We Approve the Box: Neoliberalism and Set Design in HBO’s 2 Dope Queens

Curator's Note

In 2018, A24 produced the HBO version of the popular WNYC podcast, 2 Dope Queens (2016–2018). Transplanting the 2 Dope Queens, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, to television meant asking the question, What does the Queens’ comedy look like? But no answer to this question could ignore that the Queens were stepping into a tradition of Black comedy television with its own iconography—and in that context, the comedic identity of the 2 Dope Queens and the design choices of A24 are not entirely consistent.

According to Jessyka Finley, the 2 Dope Queens podcast foregrounded representations that challenged tired “sassy Black woman” tropes and made visible the heterogeneity of Black women’s experiences. The Queens’ humor breaks with what Finley calls the “urban” tradition of Black comedy represented by, for example, Russell Simmons’s Def Comedy Jam. Positioning themselves as “Black nerds” (as they would say, “Blerds”), the Queens trade on their conversance in popular culture forms such as fantasy TV and rock music, normatively coded as white. At the same time, their willingness to joke about racist microaggressions, Black hair, and interracial relationships centers their Blackness, but does so while holding fast to neoliberal principles of choice and materialism and an implicit postracial positioning that is palatable to white audiences.

This neoliberal feminist sensibility, which locates liberation in materiality and career advancement, is sharpened in the Queens’ elevation to television. From their very first joke, Williams and Robinson highlight the “crazy” hair and wardrobe afforded by “that HBO money.” At the same time, stepping up to a bigger venue seems to have required of the Queens a symbolic stepping down from the hip comedy-club stage where the podcast was recorded: perhaps to A24 and the Queens, a rooftop party signals sophistication and Brooklyn hipster irony, but, seen another way, it’s just somebody’s rooftop.

Moreover, A24’s set design invites comparison to the set of the nineties Fox TV show In Living Color. That show sat squarely within what Finley calls the “urban” tradition of Black humor, and arguably the cityscape of its set design placed into the cultural conversation an association between urban Black comedy and skylines, rooftops, and fire escapes. Is the use of this iconography at odds with the Queens’ postracial sensibility? On the one hand, the contrast places the “alt”/“Blerds” identity of the Queens into relief, drawing attention to their break with the stereotype. On the other, the dissonance could indicate a lack of consideration of the heterogeneity of contemporary Black humor and an implicit conflation of Black comedic styles.

In the end, the neoliberal cult of choice resolves the tension. When Jon Stewart notes the contrast between the “billion-dollar theater” HBO has found for the Queens and the wooden box upon which it has set them, Williams quips, “Don’t drag the box; we approved the box.” Does A24 put the 2 Dope Queens in a box? No, say the Queens: the box is fine as long as we approve it.


Works Cited

Finley, Jessyka. “From Awkward to Dope: Black Women Comics in the Alternative Comedy Scene.” In The Joke Is on Us: Political Comedy in (Late) Neoliberal Times. Edited by Julie A. Webber. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington, 2019.

Rottenberg, Catherine. “The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism.” Cultural Studies 28, no. 3 (2014): 418–437.

Tags: 2 Dope Queens, A24, HBO, set design, neoliberal, neoliberalism, neoliberal feminism, postracial, Black comedy, comedy, humor

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.