American Feminist Sensibility Television in the Postnetwork Era

Transformative narratives redefine culture and ignite societal change in the postnetwork era of American Feminist Sensibility Television.

Abstract: While there is a relatively small number of female-authored, female-centric scripted series on US television today, many female-focused series have achieved a high media profile and attracted significant scholarly attention. However, critically celebrated series aimed at a media-literate female audience, such as Girls (HBO 2012–2017) and Orange is the New Black (Netflix 2013–present), are seemingly at odds with the form of US television currently given most cultural value—quality television. Recent feminist-inflected US scripted series are largely ignored in discussions of quality television, and their dialogic relationship to earlier feminist-focused series is often overlooked. Therefore, this thesis develops a new framework for understanding these recent series, in relation to the contemporary television moment and histories of feminist-inflected US television.

This thesis proposes “feminist sensibility television” as a category that embraces both iconic feminist-informed series such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS 1970–1977) and postfeminist series like Sex and the City (HBO 1998–2004). This category provides a broader historical context for recent feminist-inflected television work. The feminist work of recent series takes many forms—for instance The Good Wife (CBS 2009–2016) highlights invisible feminine labour, Orange is the New Black creates a public space for debating intersectional feminist discourses, and Girls negotiates the confines of postfeminist bodily femininity. This thesis argues that this feminist work, and that of many other series, has not been sufficiently recognised because contemporary feminist-inflected television is not adequately positioned in relation to either current US television programming or the history of representing feminism on US television. Using the category of “feminist sensibility television,” I make visible the “feminism” of US quality television’s history and the “quality” of feminist-informed US television.

This thesis develops its arguments through close textual analyses of recent key series. My case studies include acclaimed feminist sensibility dramedies Orange is the New Black and Girls, which are recognised as constituting a popular feminist cycle, and belated or transitional series Big Love (HBO 2006–2013) and The Good Wife, which are equally “feminist” but rarely recognised as part of a new feminist moment on US television.

Thesis supervisors: Jodi Brooks and Fiona Morrison

Institution at which thesis was completed: UNSW

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