It was a sexual misfire that first broke me. I’d been coasting along, appreciating the low-stakes ebbs and flows of HBO’s Insecure, when suddenly the problem was right in my face.
Well, rather, it was in Issa’s. Midway through Season 2 of the series, which follows a group of black Millennials meandering through adulthood in Los Angeles, Insecure’s protagonist was ready to shake things up. Still reeling from a breakup, Issa (played by Issa Rae) decided to embrace more casual sexual encounters and found herself in the living room of an old friend. The two ended up diverging in their understanding of what would happen at the climax of their rendezvous, and thus began a sequence that I’m loath to revisit but will recount for posterity: A squeamish Issa zigged when she should’ve zagged, and the physical product of her efforts landed in one of her eyes. Aghast, she stormed off, and the image of her pressing a napkin over her afflicted eye took on a life of its own as a meme.
Undignified sex can be great fodder for physical comedy. But, for me, this scene and its aftermath crystallized Insecure’s worst instinct: treating its characters’ dalliances primarily as commentary on real-life Millennial dating, rather than as parts of a larger story. The series especially used these flings to make generalizations about the romantic foibles of straight black people. Issa’s aversion to oral sex could have simply been a personal preference, but Insecure found a way to make it about the hang-ups of heterosexual black women as a whole. Many conversations that Issa had with her friends were full of baffling lines that’d be more at home in a Steve Harvey advice column: I just feel like guys see black women as disposable after you give them head—like you’re forever a ho if you do it. Why do you think black men are out here chasing after white women?