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The New Female Antihero

The Disruptive Women of Twenty-First-Century US Television

The New Female Antihero

The Disruptive Women of Twenty-First-Century US Television

The New Female Antihero examines the hard-edged spies, ruthless queens, and entitled slackers of twenty-first-century television.
The last ten years have seen a shift in television storytelling toward increasingly complex storylines and characters. In this study, Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman zoom in on a key figure in this transformation: the archetype of the female antihero. Far from the sunny, sincere, plucky persona once demanded of female characters, the new female antihero is often selfish and deeply unlikeable.
In this entertaining and insightful study, Hagelin and Silverman explore the meanings of this profound change in the role of women characters. In the dramas of the new millennium, they show, the female antihero is ambitious, conniving, even murderous; in comedies, she is self-centered, self-sabotaging, and anti-aspirational. Across genres, these female protagonists eschew the part of good girl or role model. In their rejection of social responsibility, female antiheroes thus represent a more profound threat to the status quo than do their male counterparts. From the devious schemers of Game of Thrones, The Americans, Scandal, and Homeland, to the joyful failures of Girls, Broad City, Insecure, and SMILF, female antiheroes register a deep ambivalence about the promises of liberal feminism. They push back against the myth of the modern-day super-woman—she who “has it all”—and in so doing, they give us new ways of imagining women’s lives in contemporary America.


“Hagelin and Silverman take a look at the transgressive women characters who have made their mark on American television in the last decade. . . . An excellent exploration of female characters in television who don't abide by societal norms.”


The New Female Antihero is strongest when it examines something segment by segment. . . . At their best, the authors are connoisseurs of a very specific emotion—shame—and they follow its faint imprint from show to show, body to body.”

The New York Times

"In this thoroughly researched, clearly written book, [Hagelin and Silverman] state that—although TV in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s saw nuanced depictions of women (e.g., The Mary Tyler Moore Show)—the women antiheroes of more recent TV are radically different. . . . This extremely thought-provoking look at radical changes in depictions of women on TV will appeal to readers interested in media and cultural theory."

Library Journal, starred review

“Hagelin and Silverman adeptly analyze a set of highly regarded, well-watched, and much talked about television series, setting a high standard of originality, soundness, and rigor throughout. It is difficult to write about television as clearly, effectively and efficiently as they do here.”

Diane Negra, University College Dublin

“Though nearly ubiquitous in twenty-first-century US television, the irascible and at times indifferent female antihero has yet to be given her due. Hagelin and Silverman ably fill in this void, putting ambitious and lawless magnates in conversation with their comedic counterparts, figures who prefer self-involvement to striving. Hagelin and Silverman read this new brand of antihero as nothing less than a referendum on liberal feminism.”

Suzanne Leonard, Simmons University

“After years of scholarship about male antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White, we finally have a book that takes a systematic look at the difference gender makes. Hagelin and Silverman help us think through what makes Daenerys Targaryen, Oliva Pope, and the floundering women in ‘Shame TV’ comedies so compelling. Their transgressions help us imagine better feminist worlds despite (and through) their flaws and failures.”

Rebecca Wanzo, Washington University in St. Louis

“If you love television’s bad women more than you should, you’ll love The New Female Antihero, which opens up this topic in exciting and original ways. Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman rethink this edgy character through race as well as gender, upping the stakes on why television’s transgressive women are important. By including the hit comedies Broad City and Girls alongside series about killers and assassins, Hagelin and Silverman reveal the larger implications of these unruly women as threats to traditional femininity. You’ll never watch TV’s difficult women in quite the same way again.”

Linda Mizejewski, Ohio State University

"In recent years, we have witnessed a fascinating trend: the explosion of strong and norm-defying female protagonists on prime-time television. These women are, as Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman brilliantly argue, our 21st-century anti-heroes. . . . This book undoubtedly transforms the way in which we understand the rise of the new and captivating female anti-heroes."

Catherine Rottenberg | Times Higher Education

"Hagelin and Silverman’s analysis shows the importance of the female antihero for 21st-century feminist thought. Recommended."


"Hagelin and Silverman have produced a jargon-free and engaging study to appreciate and admire the flawed women on TV... Moreover, the book is extremely resourceful in understanding the genealogy of feminist research in drama and comedy."

New Review of Film and Television Studies

Table of Contents

Introduction: The New Female Antihero—The What, the Why, the How

Part 1: Ambition TV

1. The Limits of the Female Antihero in Game of Thrones
2. The Impossibility of the Marriage Plot in The Americans
3. Scandal and the Failure of Postracial Fantasy
4. Homeland and the Rejection of the Domestic Plot

Part 2: Shame TV

5. Feminist Anti-Aspirationalism in Girls
6. Liberation and Whiteness in Broad City
7. The Difference That Race Makes in Insecure
8. Working-Class Identity and Matriarchal Community in SMILF



PCA/ACA Women's Caucus: Susan Koppelman Award

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