In tracing the development of the female antihero in American television from 2011 to the present, we devote equal time to drama and comedy, areas that are often separated in television studies. As mentioned above, scholarship on “prestige” television tends to focus on drama, pointing to the rich narrative arcs and complex character development that have made shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad urtexts of this genre. Comedy, meanwhile, has largely been taken up by feminist scholars interested in the transgressive appeal of outrageous women in shows like Roseanne, Living Single, and Sex and the City. These varying emphases have created a false bifurcation that tends to align drama with masculinity and sophistication while associating comedy with feminized lighter fare. Such an approach not only gives drama the critical edge, it also privileges whiteness, since dramas tend toward less diverse casting and have not always appealed to the wide demographics that comedy courts. As Beretta Smith-Shomade points out in the introduction to her 2012 collection Watching While Black, the focus on a narrow canon of texts “serves to perpetuate the idea of a homogeneity of taste, experience, desire, and outlook that does not exist.” In investigating antihero comedies alongside dramas, we target a larger, more representative selection of shows that have appealed to audiences who do not ascribe to the same generic boundaries that scholars often do.
While our focus on drama and comedy means an enlarged scope of study, this book also contains the inevitable exclusions. The dramas we examine pivot around women in government and leadership positions, necessarily leaving out important antihero fare like Weeds (Showtime, 2005–2012), Damages, Orange Is the New Black, How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, 2014–2020), Empire (Fox, 2015–2020), and The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2017–present). The comedies we examine follow the tradition of the single-girl sitcom, which means we don’t look at marital or family-themed shows like Nurse Jackie (Showtime, 2009–2015), I Love Dick (Amazon, 2016–2017), Transparent (Amazon, 2014–2019), and Good Girls (NBC, 2018–present). To make our task manageable, we’ve also limited our purview to US programming, which excludes wonderful antihero series like I May Destroy You (BBC One, 2020), Killing Eve (BBC America, 2018–present), Fleabag (BBC Three, 2016–2019), Chewing Gum (E4, 2015–2017), Derry Girls (Channel 4, 2018–present), and This Way Up (Channel 4, 2019–present). This plethora of programming simply serves to reinforce our point—that the new millennium has brought with it a bevy of disruptive women deserving of our critical attention.
Part 1 of this book—“ Ambition TV”—examines four antihero dramas in which the striving female protagonist is closely aligned with state power. Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones), Elizabeth Jennings (The Americans), Olivia Pope (Scandal), and Carrie Mathison (Homeland) are all supremely competent women in positions of government leadership or influence. And yet, even as they carry out the work of the state, they stand against its interests, eager to counter its most hallowed assumptions and institutions. Elizabeth Jennings, for example, is a ruthless defender of her country, but our analysis reveals how her nationalism is utterly incompatible with the norms of heterosexual marriage. Homeland’s Carrie Mathison is second to none in her position as CIA operative, but her tactics include sleeping with married men and targeting the nuclear family. These shows position their female leads as superheroes of sorts—since their physical strength and commitment to their cause is unwavering—but our analysis reveals this unflagging dedication as inconsistent with the standards and mores of the worlds in which they live, so that to save their societies is also ultimately to bring them down. The popularity of these shows reveals an appetite for fictions of female ascendance and nonconformity, yet each of these series ends in some form of failure for the protagonist, laying bare the current moment’s fierce ambivalence about women’s leadership. On the surface, these dramas seem like celebrations, but our readings highlight the insidious way misogyny works to undermine the antisociality promised by these fictions, to block even our cultural imaginations from envisioning a form of female autonomy with staying power.
Part 2 of this book—“ Shame TV”—pivots from drama to comedy, examining female antiheroes that gravitate toward aimlessness, shame, and self-sabotage. Hannah Horvath (Girls), Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler (Broad City), Issa Dee (Insecure), and Bridgette Bird (SMILF) represent a sharp departure from the leads of single-girl sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970–1977), Murphy Brown, and Sex and the City. These earlier series starred plucky heroines deeply invested in both their jobs and their romantic relationships. They were aspirational figures meant to embody the goals of mainstream feminism, often summed up as “having it all.” The comedic antihero, by contrast, rejects conventional notions of success and often willingly participates in her own humiliation (although to different extents, depending on race and class). She represents a new kind of female protagonist—pleasure seeking and anti-aspirational, motivated neither by the marriage plot nor by the traditional career trajectory. We argue that these noncompliant TV heroines are a direct response to their plucky predecessors, pushing against traditional notions of normative female behavior in important ways. At a time when women are being encouraged to “lean in”—to advance themselves both at work and in their private lives—the aimless protagonists of Shame TV resist the lure of careerism and reproductive futurity, embracing the value of in-the-minute experience instead. According to this reading, anti-aspirationalism is not simply nihilism; rather, it represents a value system whose rewards are tied to adventure, presentism, and female community.
If the antiheroes of part 1 of this book respond to the pressures of the twenty-first century with lawlessness and power grabs, the antiheroes of part 2 respond by refusing to play the game altogether, a departure from the participatory and pro-social approach of an earlier era. Single-girl sitcoms have traditionally operated within the broad generic confines of the romantic comedy, fundamentally optimistic in their outlook, tending toward convivial resolutions for their can-do protagonists. Shame TV offers us something different—young women who rebel against conformist optimism and instead embrace imperfection and unruliness, often in the context of best friends and female solidarity. These figures offer an even more bracing challenge to the status quo than do the antiheroes of television dramas, because they suggest that indifference (rather than violence, ambition, and spycraft) may be the most effective means of undermining patriarchy. In imagining an alternate kind of freedom for the female protagonist—freedom from neoliberal expectations of productivity and the guilt and isolation that often follow our failure to meet them—Shame TV creates an important feminist television for the twenty-first century.
Sarah Hagelin is associate professor of English and director of women’s and gender studies at the University of Colorado Denver. She is the author of Reel Vulnerability: Power, Pain, and Gender in Contemporary American Film and Television.
Gillian Silverman is associate professor of English and director of graduate studies at the University of Colorado Denver. She is the author of Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America.
Reprinted with permission from The New Female Antihero: The Disruptive Women of Twenty-First Century US Television by Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman, published by the University of Chicago Press. ⒸThe University of Chicago. All Rights Reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. [Images and footnotes omitted.]