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

Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison on Showtime's <em>Homeland.</em>
Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison on Showtime's <em>Homeland.</em>

It's pilot season, that time of year when television networks create and test new shows with hopes of turning out the next big thing. But whatever new plots they come up with, it's safe to say that they will turn to the safety of a limited number of character archetypes: the lovable loser, the charming rogue, the desperate housewife.

New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum would like to add one more character to that long, familiar list: the hummingbird. She writes that hummingbirds are "idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky but downright obsessive."

Nussbaum joins NPR's Audie Cornish to discuss who today's hummingbirds are and the real-life events that inspired the archetype.

Interview Highlights

On what makes Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope (NBC), The Middle's Sue Heck (ABC) and Homeland's Carrie Mathison (Showtime) all hummingbirds

"These are characters who are very tightly wound, highly ambitious [and] 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. They relate to a bunch of different characters in the past, but 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."

On where the name "hummingbird" came from

"I thought hummingbirds fit the bill simply because their wings flap incredibly fast. So it came from a Twitter brainstorm where people tried to come up with various ideas. The main thing — I was looking for something that was neutral, because I don't want something that either glamorizes the characters by claiming that they're just heroic, or puts them down by calling them shrill. ... But 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 on the other hand, I would say the same of Leslie Knope and Carrie Mathison and Sue Heck."

On whether the hummingbird is necessarily a gendered type

"I do think there's something about the hummingbird that's gendered. To me it seems like the 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, Curb Your Enthusiasm — there are other examples. These are male characters that people don't necessarily have to like in order to engage with the show. 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 it's that kind of tightly wound go-getter who is ambitious, and then her drive to power is what annoys people and makes them agitated. And she herself might be very agitating. And these characters are agitating in a way that I feel is risky and new and exciting."

On Hillary Clinton and real-life inspiration for the hummingbird archetype

"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 afterward 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 likable enough, Hillary,' and this fraught question of likability is central to all of these characters. ...

"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."

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