Insecure, Chewing Gum And The Rise Of The Imperfect Black Girl
I have to say, I am really impressed with Black television right now.
And I am especially loving the lead characters depicted in the shows “Insecure” and “Chewing Gum.”
If you haven’t heard of either of show, you’ve probably been in a coma or don’t pay for television.
But for the uninitiated:
“Chewing Gum” is the brilliantly funny British television series created by, and starring, Michaela Coel. The series, which is now in its second season (but you can watch it all stateside on Netflix), follows the misadventures of 24-year-old Black virgin Tracey Gordon as she reckons with her religious family, a sexually confused boyfriend and the temptation to get her freak on.
Whereas “Insecure” is the long-awaited television debut by “Awkward Black Girl” creator Issa Rae. The series, which currently is in its first season on HBO, focuses on the misadventures of a twenty-something Black woman who is as unsure about her job working for a non-profit as she is about her long-term relationship.
See a theme here?
Both shows star their writers/creators. Both are hysterically funny. And both are giving us a refreshingly unique take on how young Black women can be – at least on screen.
Or as Rae recently noted in an interview with Fast Company Magazine:
“I don’t want to invalidate anybody’s black experience. But it seems to me [on television], we’re either extremely magical, or we’re extremely flawless. But we don’t get to just be boring. Like, it’s a privilege to be able to be boring and not answer questions like, “What do you think about this shooting?” and “How are you overcoming all of these obstacles?”
What about the times that I’m just kicking it with friends at brunch? Those are the moments that we want to reflect, in addition to talking about some of the issues that we encounter racially. That stuff plays in the background to our regular lives on the show, but we wanted to be in these characters’ worlds first.
“Shondaland really helped me figure out how strong my voice needed to be, and how certain I needed to be in it.”
It should be mentioned, neither lead character of either show was created within the current Hollywood trope framework. “Insecure” is partially based off of Rae’s popular web-based series “Awkward Black Girl.” And “Chewing Gum” is based on Coel’s award-winning play The Chewing Gum Diaries. Likewise, both women credit their own experiences as inspiration behind much of the work.
And it should be noted, the everyday Black person archetype is not necessarily new. In the late 80s through the 90s, programming about Black people routinely focused on the everyday and mundane part of our lives. And in particular, the television show “Living Single” was especially keen on portraying us, especially Black women, as imperfectly perfect human beings.
But as of late, television shows that feature primarily Black casts have been fixated on making us extra.
We are extra-strong, extra-political, extra-accomplished and extra fabulous.
And extra is not a bad thing.
Seeing ourselves as the strong Black doctor or the strong Black network news anchor, or the strong Black fixer with the nicely coiffed hair or even the strong Black madam president is not a bad thing.
We need images of ourselves as as professionals working in the capacity of decision-makers. We need images of us jetting off to exotic islands, shopping in exclusive boutiques and resting our heads in sprawling estates. And we need to see extraordinary characters, which remind us that some of us, particularly us Black woman, are doing okay for ourselves.
But having only one image of us, even if it is a fabulous image of us, can be stifling as well.
Some of us really don’t have it figured out. Some of us will never know the privilege of happy hours in private suites after our 12 long hours of arguing a case inside of a judge chambers. Some of us are artists and have no interest in corporate ladders. Some of us shop solely at Ross Dress for Less out of necessity. Some of us can go a whole day without pondering our lives under racism and Blackness (clearly, I’m not one of those people).
And for some of us, the highlight of our day really is talking about mundane shit over pancakes at the Waffle House…
My point is, sometimes we are not magical.
And those quintessentially magic-less experiences outside of the strong single Black woman trope can be a foundation for a worthwhile and beautiful narrative as well.
And this is what makes “Chewing Gum” and “Insecure” so great. For years, I have written about the lack of imagination Hollywood – Black, White or otherwise – had about the lives of Black women.
In my piece entitled, “Where Is The Sexually Liberated Black Woman In Film And Television?” I asked when might young Black women have their own sexually awkward moment on television without shame and ridicule, just like the women on the show “Girls”?
In the piece entitled, “Where Are All The Adventurous Black Women In Chick Flicks?” I asked why weren’t there more films about Black women finding themselves in the world, ala Eat, Love, Pray (or more recently, Into the Wild). And more importantly, why do most of our intercontinental trips only go as far as luxury resorts in the Caribbean?
And in the piece entitled, “It Is Time For Some New Ideas In Black Romantic Comedies,” I wondered why Hollywood has been slow to realize that Black stoners fall in love too.
Well after years of questioning, it certainly looks like some folks in Hollywood are beginning to see the creative value in allowing space for all versions of us to shine – or not be as shiny.
And this is important as shows that feature predominately White characters we get to experience the complexities of everyday life through the mundane. We got to laugh with the gang from “The Office” as they begrudgingly sit through boring staff meetings and retreats. We get to share in the anxiety and agonies of consumer culture with “Seinfeld” and his crew as they simple – yet impatiently – wait in-line for soup.
Through Whiteness, and in particular White womanhood, we learn to relate.
The importance of the boring and everyday Black woman; of having Black women and girls who are insecure, basic and generally imperfect on screen, is that it tells the world we don’t have to extra-ordinary in order to be related to humanly.
We can instead, just be.
Charing Ball is a writer, cultural critic, free-thinker, slick-mouth feminist and the reigning queen of unpopular opinions. She is also from Philadelphia. To learn more, visit NineteenSeventy-Seven.com.