2020 TV Essays

From ‘Sex’ to ‘Girls’ to ‘Insecure’: HBO’s Feminist and Intersectional Chronicle

Insecure HBO

Ever since American television’s post-network era began, HBO has continued to distinguish itself by the signature slogan “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Since launching in 1972, the network has long viewed its programming as elite, and the seminal female-fronted program Sex and the City (1998-2004) made HBO a magnet for talented producers, directors and writers, especially for its ability to include obscenities and nudity, and also because of its deep pocket for generous funding. With Insecure (2016-present), HBO has come a long way in representing the intersectionality of race and gender.

HBO’s ever-changing branding and rebranding process has been not only in response to contemporary America’s growing feminist consciousness and racial awareness, but also to attract certain audience demographics. Since the 2010s, the network has been trying to establish niche audiences by targeting younger female demographics with realistic and relatable stories, rather than pushing forward the idealized post-feminist imagery of elitist white women as represented in Sex and the City.

The pre-condition of HBO’s shift was defined by Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012-2017) as both the predecessor and all-white counterpart of Insecure . To complement rebranding strategies, Girls was paired with Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014) and True Blood (2008-2014), which were led by white male auteurs Martin Scorsese and Alan Ball, respectively. In comparison, the “legitimacy” of Dunham as a major showrunner and constituent of HBO’s big plan became “questionable.” The troubling subtlety of assigning Judd Apatow as Girls’  big-name executive producer alongside Dunham underscored HBO’s then dilemma of post-feminist representation versus the shadow of white male clout in the television industry.

Adam Driver and Lena Dunham in Girls

Insecure dives into Black female representation with its Black female showrunner Issa Rae, who comes from an indie background like Dunham. However, Rae wants Black people, especially Black women, to relate to what she describes as a renaissance in Black TV and film. When The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe asked Rae if she fears “a white backlash in Hollywood similar to the one that brought Trump to power,” Insecure’s co-creator and star responded by saying,“If we were in a more conservative industry, I might. I have seen certain networks say, ‘We need to represent middle America more,’ as a result of the current administration being elected. But every meeting that I’ve been in, the energy is about empowering story tellers of color. So many people have woken up. This political climate has made people realize, ‘Oh shit, racism is a thing, and I have the power to empower voices of color.’”

Rae’s statement connects America’s current sociopolitical climate of POC empowerment with the television industry affirmatively seeking intersectional representation. On the other hand, Rae also emphasizes the still prevalent racism that needs to be directly addressed in television narratives, and how PC characters should call out the fallacy of post-racial discourse and colorblind racism.

Issa Rae in Insecure

In the Key & Peele sketch “Obama’s Anger Translator – Meet Luther,” the on-screen narrative and visual juxtaposition of Barack Obama (Jordan Peele) and Luther (Keegan-Michael Key) demonstrates a mind/body split of Black masculinity. This paradox exposes the suffocation of Blackness in the actual public sphere, because Luther’s Black rage would remind the nation about the post-racial myth and force Americans to recognize authentic Black identity and actual racial tension. Due to Insecure’s Black female perspective, the series achieves the same meaning-making capacity of Key & Peele as a Black American satire. This satirical meaning-making is manifested in the show’s self-deprecatory and self-reflexive portrayal of an authentic Black female experience marked by its lead character’s awkwardness and insecurity, the result of being denied by a self-deceptive “post-racial America.”

The television industry’s ever-growing interest and apparent effort in seeking Black talents contextualize Rae’s success from an indie, web-series-based background incentivized by “BAMMS (Black American media moguls).” In Rae’s web-series Awkward Black Girl before Insecure, she was already telling personal stories about being a Black woman in L.A. In turn, her new media background fits into HBO’s most recent rebranding process of intersectional programming. Awkward Black Girl  delineates the awkward experience of Black women who navigate around their career and love life hindered by racism, misogyny and toxic white benevolence, which gets further developed into Insecure with HBO’s funding and production resources.

Throughout Insecure’s four seasons, Issa (Rae) constantly raps her insecurities to the bathroom mirror, which is also contextually mirrored by HBO’s insecurity facing the ever-intensifying competitions with streaming platforms regarding intersectional representation. Rae’s self-reflexivity of representing Black American women echoes the show’s intertextual integration of hip-hop, with the stream-of-consciousness lyrics replacing a traditional protagonist’s monologues and voiceovers. The set piece in Insecure’s pilot, in which Issa performs her improvisational rap song “Broken Pussy,” instantly establishes the keynote of being a single Black woman in Los Angeles, whose life is filled with anxiety and angst derived from unfulfilling interpersonal relationships and racial inequalities of the broader society.

Issa Rae in Insecure

Before Issa strikes up the courage to perform “Broken Pussy” on stage in front of the crowd, she communicates with herself by rapping about the existential crisis crawling through her everyday life. This self-reflexivity of extending a Black women’s struggle and discomfort towards the broader spectatorship is a vulnerable yet unapologetic inquiry into those viewers who still believe in colorblind hypocrisy and idealized post-feminism.

Weiting Liu (@bangsongliu) is a cinephile and television enthusiast based in Los Angeles. Her current career interests include freelance writing of film/tv criticism regarding race, gender and intersectionality in contemporary America, as well as academic pursuit of Film Studies concentrating on sociopolitical Chinese/East Asian cinema.