Issa Rae’s Insecure, which debuted on HBO Sunday, is not a groundbreaking idea for a television show. Two best friends in Los Angeles, Issa and Molly (Yvonne Orji), go to work, hang out, go to parties, go to CVS, grab dinner, check Facebook, text, watch TV. Yet Insecure feels like a breath of fresh air, committed to portraying black people in a way they are rarely shown on television: living ordinary lives.
Of course, there were other shows like Girlfriends that paved the way for something like Insecure to exist. But Issa Rae is opening even more doors. In 2011, she launched her web series Awkward Black Girl, which gained over 20 million views and 200,000 subscribers, and led to her deal with HBO.
I chatted with Issa Rae about Insecure, being a voice for black women, and the word “bitch.”
There are two elements from Awkward Black Girl, the rapping and the awkward workplace, that made their way into Insecure. Why did you include them?
I’ve always had awkward workplace environments and I feel like that was very reflective of just being black and the only black voice in a writers’ room or in my job or in my school. It just felt very true to life to me. Then the rapping, I love it as a device. I knew that if I ever did a show and I was the lead again, I wanted to take that device from Awkward Black Girl. I like this idea of someone being passive aggressive and shy about getting their feelings out and then using that to be like I’m gonna gangsta rap my way out of my problems. Even her being in the bathroom to do it felt like the right place, because that’s where you’re the most vulnerable.
It’s one of the reasons why people listen to rap. To get out their emotions.
To let loose. Or I just want a different state of mind, or I’m angry. Even in terms of our music choices for this show, that was something that I wanted to reflect too, like a feeling.
What was it like transitioning from a web series to an HBO show?
Just trying to figure out how to put a lot of voices into my own voice and to make sure that I was confident enough to be like, I feel like I know where this is going, I think I do know best in terms of where these characters are going, because you’re dealing with a lot of smart people. You’re dealing with a lot of opinionated people and in some cases they are just looking to you to be like yes or no. Being placed in that position of leadership when you don’t really ask for it, when you’re just like, I want to create, is kind of hard. But I think doing a web series really helped me to prepare for that, because you’re managing it on a more micro-level. It just becomes a bigger deal when it’s a bigger network.
And the resources are significantly different.
That was another thing. Having more money at HBO to be able to do more stuff was a great thing, but it was also like, wait, we have to spend this much money to do this? Like, why can’t we just put the camera on the hood and be done with this? I’ve been doing this. There are just more rules and regulations and so that’s when I have to take a step back and be like, well, y’all are the professionals.
In the first episode, there’s a moment where Molly and Issa sing the Girlfriends theme song. How has that show and Mara Brock Akil influenced you as a creator?
I love her. She’s being doing this for a long time and I feel like she doesn’t get enough credit for how much she’s paved the way for so many shows and so many actresses. Even my showrunner currently, Prentice [Penny], his first writing job ever was on Mara Brock Akil’s Girlfriends. She’s been extremely supportive just in terms of giving us words of encouragement, promoting our show. So we definitely wanted to pay homage to her in the first episode just to be like, you did this for us, girl.
How much do you relate to your character on Insecure?
I feel like she’s me if I didn’t know what I wanted to do. She’s definitely the essence of me as a person and me as a friend. Sometimes I do shitty things, and sometimes I’m inconsiderate as a friend, but I do a lot of things to show my appreciation for my friends, too.
At the moment, she’s just focused on herself and concerned about her happiness, so that could come off as selfish.
That comes from her decision to want to be more active. She’s just like, eff it, I’m going to do that. I’m making this conscious decision because I’ve been letting life happen to me so now eff it, I am going to text back, eff it, I am going to go out and do what I want to do. And it may be at the expense of others.
Issa’s best friend Molly is a 30-year-old black woman who is super successful and can’t find a man. It sounds like a stereotype—how did you defy that on Insecure?
We’re not claiming to be the voice of all black women. We’re trying to tell a very specific, nuanced story. I think another show might hang your head or hang everything on that trope, just to be like, this is why men suck because black women are everything, but we’re really just going into the character development. We’re forcing Molly to be introspective and it’s not everything that defines her. It’s also real as fuck. Stereotype or not, there’s some element of truth that it comes from. These are conversations I have with a lot of my successful girlfriends all the time about how they just can’t find a guy or people aren’t interested in them. I have a lot of married friends, I have a lot of friends who are in great relationships, but I also have a lot of friends who are single and who feel like they are worth more. So to dismiss it as a stereotype is also kind of unfair.
How did you find Yvonne Orji for this role?
Yvonne Orji is amazing, and I had been following her since 2008. She’s a comedian, we’re both African, and I had gone to this L.A. African fashion show that happens yearly and she always hosts it. I remember watching her on stage one particular year and I was like, she reminds me of my best friend. Then when it came time to cast for this, I asked her to audition, but of course we were seeing a bunch of women and a bunch of women were great, but she just brought something that no one else did. And got better and better with each audition.
You’ve created a show about black women for a major network, and that’s something that doesn’t happen often. Then, getting even deeper, you’ve created a show about black women starring two dark-skinned women, and that happens even less often. Was that intentional?
It was something that I specifically sought to do. I wanted to have two dark-skinned women as leads who were still desirable and still were to a degree—it’s called Insecure—but they still have a sense of confidence in who they are. We don’t get to see that. For me, that was an important choice. Even when there are shows about two black girls, there’s always the need to do, like, let’s do a dark-skinned one and a light-skinned one and that’s how we have a balance. You have the whole spectrum now. I was just like, one of my real-life best friends is dark and beautiful, and I just wanted to reflect that, too.
“Bitch” is used pretty frequently on Insecure, between Issa and Molly and their other girlfriends. My best friend and I were joking about how there would be thinkpieces about that specific element of your show. Were you ever thinking about the possible backlash?
I have gotten a couple of questions and just feedback about why do we have to call these women “bitches.” I completely get it, but I didn’t think about it when writing it because that is how I talk with my friends. I remember when I first moved back to L.A. and went to high school out here, the first time a friend called me bitch in an endearing way and I remember being jarred like, nuh uh, don’t call me that…do we have to fight now? Because I don’t know how to fight. I guess I have to fight her. And then it just became a part of my vernacular. It is a term of endearment. I didn’t think about it in this way that’s like degrading women because that’s just not how it’s used anymore among us. So, bring the thinkpieces on, I don’t care.
Like, to be a bad bitch today isn’t negative.
Yes, that’s like goals. You’re like, thank you so much…I’ve been working on it.
What do you hope to accomplish with this series?
I just want to force people to relate to black people. That’s kind of what I want the legacy to be. For people to look back and be like, “Oh my gosh these human black characters, I saw myself in them and I didn’t know that I could.”
Like, “Wow! They’re people, too.”
[Laughs.] Yes, they’re people, too. And then, I do really consider it “for us, by us television,” so I want people to connect with it and claim it as their own.