Each episode of Insecure features a monologue of sorts, a scene where Issa Rae, the show’s creator and lead, stands in front of a mirror and raps about her life, her frustrations, and yes, her insecurities. The raps take the place of a diary as Issa adopts different voices and dispositions to perform the life she is too afraid to pursue. When a co-worker tries to side with her after a rude email exchange, Issa says nothing, giving her a sarcastic glare; a moment later we’re with Issa in front of the bathroom mirror: “Bitch you ain’t my friend just ‘cause you brown / Oh, shit went well, so now you wanna be down / I overheard your ass on the bus tryna clown/ Get the fuck outta here or bow the fuck down.” Then it’s back to work.
These moments thread the HBO comedy back to its roots as the celebrated YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which chronicled the life of Rae’s alter-ego J as she navigated interracial love, uncomfortable hook-ups, and a work environment rife with microaggressions. Like Issa of Insecure, J of Awkward Black Girl raps to cope with stress, to vent about her experiences, and to better understand her day-to-day troubles. J isn’t polished like the women around her. She fails to effortlessly deliver sassy, funny, one-liners. She can’t dance. At the end of the first episode, J sits on her bed after a bad breakup, furiously penning verses: “Bitch you’s a liar / I’ll set your face on fire / I don’t give a fuck.” These raps perfectly characterized Awkward Black Girl as a singular meditation on the often embarrassing experience of growing up awkward, black, and female.
In Insecure, Issa is now an older, less angsty, but not any less self-conscious black woman; her appearance of having-it-together is undergirded by moments of deep anxiety and uncertainty. But in Insecure, Issa is not alone: She has Molly, a childhood friend who grew up as a “hood rat” in South Los Angeles and is now a successful corporate lawyer. Molly’s success as “the Will Smith of corporate” fails to translate into a successful dating life; she struggles to find suitable black men willing to commit to a serious relationship. Unlike Molly, Issa hails from Windsor Hills—one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in America—and she works at We Got Y’all, a nonprofit founded by her white boss to “help kids from the hood.” Issa has her own relationship troubles with Lawrence, her boyfriend of five years; she constantly wrestles with going after what she wants and doing what is expected of her. Both Molly and Issa have something the other wants—success, security, a long-term relationship. But what makes Insecure unique, not just from Awkward Black Girl but from most shows on premium and basic cable, is the existence of an authentic black female friendship, one in which Molly and Issa’s shared history—coupled with their respective insecurities—provide opportunities for the pair to genuinely support and love each other.
Insecure now shares a home on HBO with Girls, which will return for its final season early next year. Girls is a show ostensibly built on female friendship, but it’s hard to believe, after five seasons, that Marnie, Shoshanna, Jessa, and Hannah are actually friends. Friendship is weaponized in the world of Girls—the show’s comedy comes from the characters subtly pitting their insecurities against each other. (“You used to have interesting ideas, now all you do is browse the Internet,” chides Jessa, Hannah’s oldest friend. “Maybe that’s why you’ve stopped writing,” “That’s not a very nice thing to say,” Hannah responds softly.) They undermine each other’s work, each other’s relationships, but when trouble arises, “friendship” is their last refuge. When Jessa confesses to Adam—her current boyfriend and Hannah’s ex-boyfriend—that Hannah is her dearest friend, she says without irony, “she will always come first.”
On Insecure, black women are bonded, not divided, by their respective insecurities. In the second episode, the two women chat over brunch after a failed night out. Surrounded by the archetypal restaurant patrons of a gentrifying South Los Angeles, the duo immediately launch into a recap of their night. “So,” Molly says, throwing Issa a knowing glance. “You’re trying to tell me that you went all the way to Daniel’s house and nothing happened, like at all.” She gives Issa another look as her friend avoids eye contact and sips her drink.
It’s an exchange characteristic of most female friendships: Mundane chatter mixed with support and a healthy dose of endearing scolding. Molly labels the fight between the two friends as dramatic, but ends her mild interrogation with “bitch, you buggin.’” She evokes a sense of familiarity with Issa, one that understands her friend as both well intentioned and flawed. This allows the conversation to pivot to a discussion of what both women want to become, separate from the men who step in and out of their lives. At the end of the previous night at the bar, Issa stepped up to an open mic to perform “Broken Pussy,” a rap in honor of her friend’s miserable dating life. Molly asks Issa if she is “tryna to be a rapper now,” delivering a swift and necessary message that while she loves her friend, she’s not buying her mixtape. “You used to be that person, all freestyle and drunk in my backseat and shit.” In one fell swoop, Molly manages to admonish, advise, and support her best friend—a complexity not found in many female friendships on television.
In just a few short episodes, Insecure has proved to be a show not just about the trials of one awkward black girl, but about the anxiety and uncertainty felt by most black women. What does it mean to embody confidence as a black woman despite being cast as the nation’s least desirable character? How does one manage to juggle the external pressures of their race while also attempting to live a full and honest life? It’s extraordinary how ordinary Issa and Molly are together. Rae, in an interview with
Fast Company, said: “I don’t want to invalidate anybody’s black experience. But it seems to me [on television], we’re either extremely magical, or we’re extremely flawless. But we don’t get to just be boring.” But despite how unspectacular the titular character and her best friend are, Molly and Issa’s friendship remains atypical for television, where authentic female friendships are rare—and authentic black female friendships even more so.
Complex friendships between black women may be becoming more visible on television, but the creeping, backhanded quality remains. A recent episode of Atlanta, Donald Glover’s brilliant new series on FX, attempts to contextualize its underdeveloped female lead, Van, through her friendship with an old friend, Jayde. Similar to Issa and Molly, Jayde and Van’s relationship is poignantly depicted over a meal, here in a half-empty upscale Thai restaurant. When Van arrives late from work, the two cautiously enter conversation. Deep breaths of air are taken, faces tighten, and obligatory compliments exchanged (“It’s good to see you, you look really good;” “You too, I like your hair.”) But Van and Jayde’s relationship is fraught with tension only tempered by their history. Van is a single mother in a “it’s complicated” relationship with Earn, her college dropout ex-boyfriend and father of her child. Her life decisions have made Van, in the words of Jayde, “one of those girls they used to make fun of.” Jayde, on the other hand, lives an expensive lifestyle exclusively funded by the high-profile athletes she dates. Their divergent lifestyles are an obvious source of tension, as the two friends punctuate their conversation with petty jabs. While Jayde and Van’s relationship is honest—these relationships do, in fact, exist—it falls into the same trope of female friendship a la Girls. They may love each other, but they don’t necessarily like each other.
Molly and Issa are arguably just as different as Van and Jayde. Molly is a high-powered and successful lawyer. She is beloved by both her white colleagues at her firm and the black people in their neighborhood, a sign of her ability to effortlessly move between multiple spaces. Molly, like Jayde, is all white pantsuits, perfectly coiffed hair, and the most obvious example of the successful and confident black woman. Issa prefers t-shirts with Prince on them. She works at a nonprofit whose mission seeks to uplift urban youth; a space where questions like “Issa, what’s on fleek?” affirms her position as black cultural ambassador. She lives with her unemployed, but “definitely going to start a business” boyfriend, and, unlike Molly, she rarely goes for the things she wants. According to the superficial template of black female friendships, Issa and Molly should not be friends. Like Van and Jade, they should be—at best—frenemies.
Where Insecure succeeds is in its ability to take two distinct black females, each with their own complex lives, and bring them together. Their friendship helps them navigate their respective insecurities, existent because of and perpetuated by forces outside of themselves. When Molly laments about her love life, Issa is there to console and support her; when Issa confesses her frustrations about being less than the person she imagined herself to be, Molly is there to remind her that she is still that person. There exists moments when they call each other out; but these realistically feel well intentioned. Molly and Issa are not special because they are black women with insecurities; they are special because their friendship anchors both the show and their chaotic lives.
Still, there is a lot Issa doesn’t tell Molly, there’s a lot Issa keeps from most people. While their insecurity fuels the authenticity of their friendship, the show also shows that these two women can be cruel in their insecurities—especially in their romantic lives. Issa and Molly fail to be good friends to people outside their bubble: As their relationship goes through a rift, Issa quickly rejects many of Lawrence’s attempts at reconciliation. She fails to listen to him, prompting Lawrence to call her out during dinner: “Issa, can you pay attention. You didn’t even ask about my shit. You’re not in this alone, I’m fucking trying.” Molly’s insecurities about the type of black man she will end up with leads her to clumsily and cruelly end her budding relationship with Jared, employing the same line tirelessly used on her: “Look Jared, I gotta be honest with you, I’m just not looking for a relationship right now.” These moments complicate Molly and Issa, suggesting that the strength of their relationship lies not just in having insecurities, but in their ability to communicate them.