A Limit on Being Down for the Struggle

Georica Gholson, PhD and Danielle Dickens, PhD

Photo: HBO

Determining when enough is enough is not easy, and it can be even more difficult to voice. Women are expected to be emotionally supportive, a care taker, and a financial provider for a significant other, children, extended family members and whoever else is in need. And in some cases, these demands will stretch a woman’s patience. Race compounds these competing demands, as Black women are pressured to live up to certain cultural expectations in the workplace and at home. One of the unique aspects of Insecure is how the show follows a Black woman in her late 20s reshaping her identity and renegotiating her relationships at work, at home, and with her best friend. But she is also saddled with handling the financial and emotional support with her boyfriend, Lawrence.

Issa, Issa Rae’s eponymous character, has been in a long-term relationship with Lawrence for 5 years. For 4 of those years, Lawrence’s career has been unstable due to trying to develop a phone app and a lack of motivation from the failed venture, while Issa has remained employed in a job she hates. Issa works at a non-profit that aims to serve the needs of Black youth. Yet, she is the only Black person and Black woman in the organization. Even more, her colleagues and boss have given her the unofficial job title of “Specialist on All Things Related to Black People,” where she is tasked with speaking on behalf of Black people. Issa has endured being unsupported by most of her colleagues, left out of vital emails, and her ideas being credited to someone else. While at home, she willingly continued to support Lawrence’s financial and emotional needs, despite his lack of motivation to persevere on his startup or to look for employment across 4 years. Unsurprisingly, Issa grew resentful towards him. This resentment, coupled with her own passive aggressive tendencies, led her to poorly cope with her circumstances by cheating. To be clearer than the most pristine diamond, Lawrence’s sluggish career gave Issa no license to cheat on him. Issa should have assertively and explicitly voiced her concerns to Lawrence and exited the relationship given her level of dissatisfaction. Put simply, Issa did Lawrence dirty. However, what led her to disrespecting and mistreating Lawrence was produced by valid, yet unacknowledged feelings of her circumstance.

Society teaches women to support their men through their toughest points, regardless of whether they are dating, married, or in a “situation.” Being a “good women” and “wifey material” means to put yourself after a man’s needs and to push him, be patient with him, encourage him, and continue to love him throughout it all, despite the emotional and physical costs. Yet for Black women, there is an extra layer to this dynamic. Black women’s career and educational successes are simultaneously praised and marked as a defect to explain their relationship status (or relationship issues). Thereby, implicitly urging Black women to shrink and to overcompensate within relationships by overextending oneself to catch and keep a relationship. Such actions reflect social role theory (a psychological theory) that states that social norms guide us into behaving in ways which are perceived as typical of one’s gender. Black women must be encouraged to set a limit to their suffering. The pressure to be a “good woman,” “wifey material,” or “ride or die” needs to be redirected by encouraging Black women to assess and identify how much of their emotional and financial well-being they are willing to offer to others.

Emotional exhaustion brought on by maintaining the mask of a “Strong Black Woman” and being “down for the struggle,” is a byproduct of the cultural expectation that Black women display unyielding strength in the face of difficulties. Studies have shown that the “Strong Black Woman”, also called the “Superwoman”, is a cultural expectation that is associated with binge eating, suppressing emotions, poor health behaviors, tension in romantic relationships, and feeling obligated to help others. While Issa’s discontent with her relationship was valid, her manner of coping needlessly injured someone she cares for and subsequently, herself. Rather than speaking to Lawrence about their issues, Issa choose to cope by staying in the relationship, being passive aggressive, and eventually, cheating. Insecure is an innovate comedy that emphasizes the self-journey of a Black woman in her late 20s that also highlights the feelings and missteps some Black women make when suppressing their feelings as they try to balance their needs while supporting others.

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Harrington, E.F., Crowther, J.H., & Shipherd, J.C. (2010). Trauma, binge eating, and the “strong Black woman.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(4), 469–479.

Woods-Giscombe, C.L. (2010). Superwoman schema: African American women’s views on stress, strength, and health. Qualitative Health Research, 20(5), 668–683.

Georica Gholson, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist based in Washington D.C. Danielle Dickens, Ph.D. is a Social Psychologist and Assistant Professor at Spelman College. For more information about coping with stereotypical expectations visit www.beneaththefacade.org and follow @Beneathefacade.

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