Stanford alum Issa Rae shines in ‘Insecure’

Jan. 30, 2017, 11:38 p.m.

We all deserve to feel a little burst of pride over the success of Stanford alum Issa Rae ’07, creator and star of the new HBO hit series “Insecure.”

Rae’s talent and productivity have been obvious for years. Whilst majoring in African and African-American studies and minoring in political science at Stanford, Rae created “Dorm Diaries,” a mockumentary about the gossip, giggles and drama of dormitory life that was filmed on-campus in Ujamaa. After graduation, she moved quickly, gaining recognition for her web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” from which “Insecure” draws inspiration. “Awkward Black Girl” followed the “Misadventures” of Rae’s character and her awkward best friend as they navigated a toxic workplace full of backstabbing bosses and coworker crushes. Despite Rae’s young age and very modest budget, her singular talent was obvious throughout the show, and eventually the series gained a cult following.

And now, Rae has finally hit it big, with her own TV series on premium cable channel HBO, where the first season of “Insecure” can be found alongside such shows as “Game of Thrones,” “Westworld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“Insecure” centers around Rae’s eponymously named character Issa, and her struggles with her professional, social and romantic life.

She is completely undervalued at her job at an educational nonprofit in LA, subtly named “We Got Ya’ll.” Her non-black coworkers treat her like a walking encyclopedia on “black lingo and culture.” In fact, she is the only African-American individual at the entire nonprofit, despite the overwhelming majority of the inner-city kids that the company works with being African-American.

When off-work, Issa lives with her longtime boyfriend Lawrence, a highly-educated African-American man struggling to find a job within his field of computer science after years off the job market. Being together for so long has clearly resulted in a remarkably deep bond between Lawrence and Issa. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they always get along. They might have once passionately loved each other, but now their honeymoon phase has ended and they have reached the point in their relationship where they feel comfortable constantly bickering with each other. As the season goes on, old flings and past relationships find their way back into Issa’s life, threatening her already fraught relationship with Lawrence even further.

But while struggling to work through these two sides of her life, Issa is at least able to take solace in her close friendship with Molly, who is having relationship problems of her own.

Throughout the first season, Molly is constantly on the hunt for a handsome, rich boyfriend. And it’s not like she doesn’t have plenty of options; she goes on dates, she brings them home, they hang out with her adorable French bulldog named Flavor Flav. But none of them satisfy her. She’s attracted to one man, but can’t come to terms with his lack of a college education. She’s attracted to another man, but is filled with doubt over his one-time sexual experience with a man. At the end of the first season, Issa gently suggests that in order to figure out why Molly always feels so insecure and unsatisfied, she should seek therapy.

That’s not what Molly wants to hear.

As the season progressed, and Molly’s relationship woes worsened, I really began to appreciate the importance of her character. Seeing a black, female character on TV with both a highly successful professional career and a stellar educational background is pretty much unprecedented. Even Molly knows that she’s “a catch.” And she wants a handsome, well-educated black man to match her. But she sees her half-Asian colleague happily becoming engaged – and eventually married – to her African-American ex-boyfriend, and begins to question her own self-worth. She seems to have it all together, but something deep inside her nags and nags. And she finally lets it all out when she explodes at Issa over her suggestion that she seek out therapy.

And yet, by the end of the season, she reaches a point where she agrees to seek professional help, coming to the understanding that it’s neither an admission of weakness or defeat.

But my respect for “Insecure” goes beyond just the show’s depiction of Molly. “Insecure” is an unapologetically Black show. At the nonprofit where Issa works, the writers skillfully spin her struggle against microaggressions and racism into caustic comedic gold. This is a show that’s very comfortable pinpointing – with laser-like accuracy – every single moment in Issa’s life that is not acceptable. And when it’s really not acceptable, Issa takes a stand.

“Insecure” is not a show that could be replicated with characters of some other race or ethnicity. And there is no reason it had to be. Not every story has to be universal. The three aspects of Issa’s life weaves together stories of work problems, relationship struggles and friend groups that everyone can relate to. But Rae puts a unique twist on these typical story because, yes, African-Americans have their own stories, experiences, battles and much, much more. Every community does, and I cannot personally claim to understand these aforementioned experiences.

But as an individual of Asian descent, I know the groups I associate with have their own struggles. And I can appreciate that the specificity of “Insecure” is what makes the show so special. The way television – or any form of art – functions is by building empathy within the viewer. If we can connect with a character, we feel good about it. When Issa struggles, we struggle with her. And when we empathize, we begin to understand, even in the smallest of ways, how she must feel. And thus begins a journey of understanding for every viewer who might (even unconsciously) be exhibiting behavior that is racist, sexist or prejudiced. This is why television is so powerful – when we welcome a character into our lives for hours on end, something washes over us. We become attached, and a small part of our feelings become inexorably linked to that character. When Issa faces discrimination, our bodies try so hard to defend her, and to feel what she feels. This is just one tiny step towards understanding others around us, but it’s a step nonetheless.

“Insecure” was a learning experience for me. I couldn’t relate to all of the experiences that Issa had. But I tried hard to really feel, really empathize, as much as possible. This is a dire time, and we need to be open and understanding more than ever. So, if you can, I implore you to watch “Insecure.” If you come away convinced to consciously try as hard as you can to think critically about what you say, what you do, how you behave, how you think about others, and eliminate the perceived notions that you may or may not even know you had, or even just do 1% of that – I’ll call that a win.


Contact Olivia Popp at [email protected]


Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.

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