However, TV is slowly changing, and in recent years audiences have been exposed to a wave of smart, black-led US shows ushered in by the likes of Shonda Rhimes and Lee Daniels. The Bechdel test has long been a yardstick for equality in TV and film, but we have entered the age of the DuVernay test: that is, black characters having their own identities and interactions. Now, we have a further offering: HBO’s comedy Insecure. It feels especially fresh where friendship is concerned, offering millennial sadcom vibes while charting a bond often underrepresented on screen.
Issa Rae, known for the Awkward Black Girl webseries which saw her hone her offbeat rapping style, plays the lead (also named Issa) in the Los Angeles-set comedy, while Nigerian-American comic Yvonne Orji is best pal Molly. The show subverts lazy stereotypes of the strong black female and, as its title suggests, delves into the protagonists’ emotions in three dimensions.
“Black female relationships are incredibly significant on shows like Insecure, because they’re a symbol of sisterhood and camaraderie,” says Mekeisha Madden Toby, a TV critic from LA who writes for the black lifestyle magazine Essence. “As a black woman watching, it’s comforting seeing people who look and talk like me and my friends because it acknowledges our feelings. It’s like a much-needed hug from a friend. Issa and Molly’s conversations with each other are raw and authentic.”
Although they lead wildly different lives (fictional Issa works in the nonprofit sector with underprivileged kids, while Molly is a high-powered lawyer) the pair contend with the same everyday problems: how, as African American women, to find quality relationships; how to fit in with their majority white work environments; how to avoid “hotep n*ggas”. Yes, they use the n word and often speak in slang between themselves, where they’re free to be the Carefree Black Girls they can’t necessarily be in public. (Indeed, episode two sees Issa upset that her colleagues have been exchanging “secret white emails” behind her back, but feels she can’t make her ire known).
They often speak in slang, where they’re free to be the Carefree Black Girls they can’t necessarily be in public … Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji in Insecure.
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They often speak in slang, where they’re free to be the Carefree Black Girls they can’t necessarily be in public … Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji in Insecure. Photograph: Anne Marie Fox/HBO
As well as the way Issa and Molly code-switch their language and behaviour, we see how they relate to each other – or fail to do so. The “Broken Pussy” rap that Issa drops to Kelis’s Bossy (sample lyric: “maybe it’s dry as hell/maybe it really smells”) in the pilot isn’t just vulgar comic garnish, but the crux of a conversation about black female sexuality and singledom that’s not defined by otherness.
Similarly, this week’s instalment sees the pair speak frankly – and hilariously – about online dating as a black woman, with Molly explaining the challenges to Issa, who has one foot out of her relationship with hopeless app designer Lawrence. Molly, who is obsessed with being accepted by “elite” dating app The League, breaks down the options for Issa: “That’s OKCupid. It’s free, so it’s like bottom of the barrel dudes. Tinder used to be cool, but now it’s basically a fuck app.” A brilliant, highly Shazamable playlist overseen by Solange binds the whole thing, featuring umpteen female artists and occasionally juxtaposing the pair’s lapses in assertiveness. If Issa and Molly aren’t always 100% sure they’re doing the right thing, you get the feeling New York rapper Junglepussy singing “bling bling bitch, do my own thing bitch” makes up for it.
Insecure feels exciting because it takes that ennui-filled, existential crisis vibe – seen everywhere from Broad City to Fleabag – and puts it in the context of a type of friendship that is often denied air time, with women who may well have felt confined to those dreaded best friend roles in the recent past. With all of the hypersexualised images of black female sexuality that exist, it’s refreshing to see a writer like Rae reclaiming something for herself rather than, say, settling for a walk-on part on Girls. As she raps to a mirror, she’s letting awkward black girls everywhere see themselves mirrored back.
Insecure airs on HBO on Sundays at 10.30pm in the US, and on Sky Atlantic on