On HBO’s Insecure, the Issa Rae–helmed comedy about black women navigating life and love in Los Angeles, the show’s main characters tease each other lovingly and unceasingly. The two friends, Issa Dee (Rae) and Molly Carter (Yvonne Orji), trade barbs in a cheeky, exaggerated tone. It’s a welcome dynamic, a reminder that the show is first and foremost dedicated to the story of the women’s friendship (even if disillusioned male fans insist that Lawrence, Issa’s ex, is integral to her narrative). The interactions speak to Issa and Molly’s closeness—who but your giii-iiii-iiiirlfriends could get away with calling you a bitch so often?
Taken as standalone scenes, these barbs don’t grate much; it’s not unusual for marginalized people to reclaim words that originated as slurs, and to then offer these words to one another as terms of endearment. It’s not rare to lend tenderness to words that could otherwise convey malice, to strip them of their venom by sheer force of will and pitch. In one such scene during Sunday night’s Season 3 premiere, Molly and Issa sit down for a meal at L.A.’s famed Pann’s Restaurant. Having just returned from a much needed getaway after quitting a job where she wasn’t paid as much as her white male colleagues, Molly explains her new life strategy to Issa:
“This whole vacation put everything in perspective for me. I’m on some next-level shit.”
“So, like, vacation bae was tryna kick it with me, and I had to put him in his lane. Bloop! You beach dick. Quentin was tryna do some long-distance shit. I said, Bloop! Stay in Chicago. And my new job was tryna fuck with my benefits. I said, Blam, you better give a bitch a PPO!”
“So you bloopin’ and blippin’ and blappin’?”
“And blammin’, bitch! I’m on some ‘know better, do better’ shit.”
Molly, who has struggled with boundaries in prior seasons, sounds refreshingly steadfast in her convictions. But to some viewers, she also sounds … off. Throughout Insecure’s run, a small but sharp group of critics (on Twitter and in more informal conversation spaces) has questioned the specific tone with which Rae and Orji share their repartee. One particularly biting tweet alleged that Rae in particular says the word nigga like she just learned she’s allowed to. It’s an uncomfortable parsing, one that’s particularly heavy considering the long road Rae faced to having her black-woman-centric show green-lit. In sharing skepticism about the veracity of Rae’s and Orji’s “blaccents,” these viewers are also raising questions about the actors’ connections to blackness writ large. Rae, who is of Senegalese and black-American heritage, and Orji, who is of Nigerian descent, are unquestionably black women. Concerns about the fidelity of their portrayals need not be referenda on the women’s identities; there are, of course, many ways to be black, and to be a black woman.