The XX Factor

On TV, the Virtues of “Never Letting Anything Go”

Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe in Enlightened

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

At the Academy Awards, Seth MacFarlane mockingly described Zero Dark Thirty as “a celebration of every woman’s innate inability to never ever let anything go.” But as Emily Nussbaum explained in The New Yorker this week, the joke’s on MacFarlane. Those tenacious women—hummingbirds, she calls them—aren’t just finding Osama Bin Laden. They’re conquering cable and network television.

After running through characters like Sue Heck onThe Middle, Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened, Carrie Mathison on Homeland, and Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, Nussbaum explains:

They’re idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky, but downright obsessive. And most crucially, these are not minor characters. On each show, the Hummingbird is a protagonist—an alienating-yet-sympathetic figure whose struggles are taken seriously and considered meaningful. This is not the female analogue of the cable anti-hero, as seen on shows like “Damages” or the promising new FX drama “The Americans”; it’s not a layered, sympathetic bad girl, like the great Juliette Barnes on “Nashville.” This is something else, an archetype that is grounded in ideas about compassion, but doesn’t strive for likability.

But if the hummingbirds aren’t meant to be a direct female equivalent of the male anti-hero, I do wonder if they’re a response to it. One thing many of these characters have in common is that their dedication to their cause becomes a way for them to prove their rightness or vision, without self-promoting or directly pondering their own legacy. Female characters who are convinced of their own importance tend to need some sort of cover that justifies their self-regard, a Birnam Wood of political or social significance suggesting they matter not only to themselves but to the world at large. The search for Abu Nazir lends urgency to Carrie Mathison’s conviction that she’s the smartest person at the CIA. Amy Jellicoe may be an emotional klutz, but she wants to earn her sense of her own greatness, first by reforming Abaddon Industries, her corporate employer, then by destroying it. Leslie Knope’s impact may be more local, but the fact that she can knock out a terrific Harvest Festival or fundraiser without breaking a sweat is proof that her enthusiasm is actually as effective as she thinks it is.

People are always going to think that Tony Soprano, a repeat murderer, is a badass. Meanwhile, Amy Jellicoe can bring down the criminal CEO of a major corporation and still rankle viewers: She’s committed the cardinal sin of being annoying. Though men can be bad and admired for it, women are apparently still requesting credit for being good.