Horrible White People and Contemporary Television

Please enjoy this written interview between Brandy Monk-Payton, Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, and Taylor Nygaard and Jorie Lagerwey, authors of Horrible White People: Gender, Genre, and Television’s Precarious Whiteness conducted on November 10, 2020.

Brandy: Taylor and Jorie, this book is a necessary intervention into studies of contemporary TV representation and identity politics. I really appreciate your approach to interrogating the complicity of liberal and progressive Whiteness on television with insidious forms of White supremacy. 

Brandy: Let’s start with the events of this past summer and, specifically, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement and the ensuing global protests. This was also a time that the TV industry attempted to confront its own structural racism through public statements about diversity, equity, and inclusion. How might your book help us understand television’s purported awakening to Black Lives Matter and the development of a social consciousness within the context of the idea of “Horrible White People”?

Taylor and Jorie: Thanks so much, Brandy. Television, especially prestige TV, is always interested in making itself look progressive, and it awards what we call these Diverse Quality Comedies and “woke” White people shows for their aesthetic and generic innovation as well as their social consciousness. We see the statements about diversity, equity, and inclusion that followed the global BLM protests to be similar somewhat vacant, performative gestures. Building off of your own concept of “televisual reparations,” we argue in the book that both industry awards and minimal inclusion of non-white characters lets White people off the hook for needing to show up in more meaningful ways for racial justice. This summer there was a realization that these awards and representations weren’t enough. We feel that progressive White people working in television are maybe paralyzed with how to move forward as they grapple with the ultimate ineffectuality of the “woke” representations in HWP shows. It’s clear that representation behind the camera, along with a true acknowledgement of the value of diverse audiences need to be front and center in the television industry’s response to its White supremacy, but we aren’t seeing this happen as swiftly and dramatically as we would hope. One of the reasons we wrote Horrible White People was to highlight that comedic, self-critical or self-awareness of White privilege in media representation is not enough—that these representational trends distract from the need for the industry to make more structural change.

Brandy: The book deftly explains how “Horrible White People” is a cycle of TV programming largely emerging between 2014-2016, as well as a cultural category. In terms of the latter, HWP seems to be a structure of feeling, per Raymond Williams, that is ideological but also materially lived and felt. Could you speak more about the particular kinds of White affect that these TV series tap into? 

Taylor & Jorie: Sure. I’m [Jorie] in the middle of writing a lecture about White despair. Despair, and wallowing in that despair, is the most dominant affect or emotion of the cycle for me. But, the wallowing is as important as the despair to understand how White people come to center their own precarity in this cycle of programming. In the episode I re-watched for this lecture, Gretchen, one half of the central couple on You’re the Worst, gets dumped and then starts doing crack, drinking all day, never bathing or leaving the house, and living on a sofa piled with her own food and drink garbage. It’s a really gross and excessive display of despair without any direction. And that directionlessness is the key, I think. The wallowing of these characters, like Gretchen, is reflective of a broader White upper-middle class cultural structure of feeling (in Williams’ words) reacting to contradictions and positionless-ness of the historical conjuncture for White people that we map—one where their guiding fantasies of life are fraying. And is the contrast between these shows and the events of this summer and reactions to those.

B: That act of wallowing is a key difference, it seems, between these HWP programs and what you two astutely define as “Diverse Quality Comedies.” Programs like Atlanta (FX, 2016-present) and Insecure (HBO, 2016-present) and more recently Ramy (Hulu, 2019-present) and I May Destroy You (HBO, 2020-present) also depict despair but there doesn’t seem to be the same amount of time (privilege?) to take narcissistic pleasure in it. Especially in I May Destroy You, the trauma of sexual violence leads Michaela Coel’s character to go down a path of (self) destruction…but it feels different. It’s very perceptible to me. It’s not indulgent in the same way. Any excess serves a very real purpose of dealing with pain.     

T&J: One of our favorite sentences in the book makes that contrast directly and describes Issa Rae’s character on Insecure in contrast to Gretchen. It describes those DQC characters and goes something like “They don’t suffer, they brave; they don’t wallow, they hustle; and they may be miserable, but they aren’t horrible” (p161).  We totally agree that the despair of Michaela Coel’s character, Arabella, feels very different. She definitely suffers and she’s even somewhat insufferable at times, but her pain is not as indulgent as that which we find in Horrible White People, nor is it as divorced from activism in the same way as it often is with HWP. We think this has to do a lot with genre conventions and the way HWP shows infuse seriality into the sitcom form so that the innovative narrative structure itself emphasizes White characters’ ability to wallow in despair—because the serial and the despair both linger or have a long duration, without a clear ending. I May Destroy You feels more purposefully written as a mini-series with one arc, where we follow Arabella evolve and eventually find some sort of closure (as ambiguous as that is in the series finale). And, while we find roots of these representational distinctions in generic conventions, it’s clear too that White privilege and historical representational practices are also influencing these trends. Rebecca Wanzo, a Professor of gender and sexuality studies, has noted that Black girls have a different relationship to abjection than White girls: black girls don’t have the same luxury as White girls who can easily envision abjection as something they pass through briefly before their eventual cultural adulation. Racquel Gates, a TV Studies scholar at CUNY and the author of Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture (Duke UP 2018), has also talked about the lingering effects of respectability politics that impact cultural appreciation and understanding of images of Blackness, which seems like part of the same conversation. As innovative and groundbreaking as we find I May Destroy You, it’s still negotiating some of what we call in the book the aesthetics of Whiteness that structure the identity politics of quality television.

B: What is the role of geography in the exploration of identity politics on these programs? It seems that many of them are set in urban milieus like Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Portland, and Philadelphia. How does space and place infuse these shows and how the characters move about them?

The urban locations in these shows reflect traditional understandings of “quality” audiences as originally outlined by Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi. These locations are also centers of hipster “liberal” culture and its pretensions to progressiveness that isn’t always acknowledged or criticized in discussions of contemporary Whiteness. There’s a privilege of mobility for HWP that gives them power and access to the entirety of a large city like Los Angeles. In the book we give an example of You’re the Worst’s“Sunday Funday” episode where the four main characters traverse the city with ease and casualness that evokes their privilege and is actually envied and copied by other White characters. This seems like a pretty stark contrast to, for one example, Issa’s mobility through LA in Insecure, which is only facilitated by her being in a service position as a Lyft driver. Despite celebrating and acknowledging the diversity of these locations in ways that a lot of former urban sitcoms failed to do (Friends, Seinfeld, Girls, etc.), HWP shows often uncritically reinforce the power inequalities of gentrification and racialized mobility.

B: You both began writing this book during the Trump era. With the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States in November 2020, do you see these types of HWP programs still being created or does the cluster mutate and transform given a different social, political, and economic climate?

T&J: We’ve been talking about this a lot already; what will the next cycle of prestige, progressive comedies look like? We hope, in the book, to show how inclusive White supremacy can be, and how it uses that surface level inclusivity to sustain itself. One thing we didn’t focus on in the book because we were focused on comedy is the raft of nostalgic period dramas that center a similar wallowing, despairing Whiteness, but excuse it because it is in the past and they may also feature one or two characters of color with depth and complexity. With these examples, we want to highlight how the television industry continues to return to and centralize Whiteness. There is a fear amongst a lot of television scholars that with the election of Joe Biden that White people may become lazy and return to the post-racial mystique, and while we believe that this could very well be a response, with our book we wanted to highlight some of television’s other problematic racial representations that present themselves as progressive and important. What’s clear, if anything, from the election results is that the United States is still clearly heavily divided and the ideologies of White supremacy continue to hold power both implicitly and explicitly in 2020. So, while the Trump presidency is finally over, the culture that elected him is still structuring a lot of feelings for White people and we believe that the structure of feeling will find itself reflected in a wide swath of television programming, not just those targeting the Trump base demographic, unless we continue to point out the damage it occurs.

B: In your detailed discussion of the cluster of HWP programming, it also seems that these shows air across basic and premium cable channels, as well as streaming platforms. Many of them have garnered mainstream attention and critique (see: the think piece-ification of Girls), but many others haven’t. I wonder if in your research you were able to gain any insight about why different shows gained popular traction and others didn’t? The reason why I’ve watched so many, I’m sure, is only because of the Netflix algorithm!

T&J: We think it’s to do with a combination of marketing and publicity (which correlates to the reach of the platform or the network), algorithms finding fans of one HWP show and pushing them another (they have so much in common!), and the celebrity status of many of the auteur star/writer/producers. An interesting comparison is I’m Sorry that airs on the rather obscure cable network TruTV, which given the name is not known for fictional programming, compared to Fleabag which was on legacy TV in the UK and then picked up and heavily promoted by Amazon. Unsurprisingly, I’m Sorry never found an audience, and Fleabag gained global recognition through the Emmys and Golden Globes (the racial legacies of which we explore more in the book).

B: Currently when I think about Horrible White People on TV, ironically my mind immediately goes to the Roys of Succession (HBO, 2018-present). It’s almost the complete opposite of what your book describes, but I think your book allows us to examine this show differently. The family is politically conservative and definitely not economically precarious. They fail up…really up. However, the prestige TV series is ostensibly watched and enjoyed by a predominantly liberal and progressive White audience. What kinds of spectatorial identifications and dis-identifications might be at play here? 

Jorie: I hate this show so much I never got past the pilot episode. It is, however, the very first show everyone I mention the title of our book to asks me about. I’d love to hear what you think about this show, because it is a great example, potentially, of the ways the ideas in HWP could translate to dramas. We talk about how comedy offers a polysemic space that allows spectators to “cringe” and therefore remain somewhat ambiguous situated or dis-identified with the characters, but drama does encourage different types of spectator identifications.

B: I am a huge fan of Succession! What I really appreciate about your book is this honing in on a very specific subset of television that I have consumed, but as a complete disastrous spectacle in its hyperbolic display of the destructiveness of Whiteness. As a Black woman, I watch these shows and it’s all about fantasy. Dramatic series like Succession, Big Little Lies (HBO, 2017-2019), The Affair (Showtime, 2014-2019) and Dead to Me (Netflix, 2019-present), continue to amaze me in their capacity for melodrama steeped in a kind of anxiety around White privilege.

Taylor: I love this observation about “melodrama steeped in anxiety around White privilege,” (I have consumed a lot of them as well!) but I’m really interested in how you define your spectatorship around “fantasy.” Is it the aspirational upper-middle classness or the idea that there is a real acknowledgement/critique of White privilege? Or something else?

Jorie: Yeah, I’m also interested in the fantasy because I—and I think Taylor too—read these shows (with the exception of Succession which I don’t know beyond the pilot) as wallowing in the same kinds of narcissistic despair as the comedies we spend more time on in the book.

B: For me the fantasy is routed through expressions of impulsivity that are largely predicated on class status. And the degree to which there are no real narrative consequences for bad behavior.

J: Yes, wealth offers the privilege to not consider actions. And to never face consequences.

T: I think one of the most perplexing aspects about examining quality television is to think about the pleasures and fantasies that are embedded in the texts–the high production values, set designs, homes, fashions and beauty. While they draw in and attract viewers, they can also help to make the problematic racial representations similarly fantastical and therefore seemingly not grounded in reality—when in fact those layers of privilege on display are rooted in real power structures of White supremacy.

B: The way you conclude with an examination of the NFL was both unexpected and very welcomed! I am really persuaded by your discussion of sports as a dynamic site of meaning-making with regards to race and protest that extends your concept of Horrible White People into the most mainstream of programming…it continues to be relevant.

T&J: We are so happy to hear that was your reaction. It was really important to us not to let readers off the hook in the ways we describe White viewers and characters being let off the hook throughout the cycle. So, we wanted to end with a chapter that said “Hey. This is about everyone. If you never watch any of these shows, it’s still about you.” And the NFL, and professional sports more broadly offers a, we think, great example of the mainstream versions of the themes of latent or unrecognized White supremacy that we explore throughout the book.

B: Your book continues necessary conversations that critique performances of White allyship. What do you hope readers like college undergraduates will take away from this book in terms of cultivating solidarity in the fight for racial justice?

T&J: We hope that we start the work of making Whiteness visible to students who might be accustomed to seeing it as the “norm” against which anything else is the “other.” Whiteness is, of course, a racial category and as Richard Dyer and others have noted, its invisibility is a big part of its power. So, we hope students, particularly White students, begin to see Whiteness where it appears almost everywhere around them. Beyond that, the book is intentionally a little confrontational or might challenge students to see both the beauty, comedy, and innovation of some highly awarded and sometimes highly entertaining shows and the critiques we level at them. We also hope students see racial justice as a White issue, one that requires intervention from White people and can’t be shunted onto the shoulders of BIPOC. Thinking back to your first question, we can see a lot more traditionally college-aged White people participating in those protests, which is a great sign. On a personal level, one of my [Taylor’s] former students, now writing a television pilot, was eager to read our book in order to make sure she wasn’t perpetuating Horrible White People characters. While our book is not an instructional manual, we hope it draws attention to problematic representations of Whiteness that media makers need to first be aware of if we hope to eliminate them.

Taylor Nygaard is a Faculty Associate in the Department of English’s Film and Media Studies division at Arizona State University. She writes about identity, television, digital culture and media industries. Her work has appeared in Feminist Media Studies, TV and New Media, FLOW, and elsewhere.

Jorie Lagerwey is Associate Professor in Television Studies in University College Dublin. She writes about race, gender, genre, celebrity and television. She is the author of Postfeminist Celebrity and Motherhood: Brand Mom (2016). Her work has appeared in Cinema JournalTV and New MediaCelebrity Studies, FLOW, and elsewhere.

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