A New TV Type: The Spunky, Obsessive Female 'Hummingbird' New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum wants to add one more character to that long, familiar list of television's archetypes — the optimistic, ambitious, off-putting leading lady. She says Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope and Homeland's Carrie Mathison both fall into this new category.
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A New TV Type: The Spunky, Obsessive Female 'Hummingbird'

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A New TV Type: The Spunky, Obsessive Female 'Hummingbird'

A New TV Type: The Spunky, Obsessive Female 'Hummingbird'

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It's pilot season, that time of year when television networks create and test out new shows with hopes of turning out the next big hit. Whatever new ideas they come up for the plot - cops, zombies, yuppie apartments - it's safe to say that they will turn to the safety of a limited number of character archetypes. You know, the loveable loser, the charming rogue, the desperate housewife.

Well, Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker, would like to add a new TV archetype to that list and she's calling it the hummingbird.

Emily Nussbaum, welcome to the program.

EMILY NUSSBAUM: Hello, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, before you define hummingbird for us, we have a few examples - we think - of the kind of character you're talking about.





CORNISH: We should say it's a mix of programs there, comedy and serious: Leslie Knope from NBC's "Parks and Recreation," the character Sue Heck from the ABC sitcom "The Middle," and of course, the manic CIA agent Carrie Mathison from Showtime's "Homeland." She's the one sounding really alarmed just then.

And so, Emily Nussbaum, what makes all these women hummingbirds?

NUSSBAUM: Well, these are characters who are very tightly wound, highly ambitious, anxiety-provoking for the people around them and also for the audience watching the television show. But at the same time, they're highly idealistic; they're very, very driven.

To me, what's fascinating about them is that they're not minor characters. They're not villains. They're not wacky best friends. They're the main character of the show and the show itself tends to share their values and take their struggles seriously.

CORNISH: Why did the name hummingbird work?

NUSSBAUM: Well, I thought hummingbirds fit the bill simply because their wings flap incredibly fast. So they came from a Twitter brainstorm where people tried to come up with various ideas. And, you know, to me, hummingbirds' wings flap super fast. They hover in the air. They kind of suggest the mania and intensity of these characters. I realize they're not agitating necessarily. They're a valuable part of the ecosystem but, you know, on the other hand, I would say the same of Leslie Knope and Carrie Matheson and Sue Heck.

CORNISH: So, Emily, you say that hummingbirds don't have to be women. They could also be men. But is there something gendered going on here? I mean, something about what we're seeing in female characters versus male characters on TV right now?

NUSSBAUM: I do think there's something about the hummingbird that's gendered. To me, it seems like a second stage of something that's been going on with men for around the last decade, that on both dramas and comedies, in the form of antiheroes and sad sacks like "Louie," really going back in a lot of ways to "Seinfeld," but "Curb Your Enthusiasm," there are other examples. These are male characters that people don't necessarily have to like. In fact, the fact that the characters sometimes anger or disgust people who are watching is part of the appeal.

There weren't so many female characters like this. Hummingbirds, to me, are associated with the rise of more complex and potentially off-putting female characters. And specifically, they have qualities that people find annoying about a certain kind of woman. And these characters are agitating in a way that I feel is risky and new and exciting.

CORNISH: So, Emily, where do we see the hummingbird in real life?

NUSSBAUM: I actually think there's a level at which this might be some sort of national therapy reaction to the rise of Hillary Clinton and people's initial response to her, which was to put her down. And then afterwards, to receive her as a heroine for the exact qualities that she was put down for. And there's something about these characters that does remind me of, not necessarily Hillary Clinton herself as an individual, but the iconic figure of the ambitious woman who is highly idealistic, tightly wound and possibly agitating or irritating.

And there is that moment where Obama said, you're likeable enough Hillary. And this fraught question of likability is central to all of these characters.

CORNISH: It also seems to echo a conversation we're having about success and likability and forceful women in the workplace generally.

NUSSBAUM: Yes, I think that's true. And I think it really is - it's this way in which creative fictional forms on television seem to work through national questions. And the question of what it means to be an ambitious and driven woman and whether it makes you a heroine or whether it makes you an irritant is, I think, a big one. And in these characters, because of the way the stories are told, we actually get in the end to root for the hummingbird and to recognize her value.

CORNISH: Emily Nussbaum, thank you so much for explaining this to us. It was a lot of fun.

NUSSBAUM: Thank you. I really - it just sounds a little crazy. I'm like, and the other thing about hummingbirds...

CORNISH: But you got a little hummingbird action of your own going on.

NUSSBAUM: I know. It definitely brings out a slightly weird obsessive (unintelligible)...

CORNISH: Like from one to another, all right. Buzz on.

NUSSBAUM: Okay. All right. Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker. She's in the process of developing a theory about a kind of television character who she calls a hummingbird.

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