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Heroic Anxiety in the Age of Social Media

The New Female Antihero:
The Disruptive Women of Twenty-First-Century US Television
by Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman
University of Chicago Press, 2022, 288 pages

There is a strange feedback loop between our institutions and the internet: the internet spreads mental illness like a plague and our institutions codify the latest psychosis. In pop culture, this dynamic created critical barista theory, in which the language of high criticism is used to articulate pop culture preferences. Critical barista theory emerged from left-wing internet spaces like Tumblr, where millennials used the university’s language of critique to pretend that their personal interests and pathologies were actually the march of the Weltgeist. What started in the spirit of irony mutated as it was pumped back into cultural institutions. Now, there is a strange insistence that the most ephemeral products of the culture industry must be treated as sophisticated chal­lenges to an oppressive past. Publications once staffed by serious people now produce articles about how increasingly inane pop culture really offers a transgressive critique of the cisheteropatriarchy.

Though many seem to earnestly believe in the praxis of such critiques, there is still a superficial spirit of irony involved, and the absurdity is often the point. It’s fun to make outrageous assertions, and it’s fun to defend them against the inevitable conservative backlash. The increasingly perfunctory conservative response to all this is crucial. It provides coherence to a value system based on negating an imagined past. This dynamic makes it difficult to directly state the central criticism of a book like The New Female Antihero: namely, that it is silly.

Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman, two English professors at the University of Colorado–Denver, have written a book about female anti­heroes in 2010s television shows. The truncated version of the review is simple: LOL. Pretty much anything else—a book about performing yo-yo tricks while on ketamine, for instance, or the life philosophy of Dennis Quaid—would be less inane. Yet, despite itself, the book may have accidentally uncovered something important.

The Duty to Transgress

The New Female Antihero is a series of loosely connected essays built on the contention that female television characters fundamentally changed in the past ten years. “For viewers like us—raised on Mary Tyler Moore, Roseanne Barr, and Ellen DeGeneres—this [new] kind of female figure is thoroughly unfamiliar. . . . What passed for transgression [in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s] seems, from the vantage point of today, to be deeply conventional.” The shows examined are Game of Thrones, The Americans, Scandal, Homeland, Girls, Broad City, Insecure, and smilf.

Today’s “transgressive” characters are categorized as the new female antiheroes. According to the authors, an antihero is primarily defined by moral ambiguity. These figures supposedly reject virtue, social responsibility, and the “burdens of a ‘civilized’ society that fall disproportionately on women.” This antihero framework contains a major flaw that renders many of the book’s assertions hollow. Nevertheless, these protagonists might actually represent a fundamental shift in society—just not in the way the authors think.

The book’s “antihero” framework eventually becomes untenable because it contains a contradiction: the authors treat “transgression” itself as a virtue and a social responsibility. The traditional cinematic hero is defined early on as a protagonist who brings relief to oppression, and the antihero is introduced in contrast to this ideal. Yet the authors argue extensively that their antiheros also upend oppressive systems. “The disruptive women of twenty-first-century television thus constitute a challenge to the status quo and a revolt against the burdens of being female in contemporary America.” Pop culture revolves around fake rebellions, and “revolution” or “transgression” against already toppled hierarchies is the last recognized claim to authority. The true status quo is permanent, oligarch-approved rebellion. The authors affirm this in their final chapter.

The last chapter praises Hillary Clinton as the role model for female antiheroes, which undermines any pretext that they are describing something contrary to the status quo or to the worldview of the West­ern elite. The female antihero is essentially a protagonist designed to appeal to affluent white female liberals. The book ends in an elegiac tone and dramatically recounts the episode of Saturday Night Live that aired after the 2016 election, in which a Hillary Clinton impersonator sang “Hallelujah.” Those who are susceptible to secondhand embarrassment should stay far away.

It’s tremendously fun to mock The New Female Antihero, but once the dead conceptual categories are cleared away, it does offer interesting and occasionally trenchant insights. The authors are correct that a fundamental shift has occurred, and the book’s most important con­tribution can be revealed by asking a simple question: Did anything fundamental change in the past decade? Maybe something like an epoch-defining shift in technology?

The smartphone revolution brought the internet into every area of our lives and radically transformed society. The protagonists in The New Female Antihero represent the first attempts at dramatizing this change. These characters reveal how the internet has altered our percep­tion of the world, how it has created subterranean anxieties, and how these twenty-first-century concerns consistently get reframed in the language of the twentieth century. Perhaps most significantly, the internet has altered our perception of the world by changing the public’s relationship to popular culture. The digital medium turns all popular culture into “content” and this blurs the role between creator and critic. And in this sense, The New Female Antihero is itself an artifact of the revolution that is rendering older conceptions of feminism obsolete.

Lena Dunham and Carl Schmitt

Lena Dunham captured something true about millennials in Girls, her HBO series depicting listless women in New York City. In the show’s first season, the protagonist Hannah, played by Dunham, is an aspiring writer who continually embarrasses herself in pursuit of an uninterested man. The authors argue that “the show’s innovative approach to the possibility of shame rewrites cultural mandates around women’s pro­ductivity and self-improvement.” Hannah’s antisocial antics often cause humiliation, but “it is not wholly debilitating . . . because for Hannah, the very conditions that cause shame also produce novelty and adventure, a sense of a life lived spontaneously and shared with others.” She pursues humiliating experiences that induce self-loathing “for the story,” then shares those experiences on social media. The authors write that “the very social medium that exposes her shame can also act as a forum for inclusion and empathy.” This is a nice way of saying that broken people spread their dysfunction online and build “communities” around their personality disorders.

The New Female Antihero claims that Hannah repackages “her relationship to shame, claiming it as part of an adventurous emotional life of which she is the author.” The book attributes this, in part, to the changes in the modern self wrought by Please stop laugh­ing. It sounds absurd to locate this specifically on Twitter, but the authors are correct that the internet has changed how we think about ourselves. They make the important observation that in the “twitter­sphere, humiliation can also be reexperienced differently in the company of others and instantly rewritten as a valued social event.” Millennials coped with their diminished economic opportunities by creating inverted status hierarchies online. Social media allows Hannah to aestheticize her misery, and this observation can be more fully appreciated by turning to an unlikely critic.

The names Lena Dunham and Carl Schmitt have probably never appeared in the same sentence, but in this case the association might be informative. In 1919, Schmitt wrote a polemic against “political romanticism.” For Schmitt, Romanticism began as an aesthetic movement that critiqued the standards of the past without offering new standards of artistic judgement. Because it never introduced new stand­ards, Romantics began to aestheticize all areas of culture. Schmitt connected it to the metaphysics of philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, according to which “God is the final, absolute authority, and the entire world and everything in it are nothing more than an occasion for his sole agency.” Except that in Romanticism, God is replaced with the self. “The romantic subject treats the world as an occasion and an opportunity for his romantic productivity.” It is a metaphysical narcissism that pretends subjective emotional experiences determine reality. Everything becomes aestheticized, mere content for an “endless novel.”

Schmitt’s diagnosis is similar to the authors’ description of how Hannah uses social media to repackage her shame. While the authors connect the idea of the antihero to the idea of a Romantic hero early on in the book, it is not quite right to argue that this represents a new entrant in an unbroken Romantic tradition. Rather, the internet creates an environment conducive to the resurgence of this mentality.

The internet is persistently framed as a location separate from the bodily realm, and in this realm all objects are transformed into “con­tent.” Fantasy television shows, breaking news about massacres, strangers detailing their lowest moments, and forgotten cousins sharing recipes are all experienced in the same manner. It blurs distinctions and makes it easy to become a metaphysical narcissist, which in turn impacts how “content” is produced. This is the ultimate source of why all pop culture has been reduced to an opportunity to make grandiose and absurd claims about pop culture’s political meaning.

Social Media Anxiety

The New Female Antihero is itself an artifact of the way the internet changes our relationship to popular culture because it maintains a steady analytical register that blurs fiction and reality. Of course, we analyze stories in order to make sense of our world, but the book goes further. Characters are conflated with the actresses who play them, and scenarios created in a writers’ room are treated as historical inevitabilities. For example, the book discusses how the actress in the show The Americans once got an ugly haircut. This unfortunate hairstyle is reframed as a flashpoint in feminist history and key to understanding fiction made decades later. There is no attempt to prove that the writers of The Americans cared about celebrity hair news, or knew who the actress would be when they wrote the pilot. The shows aren’t really treated as art to be judged on merit, and there is a gigantic gap where craft analysis should be. The retreat from these types of value judgements perhaps explains why the authors miss the full implications of their insight.

The authors write that “Twitter seems like an especially apt platform for this rethinking of the self. With its continual capacity to refresh and update, the Twitter feed is the obverse of the memoir, emphasizing change rather than continuity and coherence. Its focus is presentist.” This is a misreading. The new digital world encourages a two-step change in how we think about ourselves. Step one is thinking of the internet as a ghostly realm of ephemeral flux. Yell your affirmations into the void and shout your contradictions because you contain beautiful multitudes! Step two is realizing—oh crap!—that it’s all permanent.

As James Poulos has persuasively argued, the digital age is defined by its relationship to machines that remember everything. The internet encourages a ghostly narcissism while simultaneously establishing per­manent records that create new boundaries around self-creation. Han­nah Horvath overcomes shame by reframing her STD as proof of an adventurous life, and that’s fine for her. But a nonfictional character could very well be denied a job today based on social media histories, and someday her application for a mortgage might be declined because a future algorithm finds a significant correlation between contracting HPV and dating coke dealers. This is a cause of tremendous anxiety, and beneath the surface of social media is the fear that the algorithms won’t recognize self-narratives. The new insistence that all pop culture must actually be a sophisticated social critique is perhaps also driven by the knowledge that consumption habits are now recorded.

The Borders of Self-Creation

The tension between Hannah’s “do it for the story” mindset and digital permanence is also the driving force behind the comedies Broad City and smilf, though the authors fail to make the connection. The essays on Broad City and smilf focus on ethnic assimilation, but in reality these shows exemplify the anxiety caused by digital borders around self‑invention. In the essay on Broad City, the authors focus on how Jewish women appropriate the language and style of black America in order to obtain “vicarious access to Otherness (and with it, a psychic exit from normative values).” The show jokes about the difference between the “authentic” Jewishness of those from Long Island and the identities of “WASPier” and “whiter” mainline Jews. Meanwhile, smilf follows an Irish Catholic woman in Boston. The authors call her an “irrepressible id” and connect the show to the “Bridget Films” of early American cinema where the Irish maid was portrayed as a “grotesque inversion of nineteenth-century domestic and feminine norms” that “flouted Victorian codes of proper conduct.” Of course, Jewish and Irish people came to America en masse more than a century ago, and it’s suspicious to suggest that they have thoroughly failed to assimilate or that they are primarily motivated by ethnic insecurity. The explicit reference to the Victorian period indicates that the authors are analyzing a world that does not exist anymore.

The authors consistently bring up “bourgeois decorum” or “bour­geois sensibility,” but what it means to be “bourgeois” today is quite different from what it meant 120 years ago. More than just the simple passing of time, cultural pronouncements about the “bourgeois” are complicated by the obvious fact that an upper class made up of business owners is different from an upper class made up of managers within multinational organizations. Neoconservative cultural critiques were ineffective because they failed to address this. The professional managerial class has distinct values that are tied to how their class functions in society, and this reality is often hidden by their own insecurity. Members of today’s upper class often view themselves as pretenders, and they’re haunted by caricatures of yesteryear’s WASPs, who are persis­tently viewed as America’s exiled royalty. Some contemporary professionals still spend their days emulating Ralph Lauren advertisements from the 1980s, seemingly unaware that these were fantasies used to hawk shirts made in Cambodia. The rest pretend to rebel against cartoon villains from the country club, and don’t understand that anti-bourgeois posturing is the last opiate for the Last Man.

The strange resurgence of ethnic anxiety can be explained by recognizing that the true hallmark of today’s “bourgeois” is the college experience, when students are encouraged to have Hannah Horvath’s “do it for the story” mindset. A person’s early twenties are defined by cultural pressure to act outrageous, and both Broad City and smilf portray women whose past outrageousness follows them as they grow older. Before the internet, most people could forget their days of chaos, or write them off as youthful indiscretions, but now they’re preserved forever. Middle age arrives and millennials pretend to be Kennedys on Instagram, but their facade of sophistication is undermined by the digital preservation of their Chappaquiddick nights. The novel and more challenging problem of digital anxiety is reframed as familiar ethnic anxiety because racial issues introduce firm boundaries and rules.

The essay on Insecure is explicitly about the anxiety caused by digitally disrupted self-narratives. In the show, the protagonist Issa and her best friend Molly commiserate about dating failures at an Ethiopian restaurant, where Issa jokingly uses the phrase “broken pussy.” Later at an open mic night, she repeats the phrase on stage and a video of it goes viral. The authors focus on the idea that the intimate conversation has been moved from a black safe space to a “larger racist culture,” and argue that Issa’s anxiety over the video is caused by “black liberated speech” being introduced to white middle-class coworkers. Again, an obsession with race obscures an obvious example of new digital anxiety.

In a 2004 speech, Alasdair MacIntyre discussed how our society is divided into various compartments that are governed by very different norms of behavior. MacIntyre wrote, “increasingly all our lives are compartmentalized, so that as we move from the home to the workplace, to the meeting of the trade union branch, to the sports club . . . whatever it is, we move into and out of areas each of which has its own autonomous sets of norms, each of which requires of us that we adapt to those norms if we are to be effective in that situation. . . .” But in the years that followed, the internet collapsed these compartments, and society still hasn’t responded.

Profanity is the perfect example of this because it is at once everywhere and forbidden. It’s heard in almost all spaces, and yet there are a few holdouts where it’s considered impolite. The authors describe Issa’s use of the word “pussy” as “black liberated speech,” but it’s absurd to suggest that black people are the only demographic that uses profanity. Others might label the use of this word “locker room talk.”

The scene in Insecure is about the anxiety that happens when digital media bring the norms of one area of life into contact with another. Constant surveillance collapses the walls between compartments, and everyone becomes anxious that their particular liberated speech, or “wrongthink,” will get disseminated and that they will be sorted and categorized. Perhaps the most significant collapsed compartment is the way that the office now bleeds into all areas of life, and this last technological change perhaps provides the underlying motivation for the entire book.

Yesterday’s Propaganda versus Today’s Art

The “girlboss” version of feminism that skyrocketed to prominence in the mid 2010s already feels dated, and kvetching about the patriarchy feels akin to wearing shoulder pads or saying groovy. The arrival of the BlackBerry destroyed the partition between the office and home, and may have created a historic first. Has any other ruling class ever defined status in terms of working like a live-in servant? Conversely, technology also rendered many ostensibly prestigious jobs useless, and many jobs require only a few minutes of real work a week. In retrospect, it’s clear that lifestyle feminism was the last positive story the old order could tell citizens. When we affirm that women are “catching up” to men, we affirm that women must now confront the same crisis of meaninglessness that has defined male depictions of the workplace since the 1990s. Girlboss feminism was propaganda in Jacques Ellul’s sense of the word: an officially sanctioned outlet to deal with the emotional repercussions of living in a society where “work” is staring at a computer screen all day. Being a professional means either working eighty-hour weeks, or creating an eighty-slide deck for the Committee on Reducing Unnecessary Committees. The appropriate response is to shriek, but propaganda provides an alternative. “Yas kween, revolt against the patriarchy!”

The authors defend their project at the outset by writing that “contemporary television . . . is an important site of access for young women curious about feminism.” An ideology that apparently requires fantasy to be relevant to young people results in sentences like, “Barren, masculinized, widowed, and childless, Cersei should be the least-valued woman in Westeros; instead, she is Queen of the Seven Fucking King­doms!”

The twentieth century is over, and it looks increasingly silly as it loiters near the exit. The twenty-first century is in dire need of stories and art that address life in the age of constant anxiety and large-scale self‑delusion. Artists must abjure the at-hand interpretive categories of today’s critics and instead turn to the threadbare verities of the heart that are at the core of all great stories. Only then will we have a new vision of heroism appropriate for our time.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 4 (Winter 2021): 200–8.

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