Over the last twenty years a certain kind of programming widely credited with the label “quality television” and emblematized by series like Mad Men (2007-15), The Wire (2002-08), The Sopranos (1999-2007), Breaking Bad (2008-13), and Sons of Anarchy (2008-14) has acquired high cultural value for the creative personnel associated with it and the audiences attributed with discernment for their attraction to the form. Praise for this cycle of quality television (QTV) often starts by positively comparing these series and others like them to higher-status cultural forms, calling their aesthetics “cinematic” and their complexity “novelistic,” and thus distancing them from the historically feminized (and feminist) discourses of television studies (see, e.g., Doherty 2013; McCabe and Akass 2007; Mittell 2015; Smith 2013). As these series have come to anchor middle-class taste formations and cultural literacies, certain presumptions about art and about gender have been attached to them, including the one that particularly concerns us—the until recently relatively uncontroversial assumption that male perspectival centrality is one of the hallmarks of so-called QTV. That perspective, upheld in books like Brett Martin’s Difficult Men, a discussion of the psychologies of male showrunner “geniuses” associated with many of the series mentioned above, has also been less blatantly showcased in academic accounts (2013).

Only approaching the second decade of the twenty-first century have we seen the large-scale emergence of a set of critically acclaimed series whose emphatic female centrality rebuts the still often taken-for-granted (white) masculinity of so-called QTV.[1] Prominent examples include series like The Good Wife (2009-), Homeland (2011-), Orange is the New Black (2013-), Girls (2012-), Nurse Jackie (2009-15), The Honourable Woman (2014), Veep (2012-), Scandal (2012-), and others (see Appendix for brief descriptions of these series and others discussed throughout). These series in some ways conform to accepted definitions of QTV, but feature female leads and boast large female audiences; they also enjoy a cultural prominence and critical regard which stands in marked contrast to female-centered television of earlier eras.[2] The advent of this set of shows can be contextualized as part of what, theorizing the history of US television, Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine outline as a gradual process of legitimation whereby serial drama in particular has metamorphosed from earlier, despised feminized forms such as daytime soaps to the prestige event television now broadly understood as QTV (2011; see also Berlatsky 2015).[3]

Viewing that process from a feminist standpoint, it is apparent that QTV series first earned their prestige laurels on the backs of male leads and showrunners, and only then broadened to include women-centered shows such as those mentioned above. Without getting embroiled in debates about the nature of televisual quality, we undertake to examine the distinctiveness of the series denominated here and to argue that a post-2008 cultural context unifies them thematically and ideologically. The critical mass of female-centered TV notably forms around 2008, in the years immediately following the global financial crisis, the effects of which have been well-documented within media studies (Negra and Tasker 2014; Bramall 2013; Leyda 2016 and 2014). In an effort to more clearly articulate the conditions of possibility for this new development, we argue that the interdependent affective ecologies of austerity, precarity, and financialization now distinctly inflect Anglo-American female-centered television.

As critical finance studies scholar Fiona Allon argues, the ongoing and escalating process of financialization that commenced in the 1990s is a major cultural as well as economic phenomenon, operating as “a dominant ‘structure of feeling’ in everyday life, and playing a prominent role not just in formal financial institutions and centers but also in everyday spaces such as the home, the workplace, and the lifeworld more generally” (2010, 372; see also Hayward 2010; Illouz 2007; Langley 2007). This article addresses a set of female-centered television series that arrived at a time of mass disenchantment with capitalism coupled with a sense of its systemic intransigence. The coalescing of these series rather precisely coincides with a post-global financial crisis moment in which the experience of precarity has crept into the middle classes, in which modes of economic subjectivity that might once have been counterbalanced by other forms of selfhood have attained pre-eminence, and in which market logics have decisively overtaken other, previously distinct, value systems and worldviews. Thus, notable features of this cluster of texts include their awareness of a new economic and cultural regime, a tendency to take as a given the fact that women’s working lives entail a struggle with openly corrupt and structurally racist capitalist practices, and the co-presentation of female empowerment with acquiescence to the structural status quo.

Amidst heightened awareness of capitalism’s hierarchies and deficiencies, a pronounced feature of the post-financial crisis cultural environment has been the emergence of two distinct forms of popular feminism: celebrity feminism associated with business moguls like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and pop stars like Beyoncé, and new vernacular feminisms of a kind that have not been seen since the height of the second wave and which are given impetus through social media.[4] For us, feminisms of privilege operate in complex ways as feints to reinforce and repurpose class and race hegemonies. They are, in Catherine Rottenberg’s words, part of “an on-going cultural process in which mainstream liberal feminism is being disarticulated and transmuted into a particular mode of neoliberal governmentality” (2014, 419; see also Slaughter 2015). One function of these feminisms of privilege is, similar to Robin James’s description of resistance discourses more generally, to “transform traditional feminist and anti-racist methods of resisting oppression into techniques for reinforcing and augmenting the very oppressive institutions these methods were originally designed to resist” (2015, 7). Iconic figures of the new celebrity feminism leverage a de-collectivized and in many ways perverse version of the movement for gender equality to make a virtue of neoliberal, individualized female overcoming. By contrast, the appearance of hashtag feminisms like #YesAllWomen and #Hollaback, the rise of protest movements like Slutwalk and Femen, and the proliferation in popular discourse of neologisms like “manspreading” and “mansplaining,” all vividly attest to the reinvigoration of collective feminist protest.

Our sense is that the recent recalibration of feminism’s place in popular culture is a product of the same forces at work in the operating logics of these television series. On a smaller scale, their white female leads mimic some of the class and race privilege so conspicuously displayed by celebrity feminists.[5] Their accomplishments are framed as “bootstrap” feminist success stories, although their success usually depends on the enabling work of supporting characters who, with troubling frequency, are people of color. In the first season of Weeds (2005-2012), for example, Nancy Botwin’s (Mary-Louise Parker) entrepreneurial success is in part possible because of the emotional support and business expertise provided by her pot supplier and eventual romantic partner, Conrad Shepard (Romany Malco), an African American man. Despite his prodigious contributions to her growing business, Conrad himself never reaps comparable profits (see also James 2015). Similar dynamics structure the relationship between Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and her law firm’s investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi) in The Good Wife, where Kalinda typically engages with seamy and sordid characters, makes frequent forays into Chicago’s criminal underworld, and performs other actions to keep Alicia “clean.”

Weeds actors

Weeds typifies new female-centered television in associating entrepreneurialism with race privilege. (S1E3 “Good Sh*t Lollipop”)

Recasting and Revising Postfeminism

The period between 1990 and 2008 has been characterized by many critics as fundamentally postfeminist in orientation, although like any cultural phenomenon, postfeminism evades easy periodization and continues to manifest even as it is being superseded (Gill 2007, McRobbie 2004, Negra and Tasker 2014). Postfeminist cultural life has been marked by a reverence for corporate and technocratic modes of assessment and value, within a broader context of the proliferation of financialized subjectivities.[6] Enabled by the appearance of seemingly significant and durable prosperity and emerging in the midst of a broad cultural turn towards the conservative embrace of family values and roles, neoliberal economics, and a widespread cultural distaste for the political goals of feminism, this postfeminist sensibility, as Rosalind Gill notes, has been both diffuse and highly effective in regulating gender norms (2007). Angela McRobbie further observes that “through an array of machinations, elements of contemporary popular culture are perniciously effective in regard to this undoing of feminism” (2004, 255). Thus, under postfeminism, feminism is heavily stigmatized (even sometimes paradoxically under the guise of being celebrated), whereas as Diane Negra has written, recent years have been marked by strenuous “efforts to recruit feminism to consolidate normative definitions of success” (2014, 283). Like Meredith Nash and Ruby Grant, we would observe that “feminist engagement with post-feminism is multiple and shifting and that the breadth of issues involved in feminist identification is much broader and more complex in the current moment” (2015, 13).

The series we are analyzing here offer evidence that some established protocols of postfeminist representation are subsiding. Millennial network dramas like Judging Amy (1999-2005) and Providence (1999-2002) favored a narrative strategy Negra has identified as “retreatism,” in which an urban professional lead returned to her hometown, moved in with her family and downsized her ambitions, thus resolving “work-life” dilemmas in one-sided and highly conservative ways (2008). New female-centered TV may be just as obsessed with “work-life balance” as earlier series, but it tends to inflect this dynamic in new and noteworthy ways. Female characters’ home lives in the newer series are constantly being drawn into their work lives and vice versa; for example, in The Good Wife, Alicia’s children Zack (Graham Phillips) and Grace (Makenzie Vega) are constantly recruited to solve her work-related dilemmas, and Alicia’s work moves repeatedly into the family home, as she undertakes political campaigning and the formation of a new law firm from her living room. In series like The Honourable Woman, Homeland, and Scandal, for example, any easy disentanglement of work and home life becomes impossible; these women’s personal and family lives are thoroughly enmeshed.

A post-financial crash sensitivity to economic stress seems to have reduced the credibility of the retreatist plot: in contrast to the heavy romanticization of maternalism that often characterizes postfeminist popular culture, these series manifest less sentimental emotional logics. Lead women frequently leave their children in another’s care as they devote all available energy to the demands of their jobs or other matters central to their survival. The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick relies on her mother-in-law to babysit when she resumes her legal career, while Homeland’s Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) leaves her newborn with her sister (Amy Hargreaves) to accept an overseas station chief post in Karachi. In The Honourable Woman, Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) publicly disavows her maternity and allows her friend and family employee Atika (Lubna Azabal) to raise her child in order to preserve Nessa’s authority as head of the family company. In Veep, Vice President Selina Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) comfort level with instrumentalizing her daughter as political capital attests to a new pragmatism about work-life balance and a new moral flexibility that punctures the postfeminist credo that motherhood trumps all other forms of female identity.[7] Strikingly these choices are neither warmly regarded nor ferociously critiqued.

Veep TV show

Veep’s Selina Meyer operates in a climate in which even her daughter must be instrumentalized as political capital. (S2E8 “First Response”)

As the process of financialization continues to escalate in the wake of the financial crisis, the already pronounced imbrication of financial language and market logics with private life reaches new levels of intensity. Precarity as a condition of economic existence is now seen to define the lives of women in particular who are routinely cast as adaptive responders to recessionary exigencies. This emphasis on adaptability and competence in the face of precarity and evidence that neoliberalism has replaced post-war social democratic fantasies of “the good life” is what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism” (2011). As Julie Ann Wilson and Emily Chivers Yochim have observed, “Privatized risk makes personal responsibility the new means of social insurance; in turn, practices of everyday life become synonymous with risk management” (2015, 673).

Along similar theoretical lines, one feature of the new precarity is the widespread deployment of the notion of “resilience,” originally a concept in the social sciences, that signifies the ability of a community to bounce back after a disaster, which moved “fairly swiftly from thinking about the dynamics of systems to emphasizing individual responsibility, adaptability, and preparedness” (Joseph 2013, 40). In its increasingly neoliberal applications, resilience can clearly serve as a buttress to support the image of celebrity feminists as individualistic heroines who have overcome gender oppression thanks to their own strength and determination, and thus can become celebrated role models. As Robin James has argued, “the resilience discourse normalizes the sexist, racist damage traditional white supremacist patriarchy inflicts on white women and people of color as the ultimately innocuous damage that they are individually responsible for overcoming” (2015, 7; see also Chapter 3). The new affective economies thus mandate a particularly female resilience, one that has both private and public dimensions, usually complexly intermingled. Thus, it not surprising that the thematics of resilience are critical to the narrative operations of the series we analyze here. For instance, the opening salvo of The Good Wife is to suddenly and rapidly destabilize the life of stay-at-home mother Alicia Florrick when her politician husband’s sexual affairs are spectacularly brought to light. In a reversal of the postfeminist retreatist narrative, Alicia is then forced to sell her large suburban home, return to work as a lawyer, and move with her two teenage children to an apartment in downtown Chicago. 

In stark contrast, landmark female-centered series Sex and the City (1998-2004) matched (white, middle-class) female empowerment with an unwavering economic confidence; in it, fantasies of consumerism and decisive femininity consistently alleviate any emergent ideological tensions. The hyper-feminine and consumerist dream-worlds of Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) clash markedly with the economic duress and ideological tribulations showcased in the more recent set of TV series we discuss here, but some transitional texts may also be identified. In Weeds, for instance, pot-growing entrepreneurialism opens up an avenue for a widowed housewife seeking to maintain her family’s standard of living in dystopic suburban California. Other conspicuously female-centered series of the pre-recessionary era, such as Alias (2001-2006), sought to process geopolitical tensions and, while manifesting distrust of US governmental agencies and authority, ultimately reassembled notions of family and government, rendering them in many ways structurally equivalent.

Sex in the City tv show

The hyper-feminine, consumerist dreamworlds of millennial television series like Sex and the City have given way more recently to scenarios of economic duress.

Televisual Femininity and Institutional Normativity

A typical premise in the newer set of series emphasizes the (misguided) idealism and purposefulness of a female lead working in some form of institutional context. These shows are distinguished by a focal figure who increasingly adheres to institutional norms, a development which can be read along a spectrum ranging from moral tragedy to pragmatic necessity. For instance, through experiences of violence and family betrayal, The Honourable Woman’s Nessa Stein learns the impossibility of escaping dynamics of corruption. She initially insists upon absolute transparency and even-handedness in her family’s Middle East business dealings; although she abhors her brother’s (Andrew Buchan) acquiescence to corrupt practices, she reverses her position of moral authority to protect him and other family members, sacrificing her strong dedication to corporate and personal ethics. By Season 4 of Homeland, Carrie is denominated “the Drone Queen” for her willingness to use that technology in her capacity as Karachi station chief. In the succeeding season, when she becomes convinced that someone is trying to kill her, Carrie enumerates a vast list of people likely to have a motive (in part because of the number of targeted CIA killings she authorized), leading her boyfriend Jonas (Alexander Fehling) to say to her, “I don’t know how you live with yourself,” a dialogue line that was deemed sufficiently important it was added to the series’ credit sequence (S5E3 “Super Powers”). In prison drama Orange is the New Black, middle-class Piper Chapman’s (Taylor Schilling) unexpected imprisonment for her long-ago role as a drug courier radically revises a worldview that is both comfortable and stable as the series begins. This dynamic culminates at the end of season one in Piper’s discovery of the violence she’s capable of doing to defend herself in jail, as she savagely beats fellow inmate Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), apparently to death.[8]

Honorable Woman tv show

In The Honourable Woman, Nessa Stein discovers the impossibility of running her family business in an ethical fashion. (S1E1 “The Empty Chair”)

Adherence to institutional norms entails ongoing situational moralities for the female leads of these series; there is no expectation that the organizations that feature so prominently in their (working) lives are fair or functional. In various ways these series engage with what David Graeber identifies as the extraordinary rise of bureaucracy and the decline of (organized) opposition to it. Their storyworlds vividly reflect a financializing transformation that has entailed in Graeber’s words “convincing the bulk of the middle classes that they had some kind of stake in finance-driven capitalism.” (2015: 20). The successful women in many of these series eventually conclude that they must set aside ethical concerns and conform to the conventions of their professions, usually in pursuit of power and/or profit, even as they recognize the human costs of such acquiescence.

In this context, it is worth noting that the series we identify here typically emphasize white women’s idealism as very much a product of race and class privilege, most often augmented by the physical labor and emotional support of characters of color, as we saw above with Conrad Shepard and Nancy Botwin in Weeds. In the Honourable Woman, Nessa is embroiled in a complex relationship born of shared trauma with and continually juxtaposed to Atika, a Palestinian translator and later housekeeper employed by the Stein family business; Atika’s competence and cynical awareness of on-the-ground political realities in the Middle East foil Nessa’s inexperienced optimism. While the first season of Orange is the New Black took center stage in debates about race and gender, as the show’s focalization around a white middle-class central character living in the midst of a group of women of color drew fire from intersectional feminists in the media and academia (Mustakeem 2015; see also, e.g., Pramaggiore 2014); subsequent seasons have arguably complicated this by more often centering on the other members of the series’ ensemble cast, including the popular transgender character of color Sophia (Laverne Cox).

Across these series, the gravitas and moral rootedness of institutions like law and government is thrown over for consistent depictions of moral uncertainty. The professional punishments repeatedly meted out to Homeland’s Carrie for her investigative effectiveness are symptomatic of a CIA that is entirely bureaucratically dysfunctional and morally bankrupt. The series’ disenchantment with political institutions is so integral to its thought process that when onetime POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is elected to Congress, the series treats his election and political career as shallow stunts illustrative only of a gullible electorate and a political order in which his symbolic value is constantly manipulated. In a similar characterization of Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife, Emily Nussbaum notes that “the higher Alicia climbs–winning the second year slot, making partner, leaving to start a new firm–the more compromised she becomes, and the more at ease with compromise” (2014, 110). She continues, “in 2009, the show might have looked much like an empowerment procedural for the ladies, a Lean In fairy tale about a strong woman who would find her way. Instead, it’s revealed itself to be a sneaky condemnation of pretty much every institution under capitalism” (112). Notably over the series’ now seven seasons Alicia has come to embody the way in which traditional attributions of female victimhood are being revised in female-centered popular culture. As Suzanne Leonard observes, on a broader scale “the wronged wife has been reimagined in the post-Clinton era as a figurehead of a very different sort; one with her own ambitions and goals, whose implied victimization does not capture the complexity and calculation of her position” (forthcoming). The Daedalian, sometimes paradoxical, position of female leads in these series is born out, we maintain, by their highly deliberate handling of female affect, which also works as a further reflection of new anxieties about economic position and institutional power.

The Good Wife tv show

The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick re-enters the job market at midlife, embarking on a legal career that provides little opportunity for straightforward moral conduct. (S2E15 “The Silver Bullet”)

Modulating Female Affect

William Davies observes that, “since the 1960s, Western economies have been afflicted by an acute problem in which they depend more and more on our psychological and emotional engagement (be it with work, with brands, with our own health and well-being) while finding it increasingly hard to sustain this.” (2015, 6). Affective control is one human response to new threats to economic security and social health; it constitutes among other things a refusal to give over one’s emotional resources in institutional contexts marked by corruption and exploitation. As they navigate workplaces of intense competition and stress, the women portrayed in female-centric series must demonstrate the ability to perform composure. Their carefully modulated affect speaks to their commitment to maintaining female public emotional decorum. These series up the ante on a well-established postfeminist dynamic written about by Diane Negra who has claimed that “the affective hallmark of postfeminism is composure” (2008, 139). Typically they rely upon an intense visual economy of recurrent close-ups that privilege subtle female facial responses and concentrate our attention on beautiful, inscrutable faces. The facial responses of leads like Alicia Florrick and Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) in The Fall evince a lack of emotion and consequently invite our awareness of their need to manage and, in some cases, repress “traditional” female emotionality. In many of these series, chic tailoring functions as a conspicuous symbolic correlative for controlled affect. In contrast to the exuberant and excessive fashion (and affects) of Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, perfectly tailored but relatively austere professional women’s wardrobes in The Good Wife, The Honourable Woman, The Fall, and other series signify this newly prominent form of female performance and limited affect. The Fall’s Detective Superintendent Gibson’s creamy silk blouses and ice-blonde hair combine with her cautiously disciplined facial expressions to demonstrate selective deployment of sexuality in careful balance with a steely professionalism. The intensity and control of female affect thus corresponds to an awareness that these women’s professional positions are singular and, in some respects, fragile.

The Fall tv show

Series such as The Fall place strong emphasis on the intensity and control of a professional woman’s affect. (S1E5 “The Vast Abyss”)

These series also either downplay or otherwise marginalize traditionally “feminine” emotional concerns such as intimate domestic relationships; notably unpartnered or problematically partnered women of high professional competence populate the new female-centered television. Indeed, the sites of deepest intimacy in these series tend to be located in the workplace, in friendships of great complexity and depth, and in ill-considered or ill-fated sexual relationships with co-workers. However, these liaisons inevitably occupy lower priorities for the women in these series, for, as Melissa Gregg argues, “if our capacities for intimacy are most regularly exercised in the pursuit of competitive professional profit, we face the prospect of being unable to appreciate the benefits of intimacy for unprofitable purposes” (2011, 18). Typifying this are four quite similar sets of embattled couples whose development arcs have been heavily hyped and emotionally centralized: The Honourable Woman’s Nessa Stein and her steadfast bodyguard Nathaniel Bloom (Tobias Menzies), The Good Wife’s Alicia and her senior colleague Will Gardner (Josh Charles), Scandal’s “political fixer” Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), and Homeland’s Carrie and her asset Nicholas Brody. Despite the centrality of these relationships to the plots of these series, ultimately the female lead’s professional priorities trump investment in and sacrifice for romance. For example, near the end of Homeland’s third season, Carrie presses Brody into service on a mission they both seem to know will lead to his death. In this instance, political priorities clearly outweigh personal concerns as Carrie, pregnant with their child, witnesses Brody’s dramatic execution by public hanging. In Scandal, while Olivia and Fitz fantasize about a hazily utopian domestic future living in rural Vermont in which she would ostensibly keep house and make jam, this scenario is predicated on the inequitable assumption that, while Fitz’s career has come to a triumphant end, Olivia will have chosen to walk away from her highly successful business. Thus when Scandal does present a classic retreatist scenario, it emphatically frames it as a consoling and clearly unrealistic fantasy.

Scandal tv show

In Scandal, as in other recent female-centered series, the sites of deepest intimacy are located in the workplace. (S1E5 “Crash and Burn”)

Even these series’ most lasting relationships don’t culminate in permanent romantic partnerships, and many of the female leads exhibit a tough-minded preference for one-night stands and casual sex rather than romantic emotional intimacy. In contrast to the secure romantic resolutions of earlier series such as Sex and the City, which culminates in the long-deferred commitment of Mr. Big (Chris Noth) to Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Alias, in which Sydney (Jennifer Garner) and Vaughn (Michael Vartan) frolic together with their children in an idealized future, these series don’t regard romance as a panacea. In one vivid example, The Fall’s Stella Gibson exploits her professional seniority at a crime scene to make a sexual overture to a junior police officer (Ben Peel) and the two later enjoy a hotel rendezvous. In Veep, Vice President Selina Meyer is a long-divorced woman whose sexual relationship with her ex-husband (David Pasquesi) is fitfully re-ignited; in the series’ third season, her staff surreptitiously hire a personal trainer (Christopher Meloni) as a casual romantic interest for her.

Alias tv show

After numerous trials and tribulations, lead Sydney Bristow enjoys a happy, settled, future in Alias. (S5E17 “All the Time in the World”)

While romantic relationships are less prominent features of the new female-centered series, familial relationships also frequently take on negative overtones. Fathers or father figures in these series function not in the usual tired quasi-Freudian roles but rather are fully embedded in these women’s work and personal lives. In The Honourable Woman, Nessa Stein’s father (Aidan Stephenson), a prominent Israeli arms manufacturer, was murdered in front of her and her brother when the two were just children. Later she defines her entire life’s mission in contradistinction to her Zionist father’s career, working toward peaceful solutions to the Palestinian crisis in a manifestation of his enduring influence on her value system. Scandal’s Olivia Pope, too, struggles to break out of the gravitational pull of her father’s (Joe Morton) orbit; in later seasons, she works at cross-purposes with him and even suffers direct threats from him, always accompanied by his assertions of paternal love.

Equally illustrating the constant feedback loop of professional and personal concerns in this mode of television, the eighth episode of Homeland’s first season sees Carrie discussing the progress of a case with her mentor, senior CIA operative Saul (Mandy Patinkin), when the conversation takes an abrupt but telling turn:

Saul: The first news reports about [Vice President] Walker hit the air less than five hours ago. We’ve already had nearly two thousand sightings, all of them probably nothing. If I’m Walker I’m burrowing into my hole right now. [When his protégé makes no response] Carrie? We’re going to have tips a mile deep by morning. It’ll be tough to wade through. We’ll need to prioritize.

Carrie: I had a kind of epiphany today.

Saul: About Walker?

Carrie: I wish. No, about me. I’m going to be alone my whole life, aren’t I?

Homeland tv show

As CIA operatives Saul and Carrie discuss professional matters she suddenly shifts the conversation to her personal life. (S1E8 “Achilles Heel”)

This moment, while impactful, registers not as the tragic assessment it would have inevitably been in a straightforwardly postfeminist narrative environment. Instead, it comes across as a powerful refutation of the simplistic and perhaps outdated “work-life” binary, pointing to the utter inseparability of these two realms for Carrie and the other female leads discussed here. Theorizing the obsolescence of such a binary, Melissa Gregg’s concept of “presence bleed” describes a “contemporary office culture where firm boundaries between personal and professional identities no longer apply” (2011, 2). Olivia, Carrie, and Nessa, as well as the other female professionals discussed here, are depicted as living lives marked by presence bleed as a symptom of precarity; even at the level of their thought processes, the personal and professional are totally merged.


Across the category of female-centered television analyzed here, there are deeply threaded connections between women’s work and personal lives to the point that they are entirely conflated. The female leads of many of these series are burdened and troubled by forces that are shown to be systemic and social as often as they are individual. We identify female resilience as a particular dynamic of the post-recession period and argue that its depiction becomes an animating principle across a range of newly celebrated female-centered texts. One feature of earlier female-centered television conspicuously lacking in newer iterations is a commitment to long-term romance and the conviction that stable heterosexual intimacy is an indispensable ingredient in women’s happiness. Unlike prior eras of female-centered television that emphasized working class and collective feminisms, the series we discuss here prioritize affluent, Lean In-style liberal feminisms, often at the expense of collectivity across class and race borders.

Contemporary female-centered television is generating frequent and often important dispatches about women’s relation to new capitalist subjectivities. Indeed, the simultaneous emergence of celebrity feminism and new vernacular feminisms contextualize the representational developments we have charted here. Despite their differences, these markedly disparate forms of popular feminism both come to the fore in tandem with the proliferation of economic distress and disenchantment and both play a part in shaping the precarious structure of feeling manifest in this new female-centered television.



In Alias (2001-06), graduate student Sydney Bristow is recruited to join the CIA and battle the shadowy global crime organization SD-6. As the series progresses, Sydney discovers that her father works for the CIA and her mother for SD-6, embroiling the plot in family melodrama in addition to international intrigue.

Desperate Housewives is set in wealthy, suburban Wisteria Lane. The series focuses on the melodramatic neighborhood conflicts and shifting friendships among a group of women.

The Fall tells the story of English Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, who is brought to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to pursue a misogynist serial killer.

Lena Dunham writes and stars in HBO’s series Girls, about the friendships of four middle-class twenty-something women living in Manhattan and coming to terms with adulthood amidst financial precarity and the prospect of downward mobility.

The Good Wife follows Alicia Florrick as she returns to her career as a lawyer in her forties in the aftermath of her politician husband’s sex scandal and imprisonment.

Homeland, based on the Israeli series Hatufim, follows CIA special agent Carrie Mathison and her asset, former prisoner of war Sgt. Nicholas Brody. Mathison’s bipolar disorder, which she tries to hide from her employers, and her romantic entanglement with Brody call her loyalties to and position in the Agency into question.

The Honourable Woman tells the story of Israeli-English Nessa Stein, a seemingly incorruptible businesswoman and philanthropist, trying to bring peace to Israel and Palestine by investing in education and infrastructure in the region. As the series progresses, each character, even the most trusted and beloved, is revealed to be a liar and Nessa is coerced into corruption herself.

CIA veteran Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), the titular character of Madam Secretary (2014-), is serving as a political science professor when she receives the President's request that she become Secretary of State. Her calm, confident expertise and vast knowledge of the Middle East see her through a succession of crises and conspiracies, while her theology professor husband (Tim Daly) shoulders more domestic duties at home with their two teenaged children. 

The story of Nurse Jackie revolves around lower-middle-class nurse Jackie Peyton’s infidelity to her husband and her ongoing addiction to painkillers.

In Orange is the New Black, white, middle-class, about-to-be-married Piper Chapman is unexpectedly arrested and convicted for her long-ago role as a drug courier. The series tells the story of her imprisonment and introduces us to a wide array of her fellow inmates.

In Scandal, high-powered “fixer” Olivia Pope and her loyal staff manage an ever-proliferating series of Washington political crises. Throughout the series, Olivia also conducts a torrid, tumultuous affair with the sitting President of the United States, her former client Fitzgerald Grant.

Heavily emphasizing romantic and consumerist fantasies, Sex and the City follows 30-something sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw and her three closest friends as they navigate personal and professional relationships in New York City.

Veep follows the comically cynical and inept political career of Selina Meyer as she is elected Vice President and then, when the president steps down to care for his ailing wife, becomes President of the United States.

Nancy Botwin, the lead character in Weeds, supports her two sons by becoming a marijuana dealer after her husband’s sudden death.



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[1] From the earliest debates about definitions of quality TV, gender has been a complicating factor. As Ashley Sayeau points out, because many well-regarded female-centered shows over the years have been comedies (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murphy Brown, Sex and the City), they often failed to garner the kind of critical attention with which dramatic series focalized around male anti-heroes have been showered. The trivialization of Sex and The City extended this tendency even into the hallowed HBO canon. The debate continues over the classification of popular, episodic, "soap"-y network series such as Scandal or The Good Wife as QTV (Leonard, forthcoming; Sayeau 2007).

[2] The work of the actresses who play the leads in these series has been repeatedly recognized with Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The US-based Television Academy has awarded Emmys to Homeland’s Claire Danes and The Good Wife’s Julianna Margulies twice each, and Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus four times. The Golden Globes, awarded by the Hollywood Foreign press, have also honored Claire Danes (twice), Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julianna Margulies.

[3] Several critics have observed the uptick in series that feature "strong female leads" in post-crisis television, including network TV (see e.g. Battles 2015; O'Keeffe 2014).

[4] We are keen not to bifurcate these two emergent feminisms because they share important similarities such as potentials for commodification.

[5] Of the series we discuss, only Scandal has a woman of color as the lead character; Olivia Pope’s racial identity is selectively marked in the series, although her two main love interests are both white men and her loyal team is racially diverse. When Pope’s blackness does become visible, it is most often framed as a way for white characters to prove their lack of racism. This is perhaps best exemplified in an infamous scene in which the white President of the United States claims that his intense love for her makes him the slave Sally Hemings and her, Olivia Pope, the Thomas Jefferson in their relationship. For more on the racial politics of Scandal, see “Scandalous,” a special issue of The Black Scholar (Chude-Sokei 2015).

[6] Since the 1990s, financialization has made inroads into the private sphere, in the form of the increasing prevalence of finance-centered professions and the (risky) practice of securitizing private real estate and thus transposing the risks and anxieties of the market into the domestic space of the home (Martin 46).

[7] Although quite different from Veep in tone and genre, the political drama Madam Secretary (2014-) also features a female lead playing an ambitious career woman who holds an executive-level post in the federal government. Like Vice President (later President) Selina Meyer, Secretary of State Dr. Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), falls short of being a paragon of ideal motherhood; she frequently leaves the emotional labor of family matters to her husband, a university professor who appears to have more free time. 

[8] As season two opens, the series disguises the resolution of the fight between the two women, and Piper and the viewer initially believe that she has committed homicide.


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