Network executives weren't always keen on calling it 'Insecure.'
Fortune data editor Stacy Jones is filling in for Ellen McGirt while she dazzles everyone at Brainstorm Tech in Aspen, Colo. She’ll be back on Monday!
Last night, Fortune‘s sister publication Essence and Black Employees At Time Inc., one of the company’s six community groups, treated us to an advanced screening of the season two premiere of Insecure.
We were all sworn to keep hella quiet about the episode until it officially airs this Sunday on HBO at 10:30 pm EST, so I cannot and will not share any plot details. Not a single one. I can tell you, however, that actress, writer, producer, and director Issa Rae joined us for the screening and was kind enough to stick around for a really wonderful Q&A. I’ve been rocking with her since “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” was on YouTube, so it was a real treat to hear her talk about how she quit taking dead end 9-to-5 jobs to focus on her YouTube series and eventually her show with HBO.
While answering a question about other names that were considered for the series — one being “Nonprophit,” when the script focused more on the main character’s job at a non-profit and less on her friendship with Molly — she mentioned it was a challenge selling network executives on the name Insecure.
Shouldn’t it be about two strong black women, they asked? Aren’t those the kind of characters that should be portrayed on screen? It’s a credit to Rae and a gift to fans of the show that she prevailed. Because if she had agreed to invoke the “strong black woman” archetype, it would imply that only those women deserve to occupy space on primetime television. It would box in these characters, the way much of society already does, and erase large swaths of their personalities. We shouldn’t have to give up Hot Cheetos and headscarves for stilettos and finger wagging.
It made me think about an old boss, who could never get past his preconceived notions of me during our one year of working together.
A few months into the job, my Great Uncle Douglas passed away. I got the text message mid-morning and everything went muffled and fuzzy. I wandered over to my boss’s cubicle to tell him what had happened and ask if I could leave early and take a few days off to attend the funeral.
He grilled me about my connection to this dead relative. He wasn’t my uncle, he wanted to clarify—he was my great uncle. My grandfather’s brother. Had I actually been close to him?
I choked out a yes and stared. When he was silent, I lurched to fill the space to explain that we always went on fishing trips together. I’d been borrowing (and sometimes losing) his fishing lures for over two decades. I once carried an especially large crappie all the way from the dock to his campsite to show off — it’s not a Jones fishing trip unless you’re trying to stunt on everyone.
I was talking a mile a minute and my breathing got shallow when finally my boss let up and I left.
It seemed to me the only proper way to honor my Uncle Douglas, who I could also count on to keep me warm with dry clothes after rainstorm or just a slice of homemade pound cake, was with a fishing trip. I had outgrown sheepishly stealing gear from everyone else’s tackle box, so I placed an order and a box from Cabela’s was waiting on my desk when I returned from the funeral.
It took almost no time for my boss to zero in on it. Every time he came by, he’d gesture at the box and crack a new joke about how odd it was that I enjoyed fishing. How very strange that I enjoyed spending time outdoors despite my earlier (unnecessary) explanation.
Instead, what my boss saw was a black woman who had made a dubious request for time off to attend a distant relative’s funeral and was now sitting next to a box of things he couldn’t possibly imagine her needing. I resented him. I avoided company-sponsored social outings. I stopped wanting to do my best work.
So to hear Rae talk about standing up to a room full of network execs, her new bosses, and fight for two insecure black characters who have messy lives and are fully realized as complex characters? That’s a beautiful thing. That’s relatable. And I now have characters that I can see a little of myself in, not just the parts my boss and anyone else may choose to see in me.
I only wish I could have conjured up some of what helped Rae get through those meetings that day my boss cracked jokes at my expense, a grieving employee. But I won’t pretend I wasn’t gleeful the day I finally let him know that I was leaving and it was because of him.
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