In recent years, the western world has seen an abundance of black faces on television. From Kerry Washington as Scandal’s Olivia Pope to Loni Love as co-host of daytime talk show The Real, the black female body appears prominent where she was once obscure. Featuring blacks as professionals appears a necessary shift away from caricatured imaging that plagued past representations like Mammy in Gone with The Wind and Sapphire from Amos n’ Andy. However, the influx of visible black female bodies appeases rather than challenges white supremacy, employing visibility as a means to symbolize a change that has yet to occur.
Writer and actress Issa Rae rose to fame a few years back with her Youtube series Awkward Black Girl. The series accrued significant popularity landing Ms. Rae an HBO series entitled Insecure that mirrors the tone and premise of her Youtube series. Insecure centers on Issa, a young black woman who at twenty-nine is educated, employed and in a relationship. The series depicts Issa as loved by all whom compose her life, yet ironically the series’ protagonist is overtly out of love with herself. This lack of love Issa conveys for herself affects the tone of the show and ultimately how the character comes across to viewers . To put it bluntly, Issa and the entirety of the black female cast is vastly unlikeable. Interestingly enough, the series depicts redeeming black male characters—all in which endure rejection from black women due to their strive to exist outside the systems of white supremacy.
Issa’s boyfriend Laurence (Jay Ellis) for example, is a gifted techie whose ability does not manifest into conventional success. The series does a good job depicting the toll Laurence’s adversity takes on him, showing a pre-employed Laurence as sweet but slightly unpolished and sometimes idle. The series also depicts Laurence as a college educated black man who loves Issa and eventually pursues conventionality for the sake of their relationship. In fact, Laurence takes a job at a company drastically lagging in the advancements present in his own initiatives to sustain Issa’s happiness. Issa not only proves unsupportive of Laurence’s ideas but visibly annoyed at any of his non-lucrative attempts to showcase his skills. This dynamic illustrates the contemporary black female as an assimilatory figure.
Similarly, Issa’s best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) also illustrates the black female body as striving to adhere to western convention. Namely, Molly depicts the black female as emotionally desperate, despite consummating conventional success. Molly illustrates an image consistent with predecessors Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating and Mary Jane Paul, all whom exceed societal expectations yet prove incompatible to romance. Viewers watch Molly interact with a number of men, all of whom are drawn to her sexually. Molly continually rejects Jared— the sole male character to express an actual interest in her. Like Laurence, Jared does not have conventional success, but unlike Laurence Jared did not attend school. Jared also makes a confession that speaks to a sexual fluidity that ultimately disqualifies him as a prospect for Molly’s affection. This issue I have with this depiction is that it displays the black woman as incongruent to honesty. Generally, everyone in relationships desires at least some form of honesty. In this case, Molly receives honesty from a prospective love interest yet is seemingly unable to coexist with the truth as rendered. This depiction validates dishonesty, illustrating the black female psyche as too ingrained in western standards to engage functionally with black men because she holds him accountable to western standards. Moreover, as an assimilationist, the black woman is more of an ally to whites than to her own people.
Issa and Molly collaboratively depict the black woman as implementing assimilatory action to ease the insecurity inured in a white supremacist society– an act that ironically proves counterproductive. It is white supremacy that foments a strive towards conventional success. It is white supremacy that nurtures an inaquedacy in those without higher education, six figure salaries and five bedroom mansions.This being said, I will admit that oddly Insecure helped me to observe the assimilatory tools placed on my own path. I too have been nurtured into insecurity, silently encouraged to chase conventional success and deemed unsuccessful in any failure to adhere to these standards. This show however, is yet another means to nurture said insecurity. Namely, Issa Rae’s decision to create a series that caricatures back female bodies to traditional stereotypes reflects a desire for fame and fortune at the expense of furthering the black female collective.
Insecure also does little to dissolve black female correspondence to hyper sexuality. Where popular series Scandal, Being Mary Jane and How to Get Away With Murder hyper sexuualize their protagonists by making them companions to married men, Insecure takes a vastly different route. Insecure hyper sexualizes protagonist Issa by casting her as the series’ philanderer. This act not only depicts her disloyalty to her boyfriend, but depicts Issa as undeserving of said loyalty. Alternatively, Molly is seen engaging in intercourse with numerous men— none of who initiate any kind of commitment first. The series pushes forth an ongoing joke in “Broken P@SSy”– a diagnosis given to Molly by Issa. It is Molly’s broken genitals that account for her constant heartache. This assertion not only renders a black woman’s genitals as a primal source of power, but suggests that without this functioning sexual organ she is virtually worthless.
Collaboratively, Issa and Molly resume the black female narrative depicted on Scandal, Being Mary Jane and How to Get Away with Murder, painting the contemporary black female body in the pernicious image of 1954’s Carmen– attractive but utterly self-destructive (Bogle). Contemporary portrayals of black femininity commonly validate the systemic disenfranchisement extended to black women, simultaneously suggesting this villainous sexuality is the catalyst of said disenfranchisement not white supremacy.
Shows like Insecure easily garner white approval and sponsorship because while they may contain the occasional “conscious” or “enlightened” moment intertwined with its witty dialogue, the series suggest that blacks create and administer their own misfortune. Furthermore, Insecure provides the means necessary to fester the wound of white supremacy.
Namely, Issa and Molly suggest that discontent and insecure black female bodies occur as a product of blackness– seducing its viewers into a social amnesia that erases the impact following centuries of oppression endured at the hands of whites. Believing that blacks caused their own demise also foments the belief that whites, not stolen land and labor, produced white wealth. Furthermore, social amnesia breeds the very insecurity referenced in the series’ title as insecurity remains an inevitable destination for those convinced that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery. Contemporary television employs the dynamics of slavery–namely, using the black body as a gateway to the black mind. Television functions similarly to the historic chains and whips that bruised and restrained the black body to ingrain inferiority into the very blood spilled in the process. Only, I’d argue that television is much more dangerous because at least with chains and whips one was fully aware of their limitations and physical assault. The contemporary world employs television as a means to numb the black body to blows that manifest in the form of entertainment.