Taylor Nygaard and Jorie Lagerwey
Horrible White People: Gender, Genre, and Television’s Precarious Whiteness
New York University Press, 2020
$89.00 (hardcover), $30.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Brice Ezell
When it comes to television, gone are the days of the “likable” character. Television’s “Golden Age,” heralded by dramas such as The Sopranos and Mad Men, was driven by the popularity of anti-heroes. These characters, such as Breaking Bad’s meth-dealing chemistry teacher Walter White, were almost uniformly male, White, and either wealthy or in the process of becoming wealthy, usually through means of questionable legality. Taylor Nygaard and Jorie Lagerwey’s Horrible White People: Gender, Genre, and Television’s Precarious Whiteness is a significant work of scholarship for the post-“Golden Age” television climate, where streaming services, rather than traditional networks, dominate the market. In this new streaming era of “peak TV,” where a seemingly unabated proliferation of new programming has resulted in “a period of maximum output,” a new sort of unlikeable character has emerged: what Nygaard and Lagerwey call the “horrible White person.”
The “horrible white person” coinage groups together several American and British television programs—some on streaming services, some on traditional networks—that center on progressive White characters who exhibit antisocial behavior and a general refusal of the “likability” historically assumed of television protagonists. “Horrible” as these authors use it connotes, to name a few examples, extreme narcissism, reckless behavior, and a general callousness towards others, even when those others are friends and family. For Nygaard and Lagerwey, Horrible White People (HWP) shows such as Girls, Catastrophe, and Fleabag constitute a subgenre of “quality” television, also known as “prestige TV.” These programs are “a cycle of thirty-minute comedies or satires featuring middle-class, self-proclaimed liberal White characters within generically and aesthetically innovative TV and sharing an overwhelmingly bleak tone.” As the authors explain in the introduction, the HWP subgenre is a direct reaction to the Great Recession. With “Carrie Bradshaw’s $400 shoes and $20 cosmopolitans” appearing absurd in the light of late capitalism, “the material conditions and lived experiences of the recession made access to those fantasies” of 1990s comedies like Friends and Seinfeld “seem untenable.” But despite the professed liberalism of HWP shows like Broad City, Nygaard and Lagerwey emphasize an important elision in these programs: the uncritical manner in which they treat Whiteness. While HWP programs largely highlight women characters and offer important “feminist addition[s]” to television discourse, these casts typically “foregroun[d] the White main character[s] and whatever suffering [they are] experiencing,” rendering these programs’ feminism lacking an intersectional dimension. The impact of the Whiteness in these shows, according to the authors, is no small matter: by privileging Whiteness, HWP programs “reflect the complicity of the White Left […] in the rise of the Far Right.”
Following the outline of its eponymous genre in the introduction, Horrible White People then moves to its first chapter, an invaluable account of “peak TV” that should be read by anyone interested in television studies. Chapter One explains the institutional and market forces behind the shift to streaming-centric “peak TV,” and how those aspects of television production resulted in the creation of HWP programming. “TV’s contemporary technologies and business practices,” the authors write, “help maintain the social structures of White supremacy by prioritizing and centralizing the concerns and tastes of smaller, elite audiences over a mass, national audience.” Breaking from the laugh tracks, high-key lighting, and lowest-common-denominator humor of their television antecedent, the network sitcom, HWP programs “mimic the serialization, aesthetics, and production values of […] expensive quality or cult dramas.” Significant aesthetic features include morally ambiguous plots that refuse the resolution of traditional sitcoms, darker and moodier lighting schemes, and middle-to-high-brow pop culture references. The transatlantic span of these television programs—Catastrophe originated in Channel 4 but then was acquired by Amazon, just as Fleabag was after its BBC premiere—makes the HWP shows a popular television subgenre, one that has resulted in further entrenching “quality” programming, one driven largely by wealthy White audiences, as a dominant form of television narrative. These “quality” programs contrast with major-network multi-camera sitcoms, such as Friends and The Big Bang Theory.
Chapters Two and Three further outline the intricacies of the HWP aesthetic. Chapter Two consists of highly detailed readings of how HWP characters, following the neoliberal turn and its incipient wealth inequality, spurn the traditional markers of heteronormative success, such as homeownership and monogamous relationships. For Nygaard and Lagerwey, this “white precarity” depicted in HWP shows “recentralizes White suffering under the seemingly protective guise of liberal social critique.” In the third chapter, the authors illustrate the feminist subversion of traditional sitcom tropes in HWP shows, such as Broad City and Transparent’s “placing [of] female friend love on equal par with the […] heteropatriarchal family.” As the authors map out the progressive qualities of HWP narratives, they repeatedly remark that gains for feminism in television are not automatically accompanied by a similar investment in racial equality.
The fourth chapter and conclusion of the book wrap up Nygaard and Lagerwey’s argument with two comparatives. The first, the subject of Chapter Four, is what the authors call “Diverse Quality Comedies,” which include works such as Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta. These shows were created and run by artists of color, and share similar traits with HWP programs (such as morally ambiguous characters and unconventional camera techniques), but do so without inevitably centering the White protagonists. The conclusion makes an unexpected pivot to the 2016 anti-police brutality protests in the NFL, spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick, to demonstrate that although “White fragility and White precarity are rendered visible very differently in the HWP cycle and the NFL anthem protests, their overlap reveals the ways that White supremacy continues to structure all of television and especially the way Whiteness maintains its powerful invisibility.” The malicious force of Whiteness does affect the NFL and scripted television in shared ways, but given Horrible White People’s investment in an analysis of a genre’s aesthetic features and industrial relationships, the shift to a significantly different form of televisual media feels a bit out of place.
The core argument of Horrible White People provokes some empirical questions. Specifically, it is worth interrogating the empirical reality of these program’s audiences, and the causal impact television can have on political movements and action. The authors acknowledge that HWP programs “are only a small percentage of the total transatlantic television production from 2012 to 2018.” Ratings do not play a major role in the analysis here, though it is difficult now to measure ratings in the streaming era, as Netflix and other streaming providers do not provide consistent and reliable data about their viewership in the way Nielsen has done for network television. But for Horrible White People to claim that the Whiteness of HWP shows “contributes to the election of right-wing politicians, the backlash against emergent feminisms, [and] the backsliding toward post-racialism,” some measurable impact of these programs’ reach should have been empirically substantiated in viewership numbers at the very least. After all, HWP shows are, by Nygaard and Lagerwey’s admission, niche. FX’s You’re the Worst—apropos of its name, a frequent example in this book—barely rose above a quarter million viewers per episode on average, and is better known as a cult hit than a cultural force. What’s more, the far right, with its long-peddled conspiracies about “Hollywood liberal elites,” defines itself in opposition to the kind of programming Nygaard and Lagerwey discuss, even in the case of White-dominated casts.
At times, Horrible White People seems to indulge a version of the illicit minor fallacy: Whiteness and growing right-wing political movements are inextricable; Whiteness dictates television programming; therefore, television programming like HWP correlates to the rise of the right. The Whiteness of television should be challenged, and Nygaard and Lagerwey mount sophisticated critiques to that end. But the connection between Whiteness’s manifestation in a particular television subgenre and its machinations in politics and culture more broadly remains an open question by the end of this book.
Nygaard and Lagerwey’s achievement in Horrible White People, however, is considerable. The sheer mass of television content funneled through the major streaming services makes the study of contemporary television a daunting task, and the authors here should be commended for persuasively detailing a distinct subgenre and locating it in the context of the material conditions of producing television in the present day. As a rendering of a new genre and a study of the industry, Horrible White People is a valuable text for media scholars, particularly those who, like Nygaard and Lagerwey, advocate for feminist and anti-racist scholarship of popular media.