In a standout scene from Insecure's pilot episode, released online last month, Issa Dee (Issa Rae), in a green sequin outfit, pumps herself up in the mirror. She tries on multiple lipsticks (bright pink, classic red, dark black) as well as multiple personalities: a confident and sex-aggressive femme, a casual party girl ready for shots, and (most inexplicably but hilariously), a woman with a British accent. Eventually, however, she wipes off the lipstick in favor of lip balm and heads out for the night. Issa's comfortable enough with herself as she cleverly raps affirmations in the mirror but she's not yet comfortable enough to share that self with others around. It's about her own self-perception but it also doubles as an ongoing, bigger commentary: Black women are so rarely allowed to be weird or loud or alternative, in real life and on television (unless, of course, that role is a stereotypical, sassy, head-rolling woman thrown into a sitcom for diversity purposes). Instead, we are often relegated to sidekicks, characters who must stay quiet lest we draw more attention to ourselves. But Issa—both Rae and Dee—and Insecure aren't down to shrink into themselves, which adds an extra importance to the series.
Indeed, Insecure makes it known that there are different kinds of black women in the world—who'd have thunk!—and that there are complications with trying to fit into one mold. It's fitting, then, that the first trailer that debuted for Insecure featured Missy Elliott's "WTF (Where They From)." Elliott is both unapologetically black and unapologetically weird, but she's crafted a whole career and identity through this: It's impossible think of her without thinking of her black lipstick, of her trash-bag couture, of her videos that incorporated everything from life-sized dollhouses to Mega Man imagery. Issa Rae—who first started her takeover through the endlessly rewatchable web series Awkward Black Girl and then, last year, released the candid memoir The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl—is reminiscent to Elliott: Neither fits neatly into the molds that are often created for black women. Instead, they stay ferociously true to their personalities, shaping worlds that welcome young black girls who may feel like they don't belong anywhere else.
In Insecure—co-created by Larry Wilmore and premiering October 9 on HBO—Issa Rae showcases the complexities of being a black woman primarily through two characters. Issa Dee, who we first meet on her 29th birthday, is self-described as "aggressively passive," a slightly awkward, slightly fumbling woman trying to get through her day without compromising herself. She makes it a personal mission to live more boldly and try to be true to herself: "How different would my life be if I actually went after what I wanted?" Unfortunately, this mission is hindered by her job at an education nonprofit (as the only black person, she routinely has to decide whether to speak up or just sigh at microaggressions and, of course, is sometimes asked to explain phrases like "on fleek") and her unmotivated boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis). Issa and Lawrence have fallen into the too-comfortable phase of their relationship, the point where they—or, really, just Issa—have to decide if this comfort is the sign of a good, stable relationship they can settle down with or if it's time for them to seek more exciting things. Issa loves Lawrence, but it's a frustrating sort of love ("I guess I'll go home and deal with this motherfucking relationship," she sighs at one point) and it doesn't help that Issa's ex Daniel (Y'lan Daniel) is lurking around. In contrast to Lawrence's stagnant passivity, Daniel is out there doing things as a record producer. When he pops back into Issa's life later in the season (HBO screened six of eight episodes for critics), he encourages Issa to move her raps from the bathroom mirror to the recording studio, effectively providing a tangible alternative to Lawrence. It's a low-key love triangle, but it works.
Then there is Issa's best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), a corporate lawyer also trying to figure things out. Professionally, she's a bit more put-together than Issa—though she has similar issues: She, too, is tasked with being the "black translator" at her company and also deemed the "Will Smith" of law because she's beloved by both white and black people. Like Issa, Molly's love life isn't going so hot, either. So much so, in fact, that in the pilot, she becomes the subject of Issa's open-mic rap song "Broken Pussy." Insecure shows the parallels, weaving in and out of the two friends' respective lives while never setting one up as better than the other. They are equal partners in their friendship—even when Issa takes the stage, she is ready to apologize with comfort food—and they are both people who propel each other, rather than act as competition. Their friendship is the heart of the series, more so than any of the romantic relationships, and it's a pairing that's only boosted by their differences.
Insecure welcomes and embraces these differences: the differences between black women, between black men, between races, between genders, and everything else. Throughout the series there are conversations discussing the "bitter" moniker ascribed to black women, the expectations of men with college degrees, and the double standard of same-sex experimentation. The series puts an emphasis on uniqueness, allowing the characters to build the world rather than the other away around, promoting the idea that black women can be however they want.
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Insecure premieres on October 9 on HBO.