INSECURE, Issa, and The Passive Aggressive Girlfriend

We hear this time and time again: Communication is key to all relationships. Communication can make and break relationships. In the increasingly popular HBO series Insecure, the main characters Lawrence and Issa lacked the fundamental key to a healthy and fulfilling relationship: communication. I think there were many variables that played into the constant elephants in the room and the pretense that Issa exhibited both in all of her relationships. All things being equal, I would simply advise any girl in Issa’s position to communicate to her partner how she feels and set boundaries and benchmarks of where she hopes to move her relationship. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done.

In Episode 1, Issa’s co-worker asks Issa whether she knows what “on fleek” is. Issa calmly replies with “No”. She then says to herself, “Being aggressively passive is what I do best”. Indeed, that is what Issa does best but I cannot analyze Issa’s behavior without bringing the social context that creates and enables her behavior.

To quote my fave Chimamanda Adichie:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.”

From a young age, girls are taught to be coy and most importantly, “How to Keep a Man” I have written about power dynamics in heterosexual relationships and how it is difficult for women to navigate their wants and needs due to societal pressure to “stay” and the respectability politics employed to keep them in ‘their place’. From a young age, girls are taught to be in service to men and to adjust their behavior to cater to men. One of my favorite tweets that has circulated across the internet thousands of times simple states, “Y’all don’t know how much the women in your lives hold their tongues to preserve your ego.”

Women are socialized to have high emotional intelligence because they are forced to navigate through a world that does not value their humanity or autonomy. To avoid violence and mitigate harm, women often speak and act in a “non-threatening” way and put their needs on the back-burner. While we may not outright hear these messages, we get these messages when single women are shamed or called bitter, lonely, or crazy for speaking out against the abuse they have endured. We see these messages in the pervasive rape culture where one in five women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Additionally, 60% of black girls have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of black men before reaching the age of 18. We see these messages when we look to the high rates of interpersonal violence and homicidal rates that women, specifically black women, face at the hands of their boyfriends, husbands, lovers or someone they know. Black women are murdered by men at a rate 2.5 times higher than White women. Black women are taught to stay in their place (often arbitrary and subjective) , or they will be hurt or killed.

Last year, I was assaulted by a Black man for refusing to give out my number. To this day, I suffer PTSD because I felt a loss of autonomy and control over my body. I felt vulnerable in the same ways women feel vulnerable after rape. My words did not matter. His ego mattered more than me getting home safely that night. His ego mattered so much that he was willing to reach into my car and slap me because I would not give him my number. This was a complete stranger that I had no connection to and who I would most likely never meet again. If someone I have no connection to can ignore my “no”, how then can I navigate a heterosexual relationship where male domination is the norm? To put into context, fifteen times as many females were murdered by a male they knew than were killed by male strangers in single victim/single offender incidents in 2013

Interestingly enough, high emotional intelligence should ordinarily coincide with strong communication skills. But women find themselves shrinking and holding their breath, because they have never had the space or the ability to voice their wants or needs without backlash. Women are taught that they should be grateful for attention from a man and should be even more grateful for finding a “decent man”.

Diana Walker for TIME

Decent men pictured to the left.

If you find a decent man, you cannot complain about his actions or inaction because you will be labeled bitter and arrogant.

I have high self-confidence and esteem. I am very sure of myself and I understand the power dynamics between myself and men. Yet I have been an Issa in many ways. I have held my tongue. I have been too scared to let a man know what I did and did not like. At times, I felt it was useless because 1) men often gaslight by telling you you’re overreacting or that you are crazy and 2) internalized sexism is a thing that is difficult to overcome. In your head, you rationalize your refusal to communicate because “it could be worse”. Additionally, it is rare that men have value women enough to respect their feelings and have the emotional maturity to respond in a way that is affirming and loving.

I feel in some ways Issa is protecting herself. She is protecting herself from the emotional harm and disappointment she may face at the hands of Lawrence. She is protecting herself from the societal stigma she may suffer for “putting her needs before Lawrence” or being ungrateful for what is in front of her. For example, when Issa tells Molly in episode 1 that she wanted to break up with Lawrence, Molly responds with “Did you see the tears of singleness I just cried?”. Molly insists that Issa is overreacting and that having a man (no matter if you are unhappy) is better than being single. Ghanaian Feminism breaks down how women are socialized to desire marriage in a way men aren’t.

As previously stated, it is difficult for me to view the relationship between Lawrence and Issa on an individual level without the context of societal expectations.

Surprisingly, I do believe that Lawrence would have had the emotional maturity to listen and talk through things with Issa. But his emotional maturity is a matter of choice. In the beginning episodes, Issa’s body language displayed how unhappy and unsure she was about their relationship. From what I perceived , Lawrence was completely oblivious or simply did not care. While unhealthy, women often use passive-aggressive body language in hopes that their partner will catch on. As stated above, girls are taught to be coy and to shrink themselves in the face of men. They are taught not to “emasculate” (quotations because there is no such thing as emasculation) a man and to “let a man be a man”. They are taught to not overreact or overanalyze or be “emotional”. Overtime, women become very insecure when in relationships.

Issa contributed to her unhealthy relationship by avoiding conversations with both Lawrence and Daniel. She should have told Lawrence how she felt about the progression of their relationship and told Daniel to stop hitting her up. But this level of communication requires that society lift the stigma of women who are single or women who are outspoken. It requires that we also raise boys to understand the importance of emotional intelligence and how to similarly communicate in relationships. I have seen very few representations of healthy black heterosexual, let alone queer relationships, so it will be difficult for individuals to unpack and deconstruct generational trauma.

While it would be ideal for Issa to have a group of supportive girlfriends, it is evident that Molly and other also carry emotional trauma. Issa and Molly’s love life impact their friendship and the harmful ways they communicate to each other. Neither Issa nor Molly has perfected how to manage their emotions or effectively communicate their feelings.

HBO: Insecure

Throughout the first episode, we saw pressuring messages about marriage and lines depicting educated Black women as lonely and bitter. Black women internalize these messages every day. And this begets the question where do Black women like Issa find the space to de-compress and heal from their trauma? Who comforts Black women when they are penalized for speaking up and out? Where do Black women get to be loud, angry, and assertive without being judged? When do Black women get to find meaningful and fulfilling companionship? Do Black women get to be in healthy, loving relationships? These are everyday contexts that black women navigate which are overlooked or reduced to individual personality flaws.

I wish it were easy to advise Issa and other Black women on how not to be passive-aggressive, but it is not. It is an everyday challenge that we are all trying to overcome. Until then…

HBO: Insecure