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The temerity to be terrible

On screen, in books: pop culture’s new relatable, unlikable female protagonists

This piece contains light spoilers about The Mothers by Brit Bennett.

Issa Rae’s Insecure character is just a little bit terrible.

Issa is the sort of person who will invite her best friend out under the guise of cheering up said friend when in fact Issa wants to “coincidentally” bump into her What If Guy. She’s also the sort of person who will make up a freestyle rap about her best friend’s most intimate physiological insecurity — Poor Molly, keeper of broken genitalia — if it will impress What If Guy. She drops relationship bombs on her live-in boyfriend, Lawrence, and then runs away. She cheats on Lawrence with What If Guy.

You may say Issa’s a narcissist, reader, but she’s not the only one. There’s Nicole Byer’s character on Loosely Exactly Nicole, and even, to some extent, Nadia Turner, the protagonist of Brit Bennett’s acclaimed debut novel, The Mothers. Like their progenitors, all are black millennials. Rae is 31; her character of the same name on Insecure just turned 30. Bennett, 26, follows Turner from ages 17 to 26. Byer does not share her age but her Loosely Exactly character is definitely in her 20s.

Nicole’s awfulness comes in a package of cheery, inconsiderate obliviousness, enabled by her two best friends. Free of the weight of basic social obligations, Nicole can justify just about anything, from blowing her rent money for her shared apartment on new hair, to putting an Asian kid in blackface for an audition. While Nadia wasn’t crafted from the same mold of self-absorption as Issa and Nicole, thematically, she’s a close cousin. After all, she commits the ultimate betrayal of sleeping with her best friend’s husband.

These Difficult Women are quintessentially in their 20s: a little lost, a little scared.

“I just like for female characters, especially black female characters, have license to be awful and also still someone you want to root for,” said Bennett. “The best tweet I saw so far about the book was somebody was, like, ‘I really want to root for her, but Nadia’s kind of trash.’ I was laughing and I was, like, that’s not untrue.”

Comedian Nicole Byer poses for a portrait at Logo TV's NewNowNext Awards on December 2, 2014 at Kimpton Surfcomber Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.

Comedian Nicole Byer poses for a portrait at Logo TV’s NewNowNext Awards on December 2, 2014 at Kimpton Surfcomber Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Both Byer and Rae have understandably resisted categorization as figures portraying any sort of universality in their work. They want to tell specific, personal stories about characters with weird, normal little lives. And together with Nadia, they’re helping to weave together a portrait of millennial black women distinguishable by its occupation with the banal. To some degree, Zazie Beetz’s Van on Atlanta fits into this mold as well. It makes me even more curious to see what Jessica Williams and Broad City alumna Naomi Ekperigin will cook up in the half-hour comedy they’re writing together.

Issa, Nicole and Nadia are different from the fictional black women who have dominated the pop culture sphere over the last few years: Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating, Mary Jane Paul, and Cookie Lyon. Our leading black lady heroines — or antiheroines, as it were — have been older and more established in their careers, with the money to toss around for expensive handbags. They’ve done well enough to project a sartorial image of sure-footedness underscored by glamorous upper middle-class trappings, even if they’re falling apart internally.

By contrast, these Difficult Women are quintessentially in their 20s: a little lost, a little scared, unsure of where anything is going, clad in an ever-present shroud of ambivalence. They use self-absorption as a defense mechanism. They retreat into it in pursuit of a lonely, unsatisfying solace.

“I will defend Whitley until the death. She was really a foreshadowing of this current generation …”

“I just feel like the generation currently — in terms of pursuing your own dreams, in terms of the narrative of doing it for yourself and not worrying what anybody else thinks — those are all narcissistic traits,” said Rae. “We’re in a selfie generation where we can watch ourselves constantly, we can examine ourselves. … I feel like she’s a narcissist in the same degree that kind of everyone is at this point. Her very purpose is just to be active and embrace it.”

The ’90s heydays of black sitcoms featured young, self-absorbed women too — think Hilary Banks, Whitley Gilbert, and Regine Hunter — but it treated the trait as something playful to be excused by beauty, subsidized by wealth and accompanied sometimes by a charming, airheaded naïveté.

“I will defend Whitley until the death,” said Bennett. “She was really a foreshadowing of this current generation of unlikable female protagonists. The sense that you know she would do and say such terrible things sometimes, but I always rooted for her. I wanted her to have everything she wanted, even though she doesn’t really deserve these things.”

It’s easy to think of these women as natural comedic extensions of the white male antiheroes who came to mark the second so-called Golden Age of television — men such as Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White. We do seem to be living in a world interested in plumbing the depths of characters who can’t see beyond themselves and their own interests. FX’s You’re the Worst and Amazon’s Transparent have both adroitly taken this to extremes.

You may say Issa’s a narcissist, reader, but she’s not the only one.

But me first reads and looks different on millennial black women. Part of what Rae, Byer, and Bennett have done is slough off obligations to smile, to be genial and grateful, and most of all, be adult in a world that still normalizes and defends childish or irresponsible behavior in men the same age. There’s a freedom in rejecting the premature adulthood and societal mothering that gets unfairly and disproportionately foisted onto black women. It’s what made the Van-focused episode of Atlanta such a treat and Issa’s in-mirror hallucinations of her What If Guy so relatable.

Van can be just as irresponsible as Earn, and perhaps left to her own devices, she would. “Why do I have to be the one to see s— so clearly?” Issa asks in frustration in the third episode of Insecure. “I love [Lawrence], but it’s hard to carry the emotional weight and the financial weight. Like, those are heavy as f—.”

Maybe these women aren’t made of sugar, spice and everything nice, but that’s not a sign that they or future generations are doomed. I asked Rae if the Issa of Insecure is a good person. “I feel like she’s a flawed person,” Rae said. “I think her heart is in the right place, but she’s on a journey. When you’re trying to find out who you are, I feel like there’s some things that you do that aren’t great and there are some things that you do that define who you are and define who you don’t want to be. I feel like she’s on that journey. I’m one of those people that believes that everybody has a good heart at the end of the day.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.