HBO has done well with “strong female character” programming lately, after years of narrow interest in male antiheroes. As convoluted as Westworld became in its recently wrapped second season, Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores and Thandie Newton’s Maeve were unquestionably the two most primary protagonists of the whole robot-uprising endeavor. As Camille Preaker in the limited series Sharp Objects from showrunner Marti Noxon and writer Gillian Flynn, Amy Adams is complicated, challenging, acerbic, and sympathetic. Game of Thrones has become increasingly flawed and doesn’t come back until next year, but the show’s rhythms are now almost unilaterally dictated by female characters like Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), Sansa and Arya Stark (Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams), and of course, First of Her Name Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). I hate nearly everyone on Succession, but matriarch Marcia Roy is captivatingly played by Palestinian actress Hiam Abass (who was an absolute badass as a resistance leader in Blade Runner 2049), and daughter Siobhan, nicknamed Shiv (Sarah Snook), is sharp and ruthless (“I tried playing with you, you broke,” she tells an ex-lover), just like a knife. (That had to be an on-purpose naming choice, right?)
And of course there are all the women in the multiple-award-winning Big Little Lies, Maggie Gyllenhaal on The Deuce, Sarah Jessica Parker on Divorce, and the trifecta of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, and Sufe Bradshaw on Veep.
Those are all good. All of those women are great! But can we talk about Issa Rae for a minute? Issa Rae, creator of the critically adored Insecure, who is both the face of the show and so much of its entire essence? Who has used her fame and success to elevate other black women and creators, and to create a television world that is unapologetically devoted to, as she said in 2016, “the complexities of ‘blackness’” and “regular people living life”? And who has captured so much of the millennial experience — underemployment, not feeling valued at work, financial concerns, changing dynamics with your friends after college, sexual desires inside and outside of monogamous relationships — with acute insight? Yeah, OK, let’s talk about Issa Rae for a minute.
First, Insecure: The third season of the show premieres Sunday, Aug. 12, with an episode entitled “Better-Like.” (Season one episodes were all named with the last two words “as Fuck,” like “Insecure as Fuck,” Messy as Fuck,” and Racist as Fuck,” and season two episodes were all named with the first word “Hella,” like “Hella Great,” “Hella Questions,” and “Hella Open,” so season three follows a similar pattern with “Better-Like,” “Familiar-Like,” and “Backwards-Like.”) Here, have a trailer (and here’s one of the first teasers):
Aside from the nearly universal critical acclaim for the first two seasons of Insecure (including from us), Rae is up for an Emmy Award at the upcoming 70th ceremony in September, nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series alongside Pamela Adlon, Rachel Brosnahan, Allison Janney, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Lily Tomlin. She also appeared earlier this year on the cover of the GQ Comedy Issue; the feature on her by Zach Baron is insightful and detailed, outlining how Rae separates her real life from the version of Issa she portrays onscreen, her approach to presenting the Los Angeles where she grew up, and all the work that led up to this moment, from Awkward Black Girl to a failed project for ABC. It’s absolutely worth a read, and she dressed as black ’90s sitcom stars Steve Urkel from Family Matters, Will Smith from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha from, duh, Moesha, and Dwayne Wayne from A Different World for the accompanying photo spread by Martin Schoeller. It was pretty great.
With the increased popularity of Insecure, Rae is expanding her presence: she showed up in Drake’s “Nice for What” video (a solid nod to her own praise for Drake in the Insecure series premiere, with “He just really gets us”); she has a part in the much-anticipated film adaptation of the novel The Hate U Give; and her first solo commercial as the face of CoverGirl’s Exhibitionist Lipstick collection was recently released, titled “Shade for Shade.” Rae cast her friends Megan Lawson, Devin Walker, and Abenet McMullen in the spot, and the ad feels familiar and intimate, featuring them touching up their lipstick in the car on a night out and razzing each other. As Rae told Allure, “My friends are funny as shit and they wear makeup. Those aren’t mutually exclusive things.” Accurate, and watch!
Rae elaborated on her praise for the collection in Elle, and how subtly she links the line to her own mixture of drama and humor on Insecure is skilled indeed:
“Your individuality is your currency. It feels like now, we’re in this state where that is especially true because people want authenticity and they want to know that they’re getting to know the real you, or that what you’re creating and what you’re standing behind is really you.”
And again, in Cosmo:
“I prioritize making dark-skinned women desirable. You don’t see a lot of dark-skin representation. That’s been overlooked. Also, seeing them as beautiful, in addition to desirable, which are two very different things.”
The pattern among all these is that Rae is a disruptor. She’s carved out a space specifically for black women on HBO (and given us a fantastic best friendship between Issa and Molly, played by Yvonne Orji); she’s pushing for greater representation from a major beauty corporation, a space which for so long has ignored people of color; and as the host of the CFDA Fashion Awards back in June, she made headlines by wearing only black designers to the ceremony, through numerous outfit changes.
Her red-carpet look from fashion house Pyer Moss and designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, a gorgeously sparkly blue jumpsuit with a sheer overlay studded with more than 180,000 Swarovski crystals, was written up in Vogue, and had one detail that Vogue alluded to, but didn’t spell out: the belt was embroidered with the title of the Boris Gardiner song “Every N—— is a Star,” which was sampled by Kendrick Lamar on his song “Wesley’s Theory” from the album To Pimp a Butterfly. That’s basically Rae’s guiding principle, and her willingness to go there during a major fashion event, full of insiders and influencers and people whom she needs to impress and charm in her role as a celebrity, is laudable.
“Know better, do better,” Molly says in the trailer for season three, but we all know that’s not really how Insecure works, because that’s not how life works. But Insecure is only one of the many pop culture gifts Rae has given us. She’s out here doing the damn thing, and this has been your reminder. Never forget.
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