The New Female Antihero, by Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman

Catherine Rottenberg enjoys an analysis of a new generation of characters who are transforming the narrative possibilities for women on screen

January 20, 2022
The cast of HBO series Girls illustrating a review of “The New Female Antihero: The Disruptive Women of Twenty‑First-Century US Television” by By Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman
Source: HBO
21st-century anti-heroines: the cast of ‘Girls’

In recent years, we have witnessed a fascinating trend: the explosion of strong and norm-defying female protagonists on prime-time television. Eschewing traditional femininity, the central character in these series is self-absorbed and her actions are often morally dubious. She is also quite unlikeable. And yet, even as she breaks all the rules, and occasionally kills people in cold blood, we cheer her on.

From the single-minded and ruthless Elizabeth Jennings – a KGB spy posing as an American suburban mother and wife – in The Americans (2013-18) to the anti-aspirational and pleasure-seeking Hannah Horvath in Girls (2012-17), these women are, as Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman brilliantly argue, our 21st-century anti-heroes.

Indeed, the most popular female characters today are not the “wide-eyed and winsome” Ally McBeal types who populated our small screen in the 1990s and early 21st century. Rather, they are women who are antisocial, refuse the role of caregiver and have no qualms about flouting gender expectations. The list of such protagonists is increasingly long, from Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones (2011-19) and Carrie Mathison in Homeland (2011-20) to Issa Dee of Insecure (2016-) and Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler in Broad City (2014-19). These women are no longer the wives of or sidekicks to the main male protagonists, like Skyler White in Breaking Bad (2008-13) or Carmela Soprano in The Sopranos (1997-2007), but are themselves the anti-heroes and occupy front and centre stage.

Hagelin and Silverman define the anti-hero as a character who “undercuts the common good either through explicitly criminal acts or through pointedly solipsistic behaviors”. There is, of course, an important gendered element to the anti-hero. Because on some level we expect men to be violent and rule-breaking and even tolerate such behaviour in male protagonists, the authors contend that it is frequently more difficult for them to reach the status of anti-hero. By contrast, because audiences continue to “expect compliance from women”, they are more easily labelled as anti-heroes.

There is also a crucial racialised aspect to the female anti-hero. This is not only owing to the fact that, historically, notions of ideal femininity have been closely linked to white supremacy, but also to the reality that even today the cultural stakes for rejecting respectability politics are much higher for African American women.

This background explains why Don Draper of Mad Men (2007-15) is seldom understood as an anti-hero despite his womanising, alcoholism and general absenteeism, and why Betty Draper, because of her careless mothering, regularly is (at least in media commentary). It also explains why black female anti-heroes Olivia Pope in Scandal (2012-18) and Issa Rae in Insecure have a more complex cultural terrain to navigate and cannot “let loose” on prime-time television in quite the same way as their white counterparts can and do.

Yet, according to Hagelin and Silverman, to be considered a “real” female anti-hero, characters have both to be the protagonists of their series and to actively and continuously repudiate conventional womanhood (ruling out Betty Draper). After all, as the authors rightly point out, when women refuse to carry out the role of social reproduction and care work, this is more likely to be transgressive and disruptive of the status quo than when men go rogue.

Framing is crucial. Classifying female protagonists such as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones and Olivia Pope in Scandal as anti-heroes rather than villains underscores their resistance to oppressive or questionable social norms rather than their alignment with evil. The category of anti-hero is important, in other words, because it helps us to understand the particular kind of cultural work that these characters perform for their viewers.

The New Female Antihero expertly tracks and analyses the development of these new protagonists in American television from 2011 to the present day, arguing that they “represent an alternative for viewers at once beset by the mounting demands placed on young women and tired of watching men have all the fun”. The female anti-hero, in both her dramatic and comic form, then, reflects and reproduces the profound cultural ambivalence around dominant Anglo-American narratives of contemporary female accomplishment, and the possibility – and indeed the desirability – of “having it all”, namely a successful career and a happy family life. The female anti-hero calls into question this progress narrative by embracing antisociality and solipsistic ruthlessness or, alternatively, by renouncing career ambitions and long-term relationships in favour of female bonding, adventure and sensual gratification.

Particularly interesting in this regard is the insightful distinction the authors make between the ways in which the female anti-hero operates in dramatic and comedic series. To sketch and thus demonstrate this difference, Hagelin and Silverman divide their analysis into two parts. The first focuses on female anti-heroes in four drama series: Game of Thrones, The Americans, Scandal and Homeland. This part is titled “Ambition TV”, highlighting how the female protagonists in these series attempt to achieve female empowerment while displaying superhuman strength and, for the most part, rejecting vulnerability. The second part is titled “Shame TV” and examines comic representations of the female anti-hero in Girls, Broad City, Insecure and SMILF, (2017-19), homing in on how these shows embrace imperfection and unruliness, most often in the context of female solidarity.

Through its detailed analyses of how the different anti-heroes are depicted and these protagonists’ plot trajectories, the book reveals how the two genres reflect and reproduce the two poles of ambivalence, ie, attraction and repulsion. In drama, characters such as Daenerys Targaryen and Olivia Pope are positioned as powerful and influential, emphasising the incredibly seductive nature of the ostensibly post-racial contemporary exhortations to women to cultivate ambition and self-empowerment. By contrast, in Broad City, Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler refuse careerism and heteronormative domesticity (what is called “reproductive futurity” in the academic literature), thus advancing a totally different value system, including adventure, living in the present and the importance of female community.

The juxtaposition of comic and dramatic female anti-heroes is revealing in other ways as well. While dramatic female anti-heroes are indeed ambitious and empowered, the authors write, the methods they use are “so unorthodox and their ethical barometers so compromised that they end up inverting the very world they claim they want to redeem”. Each of the drama series concludes in some kind of failure for their female protagonists; this, in turn, reflects the political reality where the promise of women having it all remains elusive. Yet, when read together with their counterparts, these dramatic failures can be seen to set the stage for the comedic anti-hero who rejects the liberal feminist narrative of success wholesale. It is in these female anti-heroes’ renunciation of “having it all” that, according to Hagelin and Silverman, we see the possibility of a more radical feminist critique and resistance. This is a vision outside capitalist accumulation and heteronormativity. It is a vision of female bonding, solidarity and adventure. It is also a vision about creating art out of what society considers to be “failure”.

Whether such a feminist vision is enough to transform the world is questionable. But this book undoubtedly transforms the way in which we understand the rise of the new and captivating female anti-heroes.

Catherine Rottenberg is an associate professor in the department of American and Canadian studies at the University of Nottingham, author of The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (2018) and a co-author of The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (2020).

The New Female Antihero: The Disruptive Women of Twenty-First-Century US Television
By Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman
University of Chicago Press, 288pp, £19.59
ISBN 9780226816401
Published 21 January 2022

The authors

Sarah Hagelin, associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver, was born in Phoenix, Arizona, where her father, serving in the air force, was stationed, and she lived in many different places as a child. She did her first degree at Gonzaga University, a small Jesuit university in Washington State, where she says she was deeply shaped by its “mission of social justice and the education of the ‘whole person’”, as well as by the “feminist nuns and liberation theologians” in the religious studies department. Her first book, Reel Vulnerability: Power, Pain and Gender in Contemporary American Film and Television (2013), explored “westerns, war films and images of the body in pain”.

Gillian Silverman, also associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver, was born and raised in New York City by two Freudian analysts. She went to Brown University as an undergraduate and Duke University as a graduate student and recalls that “the brilliant faculty” in both places “taught me to take popular culture seriously…books and TV are important not so much for the stories they tell but for what they make readers and spectators feel” – a central theme of both Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America (2012) and now The New Female Antihero.

Asked about the appeal of the characters they write about, Hagelin says: “Women are surrounded by images of good-girl striving and plucky optimism in the face of economic precarity and continuing inequality. There’s something powerful in the female anti-hero’s willingness to walk away from the achievement mandate – to choose adventure, imagination and community over the traditional markers of success in a capitalist society.”

“For young girls raised on an aspirational diet of fitness, autonomy and professionalism,” agrees Silverman, “it’s helpful to see women on television who utterly reject this ideal and live to tell the tale – and laugh!”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: They’ve had it with having it all

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