Why Insecure’s Blow-Job Scene Felt Out of Step With the Typically Radical Show

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Issa Rae in Insecure. Photo: HBO

Last night’s episode of the usually excellent Insecure felt atypical. The pacing was clipped, the subplots thin, and it lacked the usual commitment the show has to depicting a slice of modern black life with bawdy energy. “Hella Blows” spends its time focusing on Molly and Issa hitting new lows. Molly fully commits to being a side accoutrement to Dro’s open relationship with his wife, Candice, leading to great sex and mixed emotional results; Issa gets desperate about having a ho phase, leading her to disrespect the men in her life in different ways. I initially chalked up most of the show’s missteps to it being an obvious filler episode (which is admittedly still a problem since the season only has eight episodes). But then the episode, directed by Kevin Bray and written by Regina Hicks and Benjamin Jones, takes an unexpected left turn when the subject of blow jobs comes up.

Let’s break down what happened. Tiffany, Issa, Molly, and Kelli attend Sexplosion in hopes of getting some toys and having a good time. Tiffany suggests they sign up for a blow-job class to up their game, although she’s quick to note she’s so good at it, maybe she should teach the class. She proves to be an outlier.

Kelli doesn’t give blow jobs. Molly will reciprocate when a man goes down on her, but she isn’t all that enthusiastic about it. Issa straight up isn’t about that life, saying she finds giving blow jobs “too intimate,” and openly admits she isn’t good at giving them. She also believes that black women are automatically seen as disposable if they give men head. It’s a weird conversation, but the racial politics make matters worse.

Tiffany: I just don’t understand black women and their hangups about oral sex.

Molly: Girl, shut your light-skinned ass up.

[…]

Issa: You went to those all white private schools so you’re brainwashed, Becky.

Tiffany: You mean Becky with the good ring? Why do you think black men are out here chasing after white women?

Where do I even begin here? Should I start with the stale humor and cultural commentary that wasn’t even cutting edge in 1993? Should I examine the appalling way the characters equate Tiffany’s interest in blow jobs with whiteness? No matter your interests, blow jobs are pretty much Sex 101. If there was something that undercut this conversation — like another black woman at the seminar interrupting to highlight how weirdly regressive the idea that black women aren’t into blow jobs is — that would be one thing. But nothing about the writing of this episode feels fresh, layered, or fully considerate of the modern sexual mores of black women. The dated nature of their conversation is compounded by Issa deciding to take what she learned at the seminar and trying it out on Daniel.
When he cums on her face, she storms out angrily, feeling disrespected. That blow-job seminar obviously wasn’t that good if it didn’t teach her etiquette. When a man is about to cum during a blow job, you only have so many options. Getting cum in your eye is not fun, but Issa’s response is an overreaction.

As my friend and fellow writer Jasmine Sanders put it when we talked about the show privately, “We haven’t debated sucking dick since before there was Wi-Fi.” We weren’t the only ones reacting to this story line passionately:

Look, I don’t think discussing how black women have sex is all that interesting. But I can’t help be put off by how regressive this story line feels. In the after-show segment “Wine Down,” Issa Rae spoke with actor Jay Ellis, who plays Lawrence. “Early on this was something I wanted in this season[…],” she says. “One, oral sex is such a contentious subject for black women especially versus white women.” Is it? As a black woman who is friends with other black women who are different culturally, financially, and personality-wise, this is not a conversation I’ve ever had. I’m not saying most black woman share the same attitude on blow jobs (which the show weirdly argues), but I can’t think of anyone I know who acts as if it is an adventurous aspect of sexuality whether they’re into it or not.

It’s also troubling that black women are framed as sexual prudes when compared to white women. What the conversation — and Issa’s later reaction to Daniel — underscores isn’t just a false pronouncement of black women’s prudishness. As much as I truly love the show, it has had some grating respectability politics bubbling underneath the surface that haven’t been fully unpacked. Remember Jared from last season? He was a great guy, but Molly first judged his job, and then was practically repulsed by him when she found out he once received a blow job from a man. Insecure is great at depicting a swath of upwardly mobile Los Angeles black folk, but it lacks an interest in exploring queer black life and anything beyond the basics when it comes to the sex its characters have.

Perhaps this is putting too many expectations on a single series that is, for all its (admittedly few) faults, a joy to watch and revolutionary in certain respects. Part of the hypercriticism of Insecure is that it is a black-run and black-led show about 20- and 30-somethings who aren’t perfect. It’s has recently taken heat over the way it elides the sexual-health practices of its characters. As Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly, said of that controversy in a recent interview with Vulture, “[T]here is that pressure to be all things to all people, and whether it’s fair or not, it is what it is. I think what we try to be on the show is authentic and honest to the story we want to tell, and the voice we want to have. That doesn’t mean that there’s no margin for error. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be callous. It just means we’re doing the best we can with what we have.” For the most part I agree with Orji — Insecure primarily owes its viewers a good story that’s well told. But it also owes its viewers honesty about its characters and their place in the world. The blow-job narrative in episode six not only felt culled from a completely different generation, it was bad storytelling that undercut the humor and intimacy the series typically excels at.

Why Insecure’s Blow-Job Scene Felt Weirdly Regressive