Sister, Sister: An Investigation of the Black Woman, the Media, and the Fight for Visibility
By Tre Johnson @trejohns1978
Insecure does something different than its network predecessors Sex and The City and Girls. As Issa Rae and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), navigate a world that doesn’t seem designed for them, it gives these two women a complex relationship that is the core romance on the show. With Insecure, their relationship is intent on building each other up because of their respective insecurities, a dynamic that succeeds in ways that the SATC and Girls never consistently do, and gives Issa and Molly a roundedness the other shows don’t possess. The cadence of Issa and Molly’s fast-clicking, graphic, intimate banter—covering everything from the bullshit of work; respective dating hypocrisies; pushing, hating and loving each other, but still making plans to hang—are so haphazard that they feel real, so each scene feels less like watching performances and more like voyeurism. That means you won’t find the static 2-D facsimiles in Insecure that define the other two shows; there aren’t obvious archetypes available for women to play at bachelorette parties and girls-only wine-tour and beach house weekends. Even their titles feel allergic to growth, with the characters never seeming interested in moving outside their fairly mundane upwardly-mobile white lives, instead, swapping men and shoes until the right ones fit to keep walking.
No, Issa and Molly are more rounded and complex because the two women feel like actual people, not squeamish urbanites with occasional odd affectations for non-white middle-class lifestyles that occasionally drifts inside their bubble. That’s not to say that Insecure doesn’t have a bubble; it too runs a tight orbit of friendship circles, social outings and locations. The social core of the show’s settings is blissfully devoid of obligatory whiteness while trafficking the same topical terrains as white circles. Yet every episode we see that bubble burst because, unlike the women of SATC and Girls, Issa and Molly don’t have the same static homogeneity as their white female counterparts, something we’re reminded about every time they go into their respective offices. Here, Insecure’s roundedness and complexity help to raise the stakes that those other two shows play in as occasionally angry, emotional, insecure black women they aren’t just about perception in the workplace, but employment too. As interlopers in white dominant spaces and largely the only blacks in their jobs, there’s an insecurity and paranoia about placement and being replaced due to both opaque and arbitrary caches that each woman possesses in her formal and informal positions at work.
Each week their professional dynamics feel like the place where the stakes aren’t just played higher and better—there’s none of the reassurance of finding a new internship, another parent paycheck or a financially stable partner—but feel like the wrong step or perceived step has some actual consequences. In this, Insecure oddly feels confident in a way that the other shows haven’t: a strong blend of real stakes and comedy at the same time. The show’s tone adjusts each time they’re at work; their organic, easygoing identities outside of work now feeling like they’re smothered under masks that threaten to slide off, making their everyday interaction with their white co-workers into something of bad theatre. Both battle with the advantages and disadvantages of being the black (woman) at work.
For Issa it’s how she precariously chooses to leverage her sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly solicited blackness at her non-profit that serves low-income minority kids. For Molly, her tightrope is about maintaining a whitewashed, safe blackness at work that makes her safe, but often invisible, which gets threatened as soon as a new black woman shows up, getting a different amount of social cache and visibility that’s eluded Molly during her tenure. As Molly tries to coach Rasheeda on the proper etiquette at the firm, Rasheeda rebuffs her in a way that at one point suggests that maybe Molly is the problem, only to learn later on that neither one of them have mastered how to operate authentically in white spaces.
This balance of authenticity versus compliance is one of the many hazards for the everyday black woman in the professional world and it’s exactly the space where Leslie Jones often found herself this year. While the Ghostbusters remake already found itself at the center of a misogynistic maelstrom born out of the protest to the all-female cast, there was another issue it had to contend with, too: Leslie Jones and race. In Ghostbusters, Jones’ character Patty Tolan is an MTA worker whose greatest asset to the team is “street smarts” due to her extensive knowledge of the NYC subway system and streets, able to guide the ghostbuster team to the fastest routes in the city. As driver and team muscle (there’s a scene where she pulls teammates dangling from a window) Jones’ character literally carries the cast in the movie; a role for both the character and the comedienne that feels unequal to the more “cerebral” roles the other characters are given. Jones is an exuberant comedienne who often feels like someone snatched from the audience and asked to improvise, though so much of this plays to Jones’ strengths we’ve seen in Saturday Night Live sketches and Chris Rock’s Top 5. It’s been a brand she’s smartly curated for herself that’s made black audiences feel uncomfortable with its application—Jones is unapologetically loud, enthusiastic, brash and happy—a significant part of her charm is her willingness to commit to every role and opportunity. The impact and message were clear and direct though; while all Ghostbusters stars received online vitriol for their temerity to remake a middling 1980s property, Leslie was the only one was singled out of the pack. Threatened via a series of unrelentingly violent, misogynistic, racist attacks on Twitter and social media, an all-out, constant assault was released on her that included everything from comparing her to Harambe to releasing private information ranging from her home address and driver’s license and supposed nude pictures of the comedian. It was all enough to drive Jones into a sort of social media seclusion that she had to be eventually coaxed out of by a throng of public support ranging from Ghostbusters collaborators Kristen Wiig and Paul Feig; SNL costars; and a hashtag campaign #BlackMenSupportLeslie.
The whole ordeal was disgusting, but ironic too; not two years before, Jones had upset many in the black community with a “Weekend Update” bit where she talked about longing for the days of slavery where she’d at least have companionship due to the slavemasters desire to exploit Jones’ body—a six-foot-tall, solidly built, dark-skinned black woman—for breeding “super babies”, as she largely found herself alone in a modern day America that seemingly rejects her. The bit was funny, uncomfortable and controversial (arguably no more than Jones’ contemporaries of Chappelle, Rock, and Hart, though) and clearly rooted in not only history but personal pain too. It also made it clear that Jones, at the time the only Black woman on SNL, was living a rather solitary life that you imagine Issa and Molly could relate to. Fast-forward to two years later and here is the internet turning on her again, though in an uglier fashion rooted in history and her joke to some extent—her body was being violated and attacked all over again at the hands of men. And once again, Jones felt alone, it taking weeks for Twitter to shut down her leading bully Milo Yiannopoulos and then working its way to the dozens of other accounts that trolled her.
This isn’t surprising, though; Jones comes in the same package as women like Viola Davis and Michelle Obama, who have both been similarly mocked and dismissed for their ‘unconventional’ beauty as dark-skinned, wide-nosed, curvy black women, opening the door ape-referenced memes and judgments based on their blackness. Even as society is forced to make room for these women at the table, there’s a tremendous amount of backlash determined to remind them that their best asset should be silence.
But 2016 has been the very opposite of that for black women; it’s been a year where they’ve played with societal volume. It started with Beyonce’s bombastic re-emergence at the top of the year in the form of “Formation”, the song that galvanized her day one soldiers—black women—inside of an album that delivered a message that was pro-black and specifically, pro-black woman, a move that removed Beyonce from the perch of being the mythical race-transcendent cultural icon and instead something lower grade and political in the public’s eye: black. With symbolism ranging from the Black Panthers to Katrina, to Their Eyes Were Watching God, Beyonce did something that she hadn’t explicitly done in awhile: she turned up the volume and spoke, loudly, to black women. Lemonade might’ve been laden with conversations about did-he-or-didn’t-he in terms of Jay’s fidelity, but there was another question here, too: was-she-or-wasn’t-she talking to me finally? That answer was clear not only with “Formation” but with the subsequent Lemonade visual album, an ode to the black woman’s walk through life that might’ve felt like a journal reading for many. Here was an important entry that not only fit within the color-spectrum of other black women-centered narratives—with soft echoes of The Bluest Eye, The Color Purple, here was Lemonade with its own mix of color and emotion—but one that also trucked in the modern Black America pains, too; it politicked as it clicked its 6-inch heels.
At this point, we’re familiar with what that politicking presented and how it was received. “Boycott Beyonce” a move she smartly co-opted going into the Formation World Tour became a shield against the misogyny and racism clawing at her after she made statements in support of the #blacklivesmatter social movement and the desire to see justice for the black lives lost to police brutality. The result of these stances; soft-bellied, cowardly missives from various police unions and representatives threatening to leave her shows unguarded and lacking security was a wider entry into the way that, similar to Leslie Jones, were another series of trolls that threatened her body, leveraging its worth against their politics and identity. In many ways, “Boycott Beyonce” and “Formation” were pre-Clinton slogans; the earlier test-runs of #Imwithher and #strongertogether of a candidate that at the height of “Formation” popularity talked about how she proudly carried hot sauce in her bag too, yet was slow to pronounce that black lives matter. Despite all of this though, months later on the eve of a lost election, there was Beyonce on stage in Cleveland, OH performing for Hillary’s campaign, doing what black women have shown themselves doing best; showing up and standing up even when they’ve been co-opted, dancing on water, rising above us all.
While Beyonce’s the bigger star in the family, she still couldn’t overtake the meditative, melodic murmur of sister Solange’s A Seat at the Table; a comprehensive look at black resilience, anger, and healing through everything from mental health, to gentrification, to black death and back again. While Beyonce trafficked in much louder, graphic discourse on a black woman’s pain—a window-smashing, ball-sucking, hurt me-nah-hurt-you lesson in cathartic healing—Solange’s album serves at a therapy session of sorts; acknowledging the stages of grief, anger, hurt and need for self-care to move forward. In many ways, the sisters switched places on these projects—Beyonce primarily being the one to provide how-to’s on moving on and moving up (“to the left, to the left”; “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it”), while Solange was the one that trucked in anger and pessimism presented as reality: True had tracks titled “Some Things Never Seem to F*cking Work” and “Don’t Let Me Down”.
“Don’t Let Me Down”, oddly, could have been the title this year for black women though we spent all year watching the waters recess from them. Marilyn Mosby, the leading Baltimore city DA that loudly declared that she’d bring justice to Freddie Gray’s murder, watched the gradual, persistent erosion of public and private support; as her trials mounted loss after loss, the roar of support for her and justice quieted to a dispirited din. During that span too, a growing disquiet also emerged as the Department of Justice released a report detailing the systemic racism, sexual abuse and corruption at the hands of Baltimore PD, the same troupe that first sought to silence Mosby through a published letter in the Baltimore Sun, and later, provoking scrutiny about their complicit silence in the shoot-out with single black mother, Korryn Gaines.
This weekend, outside our window, a group of Philadelphians marched chanting Not My President over and over again as they paraded down the street. It’s been part of a wider desperation post-November 8th, where now, all the things that black people have been doing under scrutiny for the last three years, has now become, not only, palatable but necessary: protests. Naming white supremacy and its undeniable, systemic power. Gone are the times of rationalizations; that hair-trigger reflex we’ve become all-too-familiar with that sought to limit black’s fears, pain, and paranoia with the steady, patronizing, objective hand of white rationale in situations ranging from implicit biases in the workplace to social networks. Now, now that hate has gone viral and straight to the White House, there’s been a collective call-to-action; internet pages and barrels of electronic ink devoted to parsing how we might topple this.
Imagine, though, how powerful it would be if another set of protests had bookended all of this: if black women, who came out at a 2016 election record high, but consistently high rates for the election this year, marched us all to the voting booth chanting Don’t Let Me Down. Imagine too, on the other side of the results, they led a different march than Not My President: You Let Me Down.
Those things didn’t happen, though, and now, suddenly, everyone wants to get into formation. Now more than ever we’ll perhaps understand what it means to live in a black woman’s world.
Now we’re all Insecure.
Tre Johnson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, PA. He writes on race, culture, politics and pop culture.