[Home] Girls: Insecure and HBO’s Risky Racial Politics




YEARS AGO, I wrote a note to my friends describing the myriad of feelings that emerged after I watched the series premiere of HBO’s Girls. In my missive, I despaired over the network opting not to pick up Spike Lee and Doug Ellin’s Da Brick, which was HBO’s first series in years developed with a Black (co-)showrunner. Returning to my frustration with the existence of Girls and the manner by which critics bent over backward to defend its exclusionary casting and failure to accurately represent the multiplicity of race and ethnicity in its New York setting, I wrote,

You know what I want? A show about black women. On HBO. Called [Home] Girls. And then I want the coverage to accuse the showrunner of not being inclusive enough to show white people. And I pray that some big-time black fairy godmother of show business (not Big O; shit, who??) would be an executive producer. And I hope that the writer of the series would say, “Hey, Girls did it first. Blame them. But if this works, maybe we’ll put them in season two.”

End missive.

Fast-forward four years and a version of [Home] Girls has entered HBO’s televisual landscape. After many starts and stops, independent producer Issa Rae — who forged an industry career creating innovative online content with the hit webseries Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and fostering a conclave of other projects under her Color Creative banner — finally has a television show on a coveted prestige network as well as a first-look production deal with the same. Rae’s patron shepherding her through the development process — in the same way that Lena Dunham had the full support of Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner — didn’t end up being Oprah, but rather veteran television producers Larry Wilmore and Prentice Penny. And, finally, there were few calls for Rae’s series to be racially inclusive because, unlike Dunham’s series, inclusivity was built into the fabric of the show.

At every level of Insecure’s construction, the series makes sure to speak to two audiences simultaneously: from its title that is inclusive in a way that the invisible but normatively understood (white) Girls never attempted to be, to the visual landscape that for Rae recoups South Los Angeles from past portrayals as “gang ridden and violent,” to the dimensional characterization of the leads, to the addition of title character Issa Dee’s white work partner. This type of bilingual audience address is not a new phenomenon for Black-centered productions. To the contrary, this act of bifurcating messages of universality and cultural specificity between two audiences is a long-held survival tactic in an industry that does not often allow marginalized groups access or entry. Consider as an example the strategy employed by co-showrunners Steven Bochco and Paris Barclay during the early promotion of CBS’s City of Angels in 2000. Concerned that a white audience would not watch a series featuring a predominantly Black cast while also desiring to see Black viewers come to the show, Bochco and Barclay respectively went to their demographic bases to sell two differing versions of the series. In press interviews, Bochco sold the drama as one not necessarily concerned with race-driven issues while Barclay asserted that a series like City allowed Black actors to stretch their characterizations more dimensionally than they were often allowed. In the end, the show failed for a variety of reasons (including poor storytelling and an inability to locate the tone of the series), yet, one of the unspoken causes is that it is hard to serve two masters.

Insecure is attempting a similar high-wire act. Executive producer Melina Matsoukas, for instance, recently suggested that the show is, “helpful in the way that when you watch it, you see the most basic thing which is black people are human! And have the same experiences as everybody else. With this show, it’s an opportunity to take your mind off of things, and realize at the end of the day we are all the same.” And Rae herself seems invested in arguing that while Blackness is foregrounded within the series, it still doesn’t fit in neat categories, but rather adapts to the personality one brings to it. As a result, the same tensions in generating audience comfort through the split lens of universality and cultural specificity emerge. The need for balance between universality and cultural specificity underscores how despite Insecure’s masterful fit with HBO’s current programming, it exists in part because of the subscription network’s perpetual need to redefine its brand.

Media Studies scholar Jennifer Fuller discusses how in the 1990s and 2000s, HBO and other cable networks branded themselves in strategic ways in order to challenge broadcast network dominance. One of those methods was to make risk work for them. Risk operates as both a structuring force for the industry and a descriptor for programming: one is dangerous while the other is sexy. Risk instills fear in programming executives at the same time that it positively motivates changes industrially. Hollywood, according to Joseph Turow, in general, tends to be risk averse; as a result, big changes often occur only in moments of crisis or turnover in leadership. However, in terms of programming, risk is a way to draw an audience and earn critical attention. There’s something about a conspicuously risky series that makes viewers feel as though the network is taking a chance with content for their benefit. And so, in an era of network programming that flagrantly excluded people of color from leading and supporting roles — culminating in the proposed network boycott of 1999 — HBO and other cable networks offered a risky alternative: racial diversity.

Fuller argues that part of the allure of using diversity as a strategic risk was that it had been done before to great success — on network television, of all places. Defined by Kristal Brent Zook as the “Fox Formula,” start-up networks such as Fox, the WB, and UPN would narrowcast their programming to Black viewers, considered an underserved audience, in hopes of connecting interested advertisers to this niche demographic. However, once the network found itself stable enough to switch its focus to the primary demographic of young urban whites, Black targeted programming was either ghettoized to one night a week or canceled altogether.

The disappearance of Black shows from the 1990s Big Four network television schedules and reappearance on cable illustrates a pattern of risk as an operational logic rather than a positive programming philosophy. Sociologist and television industry scholar Herman Gray develops this point when he posits that:

Black shows, where they were developed at all, were and are selectively deployed by major commercial networks as part of their overall marketing and branding strategy, a strategy and ideal demographic that in all likelihood does not include black people as a prime market.

Gray’s point is that it is neither goodwill nor a belief in equity that define when networks take on Black shows; rather, that they serve a purpose in establishing or reestablishing a brand through calculated risk.

What’s more, there are numbers to back up the risk necessary to generate the rewards. According to a 2004 study, Black households generate 20 percent of all cable revenue, while a 1997 Variety article reports, 20–22 percent of Black households had HBO subscriptions amounting to, “42 percent of all black households in the United States and nearly 60 percent of all black homes that subscribe to cable […] These same black households represent, according to HBO’s own statistics, slightly more than 30 percent of HBO’s total viewing pie.” More recently, Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur, in a story that queried what Black audiences watched on cable, included a chart that revealed that, in fact, Black viewers watch a variety of content — and not just Black-led series.

Nevertheless, during the 1990s and 2000s, HBO’s primary focus on Blackness in programming was limited to original films. Yet even then, it was designed with the bifurcated audience in mind. As Fuller asserts, “Combined with clear efforts to encourage black subscription, HBO seemed to be trying to attract blacks but not repel whites, a key strategy when the prevailing logic in the industry seemed to be that whites wouldn’t watch ‘black’ shows.” The racial bifurcation became smart strategy when, once cable became able to adequately compete with broadcast, they could reduce the Black programming and in most cases cancel it completely in favor of crafting a creative space for “quality” dramas that often excluded Black characters or showrunners, all the while keeping Black audiences subscribed. In this sense, universalist strategy — one designed to assure (white) mainstream audiences that the experiences onscreen are both “human” and “relatable” even though the characters may not look like them — became a key tactic for HBO.

Yet, at what cost comes this universal rhetoric? The labor of selling a series as fitting for “all” is expected from marginalized bodies — on press junkets and at promotional events — if they desire to reach a mainstream audience. But series with predominately white casts are not expected to sell themselves as universal and relatable because they always already operate within the normative and authentic standards by which we judge the human experience. White shows are de facto “universal.” Similar to colorblind casting — where race is not written into a script and the parts are rarely adjusted for people of color who book the role — the burden falls upon the person of color to perform his or her “sameness” in order to ensure that the preferred demographic is not alienated. And, like clockwork, in 2014, years after HBO quietly dismantles its Black original film programming unit, Maureen Ryan writes an incendiary piece on HBO’s lack of diversity, just as broadcast television fights for relevance against HBO’s very white “quality TV” with a renewed emphasis on diversity. Risk is how networks survive.

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And it is at this intersection of risk, quality, and cable that Insecure arises. As Jenna Wortham documented in 2015, the early development stages of the series were a misadventure of their own. After approving the script she co-wrote with Wilmore, Rae hired Matsoukas to direct the pilot and the network partnered her up with Penny to serve as her showrunner. However, HBO, once legendary for its commitment to creative freedom, made its presence felt immediately by rejecting Rae’s writer’s room — filled with young women of color — as lacking “experience.” The network ultimately elected to make those decisions for itself, leaving the hiring of directors and producers to Rae as a compromise. One can only imagine how Rae’s positionality as a Black female showrunner felt somewhat tenuous as she walked the fine racially bifurcated line necessary for a successful series launch. It is a tricky dance for creative laborers of color in the film and television industries because on one level they must embrace a rhetoric of sameness that not only elides their unequal professional footing, but can also encourage them to shed their sense of socio-historical specificity. In certain cases, they must not only create work that crosses over to a (white) mainstream audience, but often must disavow elements of their racial identity to remain gainfully employed.

To Insecure’s credit, it manages a mostly deft approach at tackling both sides of the bifurcation. The pilot episode, for me the weakest of the episodes screened for critics, brings (all of) us into Issa Dee’s world and introduces us to the lead’s not-yet-so-great-but-she’s-likely-grown-content-or-complacent life. In the series, Rae’s protagonist works for a — largely white — organization called “We Got Y’all,” that does outreach to young students of color. The episode begins with the predominantly Black students it is Issa’s job to help expose to the broader world, critiquing her Blackness. Moments of cultural specificity arise with jokes about educated Black women loving Drake because he gets us as well as Issa’s affinity for freestyle rapping to trap music. One can’t help but laugh when she begins her rap, “Broken Pussy,” because if you’ve seen Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta and know that former cast member K. Michelle often complained of having a broken “Hot Pocket,” then the joke’s intertextuality across networks and formats reinforces this imagined audience. Even the accuracy of Molly’s headscarf tie feels like subtle acknowledgment. Nevertheless, most of the problems Issa has — fear of “settling,” a fight with her best friend, general millenial insecurity — prove to be universal and generational.

But as the episodes progress, the racial specificity settles in and is allowed to take up more space within Insecure’s narrative. The series takes on a host of intertextual references from a Black Twitter joke about co-showering (evidently women’s showers are too hot for men) to the first bars off Mara Brock Akil’s Black-lady-beloved sitcom Girlfriends being sung from Issa to Molly after a fight. The more episodes removed from the pilot, the less often cultural codes of Blackness are spelled out. When Issa and Molly meet up with friends to attend an Alpha Phi Alpha’s graduate chapter fraternity party, there are no explanations of Black Greek culture (for example, that there are graduate chapters) or the expectations therein. And when there are streaks of colorism implicitly reinforced through the casting, that also manifests as an in-group concern.

The last facet of specificity that works within Insecure is the dimensional shape of its cast. Colorblind casting, or at least the spirit of colorblindness, is often the driver of characterization in this current era of racially bifurcated television writing. Rae smartly circumvents this trend with characterization that allows for mainstream identification but also dimensionalizes the portrayals so these characters have depth outside of their narrative functions. The three leads, Issa, Molly, and Lawrence, all develop in ways that illustrate shape and an active fleshing out of character while still being carved out of varied Black experiences. The writing even enables similar depth for its supporting cast. As an example, consider Issa’s best friend Molly’s relationship with Rasheeda, a younger Black lawyer at her law firm. Rasheeda’s comfort with herself and (perhaps) assumption that her white bosses accept her informal vernacular register translates to her presenting as the loud Black woman while Molly code switches and fights for the visibility of her good work when she is more frequently passed over. Rather than becoming a simple fight solely based in respectability politics, there are valid points made by both women who are determining best practices for survival in a white workplace. Don’t get me wrong: this story line is about respectability, but the characterization allows the conversation to not necessarily render one more right than the other.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t describe the sonic underpinning of Blackness in Insecure. From the first bars of Kendrick Lamar’s Black Lives Matter anthem, “Alright,” to Los Angeles–based guitarist Thundercat to all the trap music that plays throughout the episode, the musical landscape establishes Blackness as its core before the narrative has time to catch up. The specificity of Insecure’s sound — Solange Knowles is a music consultant and Raphael Saadiq composed the score — does unconscious work to hail the Black viewer without a word of dialogue.

I have to wonder if the subtle cues of specificity designed to hail Black audiences stem from a history of Black creatives striving for opportunities to work in the mainstream but eager to make themselves visible within it. They leave signs of recognition for those folks who know how to look or what to listen for. That kind of duality, or double consciousness, for a more precise term, is always in play when claims of universality are made, and it underscores the complexity of Insecure’s savvy title. Rae (and Wilmore and Penny) understand the rules of this historically unlevel game of Risk they are playing at HBO’s behest and, to their credit, have shown great skill in maintaining a bifurcated focus. They are doing work for HBO, but they are also doing work on behalf of the generations of artists of color HBO has side-stepped in order to create its “quality TV” empire. One can only hope that Insecure’s transformation from subtle cues to more explicit signs of Blackness will allow a host of other series created by and starring Black folks to follow suit.

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Kristen Warner is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama. Her book, The Cultural Politics of Colorblind Casting, was released in June 2015.


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