The first episode of HBO’s Insecure introduces viewers to “Issa,” played by Issa Rae, on her 29th birthday. She’s in a job that seems just okay, and in a relationship that is at least a little unfulfilling. Her live-in boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), is unemployed currently, but working on the next best app of the future. (A moment of silence for anyone who can relate on either side of that equation.) She is not an alpha female like Olivia Pope, or a ticking time bomb like Mary Jane. She is something Black women rarely get to be on television: endearing, flawed, and overly self-aware. She’s comfortable with parts of who she is, and not necessarily uncomfortable with examining the parts of her life that could otherwise make her inadequate. Instead, she wears some of her insecurity on her sleeve.
From the onset, Insecure is not just another show about a woman living in a big city trying to find who she is and what she wants as she traverses the world of romantic and platonic relationships, while also trying not to fail at being a working professional. Insecure is nuanced, complex and unapologetically Black — not only that, it speaks to the experience of what it means to be a Black Millennial today.
But what does being a Black Millennial entail? Well, like many a Millennial experience, it is ultimately about trying to find and put together the different pieces of one’s life without the entire thing falling apart spectacularly — as sometimes happens in real life, and in Insecure. Being a Black Millennial is about how to do all of that that and retain a Black consciousness and identity whether one finds themselves in Black spaces, white spaces, or “mixed company.” In other words, figuring out how to be Black without being only Black, and trying to communicate this nuance in everything from your hair, to the music you like, to how to talk to your coworkers when they ask you questions like, “What’s ‘on fleek’?” Yes, that happened in the show and is a pitch perfect example of how easily microaggressions occur in white spaces with well-meaning white people.
As the season goes on, Insecure subtly and continually depicts Black Millennial struggles in the workplace. Issa is well-aware that as a Black woman in a mostly white workplace, she is not given the same space to mess up as her co-workers are. This is even more pronounced in the case of Molly, who works at a law firm and is expected to be the “guide” to a younger Black associate who, in stereotypical fashion, wears her Blackness a little bit too loudly and proudly in the workplace. I don’t think I can throw a rock at a Black Millennial in a white-dominated professional setting who has not had at least one of those experiences.
Where Insecure radically shines as a television show is the way it depicts the friendship between Issa and Molly. This is nothing new — sitcoms such as Girlfriends or Living Single have explored the importance of Black, female friendships for their respective generations — but the honesty of how both Molly and Issa discuss men, relationships, sex, and sexuality is refreshing. It is also refreshing that neither of them is a stereotype.
While Issa is the one in the long-term relationship that she’s uncertain of, she’s not a Black woman “supporting her man” through it all. She loves him, yes, but she loves herself too, and enough to be selfish. While initially we, the viewers, think of Lawrence and his lack of “getting his shit together” as the reason for why their relationship is unfulfilling, it is clear too that Issa does not give 100% to the relationship, and ends up causing more harm to it than he does.
Molly, on the other hand, could fall easily into the archetype of the career-driven strong, Black woman professional who can’t “keep a man,” but is shown to have more depth. She does indeed possess a strength that keeps her looking for love, but also a softness that allows her to be hurt as she continually fails to find it in the way she imagines. She, too, is insecure.
But perhaps the best part about Insecure in its portrayal of Black millennials is the realness of it all. The realness of shopping at Rite-Aid. The realness of the hyperawareness of trying to not be that Black coupe fighting at Rite-Aid. The realness of you and your friends having different lives that are depicted by the jobs you have, and the apartments you can afford. The realness of struggling to date when you’re single, and struggling to be in a relationship with someone who is imperfect and flawed in different ways than you.
Black Millennials don’t often get to see themselves in storylines this nuanced, complex, and even mundane. In Insecure, the characters normalize being alive, being young, and not quite having it all figured out. In Insecure, we experience a show where both the humanity and imperfections of being a person, and being a young, Black person are given full attention, and without compromise.
Kovie Biakolo is a culture writer and editor, and a multiculturalism scholar. She is grateful to live in New York City during the time of Google Maps.