Yvonne Orji On Why 'Insecure' Refuses To Explain Black Culture To A Mixed Audience

Share
Ad failed to load

"How do you be black? You just are," Yvonne Orji says with a laugh. Sitting in a director's chair, she leans increasingly closer to me as we talk about her role on HBO's Insecure and its depiction of black women's lives. It's immediately apparent that, like her character, Molly, Orji is very confident and very engaging. And, just like Insecure itself, she doesn't feel the need to explain herself or her experiences. She just is.

"I think what our show does really well is it normalizes the black experience. We don’t put any sauce on it. It’s not like, 'Hey guys, Molly walks in and guess what? She’s black,'" Orji says in a faux-announcer voice. "It’s like, no, she’s a lawyer, she’s an AKA, she lives in a high-rise, she drives a nice car, she’s into fashion, she switches her hair up every day, she has a dog. ... It’s in the nuances. I think that’s the biggie."

The show can't possibly summarize the entirety of the black American experience, and that's not its intention. In fact, that's the whole point — that these characters can exist without having to speak for every black person the way a "token" character often is meant to featured on a show with a mostly white cast. Look at Orji herself. While she does relate to certain aspects of Molly, like how much she loves her friends or the fact that she, too, used to work in corporate America, unlike the very sexual and constantly swearing Molly, Orji is a virgin and doesn't curse at all.

Ad failed to load
Photo: Ashley Batz/Bustle; Art Direction: Bry Crasch/Bustle

"I just think it’s how Issa and her friends talk," Orji says of show creator Issa Rae, who also stars as Issa Dee, and the language used on the show. Orji doesn't mind having to swear while in character, but her mother, on the other hand, wasn't having it. "My mom came to the Season 1 premiere and, you know, obviously Molly curses quite often, and my mom sitting next to me was like," Orji adjusts and adopts her mother's Nigerian accent, "'That is not the daughter I raised. Who is this? Why are you using such words?'"

Orji was born in Nigeria and grew up in Maryland. She thought she was going to be a doctor, as her parents had hoped, until she entered a Miss Nigeria pageant, did standup comedy as her talent, and was surprised to get such a positive response. She went on to do standup regularly and write the pilot for a semi-autobiographical show called First Gen (it now has David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey attached as producers).

Ad failed to load

In her work, Orji often talks about her strict parents, so it's no surprise that her mother was shocked when she first saw her daughter as Molly. As for Rae, she was taken aback in the opposite direction when she got to learn more about her cast mate.

"Something happened and I was like, 'Ah, Shonda Rhimes!' And [Rae] was like, 'I’m sorry what?'" Orji explained to her that "Shonda Rhimes" is her "safe word for the s-word" because she doesn't curse, to which she says Rae responded, "'So let me get this straight, you don’t have sex and you don’t curse?'"

Ad failed to load

When it comes to not having sex, it isn't a secret and it isn't something Orji even considers being ashamed of. She gave a TEDx talk about the subject in early 2017 called "The Wait Is Sexy"and sells a line of graphic tees for other people who are waiting until marriage. It's just who she is and "having sex" on Insecure is just acting.

"I get it that in 2017 it’s not a thing that a lot of people feel is common, but I know so many people in the same situation," Orji says. "It’s like if you’re never around a Jewish person, you don’t know what Shabbat is. You’re like, 'You guys do this every Friday?'"

Orji doesn't think the show should include a character who is a virgin, unless it fits into the show organically. "I don’t necessarily think we force it if it doesn’t fit into the narrative," she says.

Ad failed to load

It makes sense. For Insecure, it's all about being authentic. From small references — like the AKA sorority's "skee wee" sound — to more sweeping ideas — like why, as a black man, Lawrence (Jay Ellis) would be so nervous to be pulled over by a cop and then so annoyed that the officer dared comment on his Georgetown license plate — the show doesn't go out of its way to explain things in order to make sure every viewer understands. And in a landscape where black audiences are used to white being the default setting on TV and anything "black" needing to be explained, this is a big deal. When black characters are being written by non-black writers or a story is being told from a non-black perspective, Orji thinks there's usually a need to "make it known that [the characters] are black" rather than just letting them exist, which is how it should be.

Photo: Ashley Batz/Bustle; Art Direction: Bry Crasch/Bustle
Photo: Ashley Batz/Bustle; Art Direction: Bry Crasch/Bustle

The series needs that authenticity not only to relate to black viewers and to represent black people in an effortless way, but because the show tackles a lot of topics that are "taboo" in the black community, as Orji puts it. "Last season it was Jared’s character being kind of sexually fluid — not even really sexually fluid but just having one experience [with a man] was like" — Orji gasps, feigning the shock her character felt about this revelation.

Ad failed to load

When it comes to bisexuality, there is already a double standard wherein women are more easily "accepted" as being sexually fluid as compared to men, but for black men, the idea is so taboo that there is a whole other term used for black men who have sex with other men, but who don't consider themselves bisexual or gay. As the New York Times magazine explained in a piece on the subculture, "Rejecting a gay culture they perceive as white and effeminate, many black men have settled on a new identity, with its own vocabulary and customs and its own name: Down Low."

Photo: Ashley Batz/Bustle; Art Direction: Bry Crasch/Bustle

Orji also points to the storyline in which her own character reluctantly starts going to therapy after Issa, the character, suggests that Molly could benefit from it. "Most people in the black community are like, no, you don’t need therapy, you just go to church for that," she says.

Ad failed to load

This storyline is based on fact, too. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that while "African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems" as compared to the general population, there are a number of reasons that black Americans don't seek out mental health care, including lack of information and access, and, yes, spirituality. As NAMI notes, "research has found that many African Americans rely on faith, family and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though medical or therapeutic treatment may be necessary." The show doesn't say why exactly Molly thinks it's crazy to go to therapy — besides the fact that she thinks she doesn't need it and finds it offensive that her friend suggested it — and it doesn't need to. If you aren't a black viewer or don't have this background about how some African-Americans view therapy, the storyline still makes sense. But if you do have this background, it intensifies it in a way that can make black viewers feel seen.

Photo: Ashley Batz/Bustle; Art Direction: Bry Crasch/Bustle

And they do feel seen. Insecure finishes its second season on Sept. 10, and there's no doubt its rabid fan base will be tuning in for the finale. For many viewers, the show has become appointment television, and there is ample evidence on Black Twitter. Fans come together, both to bond and to argue (what's up, Lawrence Hive?), during each episode, which just goes to show how appreciated the series is. The announcement that Insecure was renewed for a third season came out right before our interview — "We just found out, like, as we were on our way here," Orji says excitedly — which means that the conversation won't be stopping anytime soon.

Ad failed to load

And as long as Insecure keeps being itself, fans will keep tuning in for the realness.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Everything Leaving & Coming To Netflix In March, So You Can Plan Your Next Marathon Now

Even though the groundhog saw his shadow — forecasting six more weeks of winter — a nice spring thaw is already on everyone's minds. Fortunately, Netflix has things squared away for March. Whether you're ready to cozy up in front of a fire or get you…
By Sophy Ziss

11 Thoughts That Mean You’re Not As Happy With Your Partner As You Might Think

Even if your current dating situation seems to be going well — you're hanging out, having fun, having sex, etc. — it's still possible that you might not be happy with your partner, and thus not truly happy in your relationship. This can be a gut feel…
By Carolyn Steber

25 Book Recommendations From Your Favorite TV Characters

Although the two may seem like natural enemies, the truth is, television and reading are a match made in bibliophile heaven. Not only are some of the best shows based on or inspired by literature, but whenever you turn on the tube you can be sure to …
By Sadie Trombetta

It Took Heather Graham YEARS To Make A Movie About Women Ditching Toxic Men. The Reason? Men.

They say you should write what you know. But in Hollywood, that age-old advice apparently needs an addendum: Write what you know — as long as men are into it. And for actor and newly minted director/screenwriter Heather Graham — a woman who swam thro…
By Kelsea Stahler

Bustle's Editors On Rachel McAdams + Parkland Survivors

Happy Thursday, everyone! I don't know about you, but I feel like February has gone by so so fast (wasn't January, like, yesterday?). This year is hurrying along, and with so much happening every day it's hard to keep up all the time. But, I've got a…
By Danielle Colin-Thome

7 Signs Your Energy Is Closed Off To Love, According To A Psychic

Finding love requires more than just the actions of going on dates or setting up an online dating profile. It also requires opening yourself up to love and giving off the vibe that you're open. You may not even realize it if you're energetically bloc…
By Suzannah Weiss

Target Just Launched A Gorgeous New Home Brand — And Most Pieces Are Under $30

Design lovers rejoice! Everyone's favorite store for pretty much everything is about to make all your daring decorating dreams come true. Today, Target's corporate blog issued a press release that provides a peek into Target's new homeware line, Opal…
By Callie Tansill-Suddath

17 Brilliant Ways To Support Parkland Survivors Wherever You Are

Following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, survivors are demanding Congress take action. A large group of students who survived the shooting are opposing politicians' "thoughts and prayers," arguing that inst…
By Sarah Beauchamp

Here's Where Your Next Trip Should Be, Based On Your Zodiac Sign

If you've been craving a vacation, now is a good time to take the plunge. According to data collected by travel site Expedia, late winters and early spring are pretty much the best times of the year to go on vacation. Based on average airfare ticket …
By Callie Tansill-Suddath

How This Quadriplegic Beauty Lover Beat Cancer & Became A Professional Makeup Artist

In 2010, one day before she was supposed to start cosmetology school, Steph Aiello was involved in a car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down with limited ability to move her hands and one of her closest friends dead. She would spend the…
By Sara Tan

7 Common Marriage Rules That Aren't Good For Relationships

When it comes to marriage, everyone loves to give their two cents, and with all the warnings and advice floating around out there, no wonder people find marriage intimidating. Luckily, you don't always have to play by the rules, and there's some bad …
By Carina Wolff

The Infuriating Way Hollywood Movie Sets Are Designed To Make Life Harder For Women

Whitney Cummings is fed up — with the way Hollywood treats women, and in particular, the way the it treats female directors who have children. While the entertainment industry may be working hard to get more women behind the camera, Cummings wants to…
By Casey Cipriani

Why Uggs Are Never Going Away, Whether You Like Them Or Not

Uggs. The word alone can conjure up memories of teenage years, regrettable outfits, and undeniable comfort. But if, like me, you thought that you've already said goodbye to those fleece-lined tan boots, you can think again. It seems fashion has adopt…
By Lauren Sharkey

Netflix's New Romantic Movie Will Have You Crying Like It's 'The Fault In Our Stars'

Cancer movies are a heartbreaking staple of Hollywood and have been for decades. It's almost a law of nature: new year, new cancer movie. This year, it's Netflix's Irreplaceable You, a heartbreaking original about a longtime couple who get thrown for…
By Olivia Truffaut-Wong

I Got A Breast Reduction & It Was About So Much More Than The Size Of My Boobs

As a young teenager, I pretty much reached peak physical maturity overnight. One day I was wearing my first training bra a la Lizzie McGuire, and the next I was sweatily fumbling around a Victoria’s Secret with 32DD boobs, trying to summon up the cou…
By Sierra Taylor Horton

Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu Have Matching Tattoos & The Story Is So Cute

Olympic season gives people the feels. From those shipping Canadian ice dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to Shaun White's gold medal win on Tuesday, the feels are real. Now, there's another reason to get all up in your emotions. Adam Rippon a…
By Shea Simmons

A New Study Says Being In A Relationship Could Change Your Taste In Wine — Here's How

I’d be willing to bet that for many of you, a nice bottle of wine is awaiting you in your near future — and if you’re planning on sharing that bottle with a partner, there might be more to your choice than meets the eye: According to recent research,…
By Lucia Peters

Carrie Brownstein On Why Even The Obama Era Should Have Enraged You

An icy January morning soon after Hollywood's show of solidarity for the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globes and almost exactly one year into the Trump Administration feels like a momentous time to be sitting across from Carrie Brownstein. The Sleat…
By Samantha Rollins

Here’s What The Upcoming Year Of The Dog Means For Your Chinese Zodiac Sign

On Feb. 16 the world will celebrate the Chinese New Year, welcoming the Year of the Dog in like the good doggo it is — we hope. A new year means new zodiac predictions for the 365 days ahead. So, what does the Year of the Dog mean for your Chinese zo…
By Brittany Bennett

7 Signs You're Ready To Get Into A Relationship, According To Experts

It can be difficult to tell when you're ready to start dating again. Maybe you're coming off of a bad breakup, maybe you've just been focused on other things. And, ironically, one of the signs that you're ready to be in a relationship is that you're …
By Lea Rose Emery

The 15 Best Fiction Books Of February Feature Tons Of Extraordinary Women

When the cold winds of February blow in, there's nothing I want more than to hide under my covers with a good book. Luckily, there's more than a few fantastic new fiction books coming out this month, so the only tough decision you'll have to make is …
By Melissa Ragsdale