Regarding representations of black women in the media, how can portrayals in ‘Insecure’ be considered in relation to HBO’s commercial business model, and its commitment to popular, quality, content?
JAZ MORRISON | NOV 2017
Insecure is a comedy-drama series that follows a black woman in her late twenties as she tries to balance her job and love life. The series, native to HBO, has become vastly successful, from receiving critical acclaim and winning awards, to a confirmed third season. The show is the brainchild of Issa Rae, a black writer and actress who expressed that the show ‘is not a hood story. This is about regular people living life.’ (2016, Braxton). With previous, and even current media representations of black women consisting of negative stereotypes – namely the “angry”, “sassy” or “oversexualised” black woman (Kretsedemas, 2010:149), it is interesting to explore the differences presented on Insecure, especially considering HBO’s commercial business model, and its brand of providing quality entertainment (Akass, McCabe:2). This essay will use content analysis to deconstruct Insecure’s portrayal of black women, and will also acknowledge representation, and the history and progression of HBO to aid me in drawing correlations between the creation of Insecure, and HBO’s commitment to popular content.
Content analysis is designed to break down a text to interpret its meanings. As a result, inferences can be made about the text, the audience, and the culture and time it is associated to. One of the things content analysis can be used to do is identify the intentions, focus, or communication trends of a particular subject (Palmquist, 1999). In my essay, I will be undertaking a content analysis of Insecure’s trailers for both season 1 and 2, and my analysis will be used in relation to representation, as representation can be seen as ‘the way in which meaning is somehow given to the things which are depicted.’ (Stuart Hall: Representation & the Media, 1997).
Blumler and Katz’s ‘Uses and Gratifications Theory’ asks what people do with media, and focuses on the consumer. This is important in understanding both the importance of representations, and HBO’s business model. The theory claims that individuals may use certain texts for certain things, more namely, to improve and reinforce their personal identity; as a diversion from everyday problems; as a substitute for real life personal interactions; or as a way to gain useful information (Katz et al, 1973:512-13). Insecure is arguably able to do all of these, which is viable in attracting audiences and generating profit.
A long-running stereotype associated with black women is the ‘Jezebel’, a hypersexual, promiscuous, sometimes predatory caricature (Coltrane, Messineo, 2000:368, 384). The idea that black people had animalistic sex drives, was one of the rationales used to justify both the enslavement of Africans, and the rape of female slaves. In the present day, over four decades after the sexual revolution, these ideas still pervade the media, now in the forms of prostitutes, strippers, and single mothers (Pilgrim, 2002; Coltrane, Messineo, 2000:376). As a result, Black female sexuality is still often portrayed negatively (Edwards, 2016:276, 281). Insecure directly subverts this stereotype. Protagonist Issa, despite being sexually active, does not attract connotations of one with an insatiable sexual appetite. In the trailer for season one, despite being unsatisfied with her current relationship, Issa considers long-time friend, Daniel as an alternative (00:57). This is someone she knows and trusts, and therefore would be an unfamiliar choice for the common ‘Jezebel’ stereotype. Here, black women are represented as sexually active, rather than sexual objects. Even considering the more sexually promiscuous tone of season two, Issa is still not hypersexual or predatory. When cupping her breasts (00:02), sexting (00:29) and approaching men (01:43), it is done in such an awkward and amateurish way, that it prevents her from becoming the stereotype. If the consumer were to be watching Insecure in regards to surveillance or personal interactions (Katz et al, 1973:513), they would see a different meaning given to the concept of a sexually active black woman, one that is humanised by comedic awkwardness. Many critics have argued that “seemingly positive” depictions of blackness in television have often ignored social and racial issues, while reinforcing gender-based stereotypes (Coltrane, Messineo, 2000:368). Thus it is important to note that Insecure is not choosing to avoid the subject matter for fear of confirming stereotypes, but is rather using the runtime to address, challenge and subvert them.
Another popular stereotype, as previously mentioned, is the ‘sassy’, ‘ratchet’, or ‘angry’ black woman (Coltrane, Messineo, 2000: 370, 374, 376; Warner, 2015:132-3). This trope is somewhat self-explanatory, and is well known in popular culture (Edwards, 2016:275; Kretsedemas, 2010:149-50). Symptoms of this caricature include hostility, illogic, ignorance, and loudness. Usually these women are unprovoked. Not only is empirical evidence of this stereotype virtually non-existent (Walley-Jean, 2009:68), it fails to acknowledge elements of the ‘black experience’ and racial microaggressions that may generate negative responses or reactions from black women in the first place (Poran, 2006:740). This is likely due to the lack of black women involved in the media (Washington, 2008), which brings attention back to Insecure, a show written by a black woman, that centres black women. In both trailers, we witness black women who are vexed, but in both instances, context is provided. In the season one trailer, Issa is irritated by her colleagues talking amongst each other about ‘concerns’ they have about her (00:25). Issa responds calmly: ‘Are they concerns that they couldn’t talk to me about?’, but in the next scene, we see Issa shouting about her peers having ‘secret white meetings’ and sending ‘secret white emails’ (00:28). Here, her anger is given context. Issa has been provoked. Similarly, in the second season trailer, Issa’s best friend, Molly finds that she is being treated differently to her white colleagues. She voices to her friends the issue of confronting her employers: ‘I can’t just roll up to [my employers] like, hey guys, I accidentally noticed that you pay me less than this white guy.’ (00:50). This emphasises an issue many black women face when dealing with confrontation and discrimination. Representations of black women are so scarce, yet so caricatured, that when black female characters with light skin are given more well-rounded personalities, viewers fail to recognise them as “authentically black” (Kretsedemas, 2010: 167-8). As a result, many black women – particularly dark skinned women – often feel the need to represent the ‘best of blackness’, which can often cause them to avoid carrying themselves in certain ways to make themselves more “palatable” to those outside of the demographic (Warner, 2015:137). We see that sensical emotional reactions to forms of racial discrimination are constantly being suppressed. Even in this fictional world, the characters acknowledge negative stereotypes and desire to rise above them.
Racial microaggressions are also presented in the first trailer. Generally, racial microaggressions are small, everyday ‘verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities… that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour’ (Sue et al, 2007:271). A direct example of this is shown to us through Issa having to put up with, on a daily basis, her white employer at ‘We Got Y’all’, a fictional organisation that reaches out to poorer schools with high populations of non-white people. We see Issa sat in her boss’s office (00:34). The two are surrounded by “Afrocentric décor”, such as a framed picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, an ‘End Apartheid’ poster, and what appears to be a wooden figurine of a giraffe. In the scene, Issa’s boss is expecting a “fist-bump” from her, an unprofessional act often associated with the black community and black culture. Therefore, it can be inferred that the act is one of racial prejudice, even though there may have been no harm meant by it – racial microaggressions are not dependent on intent, and are almost guaranteed to surface in interracial interactions (Sue et al, 2007:271, 284). The commonality of these microaggressions are highlighted by Molly’s throwaway line: ‘Girl, you know how these white people are’ (00:32). Here, we are presented with one example of interactions with the outside world that can cause black women to respond by feigning ignorance, or becoming defensive, with the latter putting them at risk of falling into the category of the ‘angry black woman’. By giving viewers context for such a reaction, the trope is no longer two-dimensionally laughable. It is justified. A black female consumer can watch this and have elements of her personal identity represented and subsequently empowered, while someone outside of the demographic is given personal insight into something they may have otherwise never known about, and as a result be given the opportunity to challenge their perceptions. Since the idea of the hyper-emotional black woman is unfounded, it can be argued that content analysis allowed for the detection of the existence of propaganda surrounding black women in popular culture. Additionally, it sheds light on both Issa Rae’s desire to present well-rounded black women in her work, and the communication trends among the black female diaspora (Palmquist, 1990).
Home Box Office, or HBO is a cable and satellite television network that ‘set about producing television that would be defined as quality’ (Akass, McCabe:2) through the use of original, big-budget programming, intentional branding to evoke a sense of sophistication in regards to modern television art and culture (p3), and a ‘savvy’ business model that promoted ‘specialisation and exclusivity’ (Weeks, 2016:82). By being a cable network, HBO has the freedom to be more innovative, responsive to its consumers, and offer more challenging and controversial content (Fuller, 2010:286). Insecure complies with this through its originality: the show is loosely based on YouTube series, Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, a project also written by Rae, that already challenged some representations of black women in popular culture. Additionally, HBO and other cable channels have a history in giving representation to ethnic minorities, while the “big four networks” claimed they couldn’t air certain kinds of shows with the implication that it was too risky (Fuller, 2010:286). HBO’s brand has historically allowed for casts of colour, and storylines considered “riskier” than if they were handled by white characters (Fuller, 2010:286). Insecure allows for this tradition to be continued, with Rae and co-creator Larry Wilmore taking on subjects of prejudice, sexuality, and identity with the black diaspora in mind.
Despite HBO being a cable network, it has also undergone regulation. The Federal Communications Commission, or the FCC was formed to regulate broadcasting in the ‘public interest’ (Brainard, 2004:1). Obvious issues with this was that content regulation can be somewhat subjective. One person’s explicit image can be another person’s artistic piece, or harmless entertainment (p8). The FCC undoubtedly had more control over broadcasters than they did cable networks. Broadcasters had to get their licenses from the FCC, and operated the publicly owned spectrum (while cable worked via private hardware (Koerner, 2004)), so adhering to their regulations became imperative to stay on air. This did not stop broadcasters from complaining about the advantages cable had over them (Stern, 1981:189). As a result, the FCC attempted to bring about various regulations to limit cable networks’ ability to impact broadcasters negatively. However, by 1972, courts had already begun to diminish the FCC’s power over cable, causing them to later abandon their rules with the excuse that ‘mandatory regulations chilled the creativity and interest required for effective programming’ (Stern, 1981:199). Soon enough, cable was granted independent status (p200). The Insecure trailers show elements of profanity, racism, and sex, which may have been prohibited by legislation, or deemed too risky had it been on a broadcast network. But the freedom that comes with cable allows Rae and Wilmore to better explore the black female experience, without concerns over censorship from a legal body that handles broadcasting networks – the same networks that fail to accurately represent black women.
HBO’s business model falls under the ‘subscription economy’ – a term coined by Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo. This refers to businesses that charge for services instead of physical products. It emphasises long-term relationships with consumers, especially since a dissatisfied customer can unsubscribe at any point. Tzuo claims that if this is done right, companies can profit from a recurring revenue and a loyal customer base (Pattani, 2016). This business model requires a large initial investment, with millions being poured into quality programming with the goal of remaining relevant to consumers (Akass, McCabe:7). HBO doesn’t opt for advertising, but even cable networks that do only get around half of their income from this (Fuller, 2010:291). Revenue, in many cases, solely comes from subscription fees. This highlights the importance for cable networks to create content that is essentially justifies the cost. A slump in quality content could be dire for a company’s profit margin. But unlike broadcast networks that have to appeal to an almost “homogenous” mass audience in order to attract advertisers (Fuller, 2010:290), and therefore revenue, cable instead, has the freedom to target narrow audiences and still financially survive (Fuller, 2010:291; Akass, McCabe:5). Thus shows like Insecure, that are likely designed to target those whom they represent, are viable cogs in HBO’s business model. As early as 1996, black American households were four times likelier than their white American equivalent to subscribe to premium cable services (Fuller, 2010: 291), implying that when cable networks like HBO offer forms of representation that aren’t accessible in broadcasting television, it proves to be enough of an incentive for marginalised groups to pay the monthly subscription fee. This should only be enhanced when these representations are well developed, and challenge prevalent stereotypes. Insecure’s critical acclaim and commercial success is merely a testament to that.
To conclude, through content analysis, it is clear that Insecure’s trailers effectively represent a demographic that is so often caricatured in Western media, in a way that reaffirms the experiences of their black female viewership, but also contextualises and humanises black female behaviour for other demographics. By tackling the existing stereotypes instead of ignoring them, it gives credence to the experiences of black women in everyday life, and provides context to their actions and behaviours on an international platform. In relation to HBO’s commercial business model and remit, Insecure respects the limited regulation put in place by governmental bodies (Koerner, 2004), while entertaining paying customers and fitting into HBO’s brand of popular, quality content. HBO being a cable network also provides a global platform for Issa Rae to write a series that contains profanity, sex, and race without being inhibited by legislation, or broadcasting decisions. As a result, the show can and has brought in a wide variety of audiences, particularly those who identify with the plight of ‘regular people’ (Braxton, 2016), and those who lack representation in broadcasting and other forms of media.
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