When we meet Sam, the 40-something protagonist of the HBO dramedy “Somebody Somewhere,” she has returned to her hometown, Manhattan, Kan., to care for her dying sister — and finds herself stuck there, single, unhappy, struggling with aging parents and a dead-end job. While her other sister runs a tchotchkes shop and her friend Joel creates vision boards, Sam seems to be moving away from, rather than toward, the objects of middle-class aspiration: marriage, children, job security.
At one point, she tells Joel she’s going to spend a Saturday writing up her goals and accomplishments, before chucklingly admitting her real plans: “I like to lay around drinking wine in my underwear.”
And why not? It’s a relief to see the women of small-screen comedy and dramedy turning their backs on ambition, personal growth and self-actualization. From “Enlightened” to “Broad City,” from “Girls” to “I May Destroy You,” female protagonists flout expectations that they be hard-working and socially responsible, gravitating instead toward indolence and self-sabotage. They quit their jobs when they get bored; they reject stable relationships, remunerative work and even personal dignity.
It may sound dangerous to celebrate all this narcissism, fecklessness and sloth, but it’s also liberating: Who among us has not wanted to ditch a boring job and set their wellness plans on fire? We were already exhausted before lockdowns and day care closures; now, nearly two years into this pandemic, “it’s as if our whole society is burned out,” wrote Noreen Malone in The New York Times Magazine.
“Somebody Somewhere” is a far cry from the single-girl sitcoms of the past, which have generally followed the arc of the bildungsroman, in which the protagonist develops self-reliance and self-respect, ready to meet the challenges of becoming an adult. These new story lines are, instead, versions of what the feminist scholar Susan Fraiman calls narratives of “unbecoming,” featuring protagonists who undermine their own growth and education, and are more likely to be mired in failure than striving toward wedding rings and corner offices.
Women antiheroes in mythology and literature have generally been murderous (Medea), scheming (Lady Macbeth), or unlikable (Scarlett O’Hara). Those who transgress societal norms, such as Edna Pontellier from “The Awakening” or Lily Bart of “The House of Mirth,” have often ended up dead — not surrounded by a community of like-minded misfits like the one Sam joins in “Somebody Somewhere.” That’s where the antihero of recent TV comedy tends to find her happy ending: in genuine community and friendship. There’s something bracing in this new female figure, and in watching her win on her own terms.
Obnoxious slackers are common enough in male-centered TV comedy. Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Louis C.K. are each defined by their selfishness and incompetence. But similar traits play differently in women; viewers may not warm to these male characters, but they don’t send the actors death threats like those the creator and star of “Girls,” Lena Dunham, has said she received. Female protagonists’ transgressing of gender norms in “unbecoming” narratives seems to anger viewers who desire compliance and amiability in women.
This is the crux of it. Because audiences expect cheery competence from women while tolerating laziness, violence and rule-breaking in men, the female antihero represents a far more profound threat to the status quo.
That status quo, set by the single-girl sitcoms of last century, was in its own time revolutionary, allowing women their own bildungsromans and turning the smart, sassy career woman into a cultural icon. The story begins with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Premiering in 1970, it follows the 30-year-old Mary Richards as she moves to Minneapolis, leaving behind her commitment-phobic boyfriend. She applies for a job as a secretary at a TV station, but she finds that it has been filled. Her sunny disposition earns her an associate producer spot instead. When Mary’s ex-boyfriend recognizes his mistake and tries to win her back, she promptly shows him the door. “Take care of yourself,” he tells her on his way out. “I think I just did,” Mary replies.
The single-girl TV comedies of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s continued in this vein: “Murphy Brown,” “Designing Women,” “Living Single” and “Sex and the City” centered on plucky heroines committed to their careers while energetically seeking romantic relationships. More recent shows such as “New Girl,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Ugly Betty” offered contemporary spins on the formula by focusing on spirited young women who triumph over adversity. Characters like Liz Lemon of “30 Rock,” Leslie Knope of “Parks and Recreation” and Mindy Lahiri of “The Mindy Project” may be messy and demanding, but they’re also professional and upwardly mobile, sporting cute outfits and respectable jobs.
Some 40 years after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in 2012, Lena Dunham changed the narrative with “Girls,” one of the first and most influential “unbecoming” narratives. It too features a young single woman striking out on her own in search of love and opportunity, but there the parallels end. Ms. Dunham’s Hannah Horvath whines and manipulates her way through a landscape of millennial entitlement. Her prioritizing of her own happiness is as transgressive and alluring as her unabashed and frequent on-camera nakedness.
Hannah doesn’t share Mary Richards’s pluck or self-respect. “No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself,” she confesses to her best friend in the show’s first season. Unlike Mary, whose effervescent optimism ensures she will always come out on top, Hannah often races to the bottom. While Mary talks her way into a cool job and dispatches with her prodigal boyfriend in the show’s first episode, Hannah gets fired from her unpaid internship and tolerates petty humiliations at the hands of her callous love interest.
The past few years have seen ever more examples of this new kind of female character — narcissistic, broke and wary of optimism. Shows such as “Fleabag,” “SMILF” and “This Way Up” are the products of the post-recessionary culture of the last decade and a half, when so many people are struggling financially and hard work and drive no longer seem to ensure success (if, indeed, they ever did). If so many of us are wearing ourselves out for corporations that treat workers as disposable, why not just kick back like Sam and drink wine in our underwear?
The heroine of the “unbecoming” narrative puts her likability at risk, a phenomenon that’s amplified for women of color, as illustrated by negative online comments about her appearance that Michaela Coel, the Black British writer, actor and creator of “I May Destroy You,” has endured. Perhaps this helps to explain why so many of TV comedy’s female antiheroes are white. Even worse, their edginess is often defined in relation to more stable characters of color who play sidekicks and foils, if they are present at all.
In the Hulu comedy “Single Drunk Female,” for instance, the white protagonist, Samantha, is surrounded by competent Black characters, from her therapist at rehab to her parole officer to the bar employee who gives her a bucket so that she won’t spray vomit on the wall (again). When Samantha indulges in abjection, her whiteness provides her some protection from scorn.
Samantha, like Sam from “Somebody Somewhere,” is no role model. But that’s precisely the point: At a time when women are being encouraged to rule the world, or, at the very least, expected to keep it together in a still-shaky Covid economy, the “unbecoming” heroine is a timely reminder that women need not be responsible, self-improving and productive to be valued.
And the arc of the unbecoming plot thankfully does not bend toward doom. Indeed, redemption of a different kind awaits the woman who makes space in her life for less conventional priorities. Sam finds it in friendship, and in the community of theater nerds and L.G.B.T.Q. folks at Joel’s weekly “choir practice.”
“I don’t know if I’m really friend material,” Sam confides to Joel at one point. He replies, “I think you’re going to surprise yourself.”
Graphic by Sara Chodosh. Photos: Danielle Levitt/Netflix; Channel 4/Hulu; Hulu; HBO; Gregg DeGuire/WireImage; Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection, via Getty Images; NBCU Photo Bank; Reisig & Taylor/NBCU; Mitchell Haaseth/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal; FOX Image Collection; ABC Photo Archives/Disney; Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG, via Getty Images; CBS; Koury Angelo/Freeform; Amazon; Kevin Estrada/The CW; Daniel Arnold for The New York Times; Lara Solanki/Hulu; Ali Goldstein/NBC; Danielle Levitt/Showtime; Merie Weismiller Wallace/HBO; Craig Blankenhorn/HBO; Paul Redmond/WireImage.
Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman are associate professors of English at the University of Colorado, Denver, and the authors of “The New Female Antihero: The Disruptive Women of Twenty-First-Century US Television,” from which this essay is adapted.
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