in league with corporate dollars, postfeminism tells young women that they can embrace a feminist identity simply by wearing a “nasty woman” T-shirt or by catching the latest Amy Schumer film. Worse still, it borrows liberal feminist ideals to reinforce traditional values—mobilizing the rhetoric of “choice,” for example, not in the name of reproductive rights but to justify college-educated women opting out of professional careers or embracing female desire less as an anti-repressive measure than in the service of heteronormative male fantasy. At the same time, those engaging in real feminist work are written off by postfeminist culture as nags or “killjoys” (in Sara Ahmed’s formulation), overly extremist shrews who want women to renounce baking, romance, fishnet stockings, and pedicures. As Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker write, “postfeminism signals more than a simple evolutionary process whereby aspects of feminism have been incorporated into popular culture—and thereby naturalized as popular feminism. It also simultaneously involves an ‘othering’ of feminism (even as women are more centralized), its construction as extreme, difficult, and unpleasurable.”

At issue for the many critics who call out the apolitical nature of postfeminism is the role played by culture and particularly television, which, ever since the Frankfurt School, has been understood as a lobotomizing force. While television shows may feel progressive in their women-centered themes, the medium is unable to deliver anything beyond bland humanist pronouncements. As Lauren Rabinowitz puts it, “Television allows for the expression of a feminist critique but represses feminism’s potential for radical social change.” For Rabinowitz, as for others, the problem originates with TV’s corporate motive—its desire to deliver to advertisers a growing number of female baby boomers who are independently minded and increasingly wage-earning but still largely oriented around traditional values. Hence the feeble nods to feminist politics in the context of shows that largely reposition women in relation to the nuclear family (or the “surrogate family of the workplace”). While recent streaming platforms may have created smaller niche audiences desirous of eclectic programming, corporate motives still prevail, narrowing the presentation of women on TV and defining them in blandly professional and consumerist terms. This has resulted in financially independent female protagonists (highly skilled, unmarried, wary of commitment) pursuing a neoliberal agenda of entrepreneurship and self-care. It has also resulted in the monetizing of diversity, even as television characters remain overwhelmingly affluent and white.

If critics of postfeminist TV point to corporate appeasement, they also contend that this programming fails to address genuine political issues (pay inequity, discrimination, white supremacy, etc.) because of its investment in “lifestyle.” In depicting the subjectivities of its female protagonists, it anchors them in what Angela McRobbie calls “an aggressive individualism,” thereby subverting the potential for systemic critique and collective action. Audiences who watch this fare are in turn hailed into the discourse of “lifestyle,” since they, too, define their commitment to feminism through individual acts of consumerism and self-making, including the decision to watch postfeminist television itself. This results in a self-feeding loop in which a politically disengaged, largely female audience tunes into shows in which putatively self-realized protagonists embrace feminism-lite. As Jessa Crispin sums it up in her book Why I Am Not a Feminist, “For too long feminism has been moving away from being about collective action and imagination, and towards being a lifestyle. Lifestyles do not change the world.”

While we are sympathetic to complaints about postfeminist culture and many of our colleagues’ concerns, we also contend that some of these criticisms are ill-placed. For example, the attack on “lifestyle” seems odd given attempts to recuperate women’s personal politics during feminism’s second wave. Indeed, much of the work of consciousness-raising groups in this period involved the recognition that women could not easily separate their personal choices from the public domain of the university, the courtroom, and the workplace. Those who criticize postfeminism acknowledge this history but claim that the commitment to the “personal as political” has either gone too far or has been willfully misconstrued. Bonnie J. Dow, for example, argues that “the personal is political . . . was meant to describe patriarchy, not feminism. That is, it encapsulated the idea that what women viewed as personal, individual problems could be traced to the political status of women living in a male-dominated and male-defined society.” Television, she claims, “has taken this idea in precisely the opposite direction in representing feminism: The political is personal, it tells us, as a set of political ideas and practices is transformed into a set of attitudes and personal lifestyle choices.” Similarly, Katharine Viner argues, “The personal as the political was never meant to be a prescription of how to live your life. It was never meant to be a rallying cry to shave off your hair and take up with the lady next door. But what it was really meant to do was create an awareness of how our personal lives are ruled by political forces.”

While this may be true, few would disregard the extent to which the tenet “the personal is political” did lead many women to shave off their hair and take up with the lady next door! For this reason, 1960s and ’70s feminism faced the same charges of depoliticization that haunt postfeminism today. Betty Friedan initially dismissed consciousness-raising sessions as “navel-gazing,” and ’60s yippie Jerry Rubin became infamous for his statement “politics is how you live your life, not who you vote for.” Our point is not to defend the superficiality of some forms of feminist engagement, but rather to point out that the women’s movement has always been accompanied by a commitment to lifestyle. When early women’s rights advocates agitated for the freedom to wear trousers and later to ride bicycles, it was because they recognized a connection between women’s political liberation and their physical mobility, and thus a lifestyle revolution was born. Likewise, feminists of the late ’60s and early ’70s embraced miniskirts, communal living, the artwork of Judy Chicago, and the music of Nina Simone because they recognized that cultural choices could project a powerful message about their feminist identity that was aligned with their politics. In this way they captured what Stanley Aronowitz characterized as “the leading theme of the ideology of the 60s: the attempt to infuse life with a secular spiritual and moral content, to fill the quotidian with personal meaning and purpose through social action.” While this could no doubt result in solipsism, it also energized a generation eager to redefine their daily lives in accordance with their burgeoning political passions.

We are, of course, not the first to argue for the importance of popular cultural forms for political engagement. To be sure, there is a bevy of important scholarship that recuperates television (and other media) as a site of feminist praxis. Much of this work not only defends recent television programming but also attempts to define postfeminism differently, that is, as a genuine attempt to think about feminist work in the period after the second wave. According to this scholarship, postfeminism (also occasionally referred to as popular, third-, or fourth-wave feminism) is valuable insofar as it tackles issues of exclusion (especially along lines of race and class), embraces female sexuality, attempts to reconcile feminism and femininity, acknowledges the extent to which postmodernism has redefined the term “woman,” asserts continuity—rather than rupture—with the work of the second wave, and argues for meaningful forms of popular culture. The existence of this scholarship alongside that which engages in critique indicates that no easy assessment of television’s feminist potential is possible. Indeed, most scholars who work in feminist media studies would likely agree with Merri Lisa Johnson’s summation that “all shows on television today contain a mixture of feminist, postfeminist, antifeminist, and pseudofeminist motifs.”

Nevertheless, the general posture among critics and scholars has been a wariness about the conservatism and market-oriented logic of contemporary television. This is true even as many acknowledge that television programming has shifted in the last decade, showcasing fewer plucky female consumers and more women who are angry, beleaguered, and down on their luck. In their important edited collection Gendering the Recession, Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker argue for a changed media landscape since the financial crisis of 2008, one in which female protagonists “appear to be significantly less light-hearted . . . lacking the sense of play and pleasure that many postfeminist texts bid for.” Other scholars, like Lauren DeCarvalho, Jodi Brooks, and Amy Shields Dobson and Akane Kanai, have also argued that the post-recessionary moment has resulted in more complicated, diverse women on television, including the “unconfident, anxious, and insecure girl” whose affect does not entirely align with the neoliberal mindset. But these accounts often return to the instrumentalizing logic of an all-encompassing market. For example, in writing about the post-recessionary woman on television who must counter her own precarity through an adaptive resilience, Lagerwey, Leyda, and Negra comment on the ethos of financialization that pervades this programming, an ethos “in which the experience of precarity has crept into the middle classes, in which modes of economic subjectivity that might once have been counterbalanced by other forms of selfhood have attained preeminence and in which market logics have decisively overtaken other, previously distinct, value systems and worldviews.”

While insightful about the devastating effects of the Great Recession, such a view imagines that a neoliberal sensibility determines female-centered television, resulting in “the co-presentation of female empowerment with acquiescence to the structural status quo.” Missing from this otherwise astute account is not only the hopelessness and abjection of the new female antihero who resists imperatives for resilience, but also what Janice Radway once described as the “fluid and active” nature of production and reception practices, the “final effects” of which “can neither be foreseen nor guaranteed in advance.” It is precisely this unpredictability—the sometimes surprising ways that writers, actors, and directors craft female characters and the equally surprising ways that viewers respond to them—that can upend status-quo imperatives, making for the joy and intrigue of contemporary television.

Here also lies the political promise of this medium, given how wildly popular female-centered series have become. Contemporary television, in other words, is an important site of access for young women curious about feminism— a venue in which they may first encounter portraits of sexism, work/ family balance and, yes, individual empowerment. While these viewers will likely not be radicalized through watching this programming, it’s quite possible that they may become inquisitive, engaged, and hailed within a community of like-minded others, eager to process and discuss the shows they see. This is no formula against complacency, but it does suggest that lifestyle feminism has a role to play in the larger struggle for emancipatory politics. Indeed, our own trajectories from culture hounds to gender studies professors indicate that television (along with novels, music, film, and other art forms) can create an enthusiasm among audiences that can slide into conversation, critique, political commitment, and even activism. The goal then is not to condemn TV shows for their lack of ideological purity, but to harness the energy they bring to viewers so as to push the cultural conversation about women in more genuinely progressive directions. As Amanda Lotz puts it, “Especially when series and characters resonate with audiences to the degree that many recently have, we must explore what is in these texts with an eye to their complexity instead of quickly dismissing them as part of a hegemonic, patriarchal, capitalist system.”

The female antiheroes we take up in this book are far from exemplary vis-à-vis progressive politics. While they are smart, resourceful, and often unconventional in their professional and romantic pursuits, they are also deeply selfish, occasionally consumerist, largely white, and relentlessly heterosexual. And yet these women are also complex and fascinating in ways not always acknowledged by postfeminist critique. Take their relationship to the culture of girlhood. This is a sticking point for many scholars and critics who claim that girlhood discourse on TV is maddeningly Pollyannaish, filled with empty slogans of self-reliance and empowerment. Moreover, TV’s “girling” of older women—the imposing of perpetual adolescence on fully grown thirtysomethings—speaks to a culture unwilling to recognize women who have moved beyond pony love, burgeoning sexuality, and BFF drama. However, we would argue that TV depictions of girlhood are more complicated than this, signifying something beyond “you go, girl” enthusiasm. In the HBO series Girls, for example, the title suggests youth without the potential for self-realization, as Hannah Horvath and her friends find themselves entitled but adrift, unable to translate their privilege into happiness and material advantage. In Broad City, girlhood culture takes on yet another valence, as Ilana Wexler and Abbi Abrams indulge in perpetual childhood but with neither the anxiety of a Hannah Horvath nor the consumption habits of a Carrie Bradshaw. Theirs is a refreshing ebullience absent luxury, ambition, and competence. In both shows, then, we might locate a provisional feminist politics in the forging of female community around values other than success and empowerment.

The eclectic manifestation of girlhood in Girls and Broad City indicates that postfeminist TV is not monolithic. Indeed, these two shows—part of a genre that Rebecca Wanzo has aptly labeled “precarious girl comedies”—seem far more caught up in discourses of failure, abjection, and economic insecurity than in the solipsistic project of consumerist self-making. Of course, we are also arguing that the TV shows we’re analyzing—all made between 2011 and 2020—represent a real departure from shows of the late 1990s and early 2000s; they therefore may constitute a post-postfeminism (if you will) that is actively in dialogue with an earlier, more depoliticized moment. But if television has changed, the discourse around it has largely stayed the same, focused on TV’s failure to transcend its status as a compromised cultural form, able to be the subject of feminist critique but unable to tell us anything meaningful about feminism itself, as Joanne Hollows and Rachel Moseley insightfully put it. According to this logic, anything smacking of feminist politics on television is only the consequence of an industry bent on delivering content to niche audiences willing to pay for the illusion of progressive fare. What’s lost in this interpretation is the possibility that alongside bottom-lineimperatives, television might actually turn out anything surprising or disruptive. Against these assumptions, we argue that antihero programming features women, burdened by high expectations and financial uncertainty, negotiating their social and professional relationships in ways both idiosyncratic and unsanctioned.