Abby McEnany’s new comedy series Work in Progress (Showtime) and Hannah Gadsby’s recent standup specials Nanette and Douglas (Netflix) evoke “butch middlebrow,” a contemporary aesthetic and affective sensibility distinguished by the cozy reception it enjoys among straight, white, liberal viewers and critics. McEnany’s and Gadsby’s works have occasioned praise from cosmopolitan gatekeepers like the New York Times and the New Yorker for their self-aware brands of comedy rooted in unvarnished portrayals of butch trauma. Critics ritually insist on the implausibility of Gadsby’s and McEnany’s success, but the popularity of these queer creators’ offerings is not as unlikely as so often presumed. Indeed, the middlebrow butch’s alleged improbability does not render her cultural accolades improbable; it may even ensure them, allowing a new canon of butch respectability to emerge in the light shed by the beacons of aspirational culture.
Are You Being Sirred? Work in Progress, Nanette, Douglas, and the New Butch Middlebrow
Sarah Kessler is a media scholar and television critic. Her articles and essays have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Camera Obscura, In These Times, the Journal of Popular Music Studies, Theory and Event, Triple Canopy, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her book-in-progress, Anachronism Effects: Ventriloquism and Popular Media, examines the politics of voice in transatlantic popular culture at the turn of the twenty-first century with a focus on the dynamics of racialization, gendering, and sexualization in live and mediated performances of ventriloquism. Kessler is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California and the TV section editor at Public Books.
Sarah Kessler; Are You Being Sirred? Work in Progress, Nanette, Douglas, and the New Butch Middlebrow. Film Quarterly 1 March 2021; 74 (3): 46–55. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/fq.2021.74.3.46
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