December 19, 2016
In episode five of the Issa Rae’s HBO show Insecure, the protagonist (also named Issa) stands in front of a mirror after having had sex. At first she’s joyous then incredulous, sad, and ultimately compelled to get the hell out of there. She is in a complicated situation and the moment doesn’t shy away from showing the range of her feelings.
Scenes like this one are likely what led Rae to get nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress on the series she created. From the arc of the first season, culminating in a season finale that had the internet up in arms as viewers chose between #TeamLawrence and #TeamIssa, it’s easy to see why Rae would be ranked among the year’s finest TV actresses.
But the show itself was not nominated for a Golden Globe. To the Hollywood Foreign Press, who votes for the contenders, the plot lines may not have seemed very different from other shows about relationships: long-term relationship dissatisfaction, infidelity, and the struggle of being single in a big city. What they may have failed to recognize—like so many others—is that Rae has blazed a trail by simply showing authentic Black sexual relationships on the small screen.
Sex, of course, is nothing new to television. Explicit depictions of sex have become the norm, not just on premium cable, but even on prime-time: What we used to call “the family hour” on networks like ABC and NBC has since been replaced with storylines that “may not be suitable for all audiences.” On HBO and Showtime, home to television series like Westworld and The Affair, the difference is even starker.
One Showtime series even told the story of the study of sex: Masters of Sex, which has just wrapped after four seasons, is based on the story of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson’s sex study, which changed the way we talked about, thought about, and had sex in this country. Some storylines in Masters of Sex won't get resolved now that the series is over and some were never really ventured. The patients of both the real and fictional Masters and Johnson were most often straight and overwhelmingly white.
In season two of the 1960s era set Masters of Sex, Masters and Johnson's study was temporarily housed in the "negro hospital" in St. Louis. Masters (Michael Sheen) even wanted to bring in African-American subjects to be a part of the study, but the hospital administrator (Courtney Vance) wouldn't allow it, convinced that it would advance the oversexualized stereotypes already prevalent about Black people.
Though this was a fictionalized version of what happened with the real Masters and Johnson, the fears of African-Americans that their bodies could be made into caricatures have been all too real. From the literal objectification and dissection of the Eastern African woman Sara Baartman in 1800s Europe to the fetishized Blaxploitation movie images of heroines like Pam Grier and the modern era of Black women who lead with their sexuality like Nikki Minaj, Black women have often been rendered into sexual stereotypes. Or Black women have been pushed to the extreme opposite end of the spectrum as sexless, neutered caretakers like Aunt Jemima.
Black men have had it no better, regularly relegated to slavery-era stereotypes of sexual aggression and an insatiable, even dangerous sexual appetite. In the 1990s, Sex and the City was progressive in its embrace of a modern woman’s sex life. The characters had multiple partners and healthy sexual curiosity, but all that forward-thinking stopped when any of the women dated Black men, whom they fetishized: Samantha (Kim Cattrall) briefly dates a Black guy and wastes no time telling her girlfriends about his “big black cock.” And when Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) proudly says that she's dating Dr. Robert Leeds (Blair Underwood)—a doctor!—Samantha makes sure to underline for her that she's not just seeing a doctor but, “a hot black doctor!”
If in Masters of Sex, the stories of Black sexuality are ignored, in Sex and the City, they are reduced to body parts. Even when television does concern itself with visible, fully drawn characters, the result is never the physical intimacy on Insecure. We've seen Black love portrayed before on network TV—from the Huxtables to Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert on A Different World, Max and Kyle on Living Single, and Dre and Bo on black-ish. But these relationships are all given the sitcom treatment—safe and sweet. Even less conventional shows don’t always venture the Black sexual frontier. Atlanta was another of 2016’s breakout hits with a Black romantic relationship at its center. The series showed genuine tenderness and love between Donald Glover’s character Earn and his on-again/off-again partner Van (Zazie Beetz). But for all its wildly inventive storytelling, it didn’t show much else.
Other television series do get more daring when it comes to sex. Being Mary Jane’s lead character masturbated in the first episode and Shonda Rhimes has never been shy about putting Olivia Pope into a steamy sex scene on Scandal. Both shows reveal the complexity of Black women.
But what distinguishes Insecure from all the rest is the way Rae reveals the complexity of black sex. Insecure takes the stories of its characters and gives them to the audience whole. We see black bodies in motion, touching and being touched. Its unblinking and appreciative eye shows sex between two black people without stereotype or porn sexualization. In half a season’s episodes, Insecure does for black people what the real Masters and Johnson aimed to do when they watched hundreds of straight, white couples get it on: see sex as it is.
In the same episode five, “Shady As F**k,” the sex is just as nuanced as Issa’s moment in the mirror. She finally seals the deal on the flirtation that started in episode one with her “What If Guy” Daniel. Alone in his studio, Daniel and Issa talk about why they never had a serious relationship and they begin down a road of their past romantic history. The tension builds and then Daniel leans in to kiss her, but Issa backs away only to promptly reconsider. They have sex that is both aggressive, he pushes her back into the couch, and tender, they kiss throughout and run their hands down each other’s bodies. The bluish light of the scene highlights all the beautiful brown of their bodies.
Issa’s best friend, Molly, and her short-term bae, Jared, have a couple of quickie sex sessions that include trash talking, comedic comebacks, and cunnilingus. In a mismatched bra and panties, Issa is the aggressor with her boyfriend, Lawrence, in one episode, and just as commanding in another when she performs oral sex on him. Issa asks Molly after a night with Jared, “Was it good?” And Molly does not deny it.
None of the sexual acts themselves are radical, but the bodies who are allowed to perform those acts, with aggression and tenderness, love and lust, determination and regret, whole and broken, are radical. But if Insecure showing Black sexual relationships is radical, then hopefully just as with Masters and Johnson in the 1960s, the cultural revolution is not far behind.