How Issa Rae broadens the portrayal of Black women on screen.
If you haven’t heard of Issa Rae, the creator and star of hit HBO show Insecure - and my favourite web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (ABG)- then it’s time to get acquainted.
ABG is celebrating its 10th anniversary after premiering on YouTube in February 2011. It follows the life of J (played by Rae) as she navigates the trials and tribulations of work, socialising and finding love.
Rae’s ability to create unique and relatable Black characters is what makes her show stand out from other web series. Growing up in rural NSW, I watched shows like That’s so Raven, My Wife and Kids and True Jackson VP to get my dose of Black representation on television. So as a kid, I was covered, all thanks to American television shows. But as I grew older, I didn’t know where to find myself reflected, especially when it came to Australian media.
It’s thanks to platforms like YouTube that I can find better representations of myself. I see myself in J as she experiences awkward situations at work. In one episode, J’s boss asks her a series of questions about her hair: “Oh my god, your hair,” she said. “I go out of town for one month and I come back and it’s like, did it shrink? Did you wash it? Can you wash it?” I can definitely relate to this scenario. I’ve been told at work that my hair in braids is “false advertising” and was once asked whether my hair was a wig after it had simply grown longer.
The show also points out the extreme reaction to Black women's anger, a situation I have faced at work. In one episode J is sent to anger management classes because she got upset when someone stole her stapler. During a meeting, her boss said, “J, your attitude is not conducive to our positive working environment. This is for your own good, girlfriend, and our safety.”
I can relate to J’s feelings of frustration because when I make a mistake at work, I’m reprimanded but the mistakes of others go unchecked. I’ve had moments where I’ve feared dealing with conflict at work because defending myself could have me labelled as aggressive even if I didn’t do anything wrong.
The great thing about J’s character is that she is not always awkward, she has her confident and triumphant moments too. Any time she has to deal with conflict, she doesn’t tend to argue or fight back, she only imagines it in her head or writes a rap about it.
More importantly, her character made me realise that it’s okay not to be strong, independent and sassy all the time - all the things I’d seen Black women constantly portrayed as. I realised that I too could be a complex woman, able to express all my emotions and free to be myself with all my quirks.
ABG is the web series I never knew I needed. I would often feel alone dealing with awkward situations at work and seeing them validated on screen made me feel like it wasn’t just happening to me.
Norah Masige @nmasige is a writer and filmmaker who enjoys reviewing films and TV shows in her spare time. Read more from Norah at https://norahmasige.com/