How Insecure Nails Modern Dating’s Double Standard

TV Features Insecure
How Insecure Nails Modern Dating’s Double Standard

Insecure Season Two opens with Issa (series creator Issa Rae) exchanging rote facts—what she does, where she’s from, how many siblings she has—with one interchangeable companion after the next. The montage captures the tedium of online dating with such quick and clever honesty that we, like Issa, die a little inside with each repetitive answer; finally we see her burst, out of an insanity that we, too, can feel, into one of her notorious raps, concluding that “none of this matters anyway.” And so it begins: Within seconds, Rae inserts us into single life in today’s online dating landscape, exposing the excruciating reality with the series’ typical unflinching realness.

Immediately following this montage, we cut to Lawrence (Jay Ellis), naked, having the kind of sex we can assume from Season One that he and Issa haven’t had in a very long time. He’s having so much of this sex that he needs to go to bed early, as we learn when he returns to his friend Chad’s (Neil Brown, Jr.) and immediately begins blowing up his air mattress. While he’s spending almost half his week with Tasha (Dominique Perry), though, he’s just “having fun,” he says. “No pressure.”

The contrast between these two scenes throws us into the second season’s primary dilemma: How Issa, a woman, and Lawrence, a man, equally desirable, fare in the single world—now an unfamiliar one, governed by apps—as they approach thirty. To no thirtysomething woman’s surprise, in this world, women have to be the aggressors while men still dictate the pace, leaving Lawrence with the power and Issa struggling.

You can’t say Molly (Yvonne Orji) didn’t warn her. Throughout Season One, we watched Molly struggle to find a partner, with no success. But as her attempts to force a relationship repeatedly rose and fell, we always thought we were in on the joke: that this woman who seemed to have every other part of her life together must have been doing something wrong when it came to love. It’s fair to say that Molly is no model of healty balance—to be the high-powered lawyer, responsible sister and killer dresser that she is, it’s no surprise she’s unwilling to relinquish control. But in Season Two, we see the problem isn’t just Molly, as Issa claims in the pair’s chilling argument near the conclusion of the first season.

Control, however, is not Issa’s problem. In Season Two, she’s willing to give almost any man a chance: In Sunday’s “Hella LA,” for instance, when a Tinder date judges her hair and the sound of her voice within seconds of meeting her, Issa continues to smile, trying her best to stay positive. It’s his “standards” that dictate the brevity of the interaction, even though he’s the one lacking any decency at all.

Of course, we know Issa isn’t willing to settle long-term. She broke up with Lawrence in the first place because he was unemployed on the couch for the first part of Season One and, perhaps more importantly, Issa wasn’t her best self with him. We’re reminded of how talented Issa is as a writer and rapper when she’s rapping in front of the mirror—some of the best scenes on TV, for what it’s worth—a talent Lawrence appears to be barely aware of. Issa wants someone who not only loves her, but also supports her in a way that makes her feel like the “give-no-fucks” self she so aspires to be. But, while Molly is judged for her overly paraticular demands, even in the comfort of her relationship, Issa is unable to fully state her needs. The contrast between Issa’s experiences in Seasons One and Two demonstrates that she’s repeatedly lowering her expectations to make it work with the men around her, whether single or in a relationship.

Issa and Molly, like so many women, are constantly juggling the conflicting expectations put upopn them—the need to look great and laugh often, while at the same time working twice as hard to prove themselves and staying pleasant throughout. Right now, Issa may be desperate for a date, or simply some sex, but ultimately both she and Molly are looking for a partner who puts in equal effort and meets the high standards they hold themselves to. This becomes even harder when communicating those standards conflicts with the expectation to appear agreeable. And this is exactly what makes it so hard to find a partner. The key point Insecure conveys is that, while women are still trying to balance conflicting expectations, men, like Lawrence, have far lower expectations to meet, which leaves women wanting, and men in control.

This control can be wielded in ways both clear-cut and subtle. We see the latter when Lawrence calls Tasha in “Hella Open” to apologize for not coming to her family’s barbeque. When she expresses her (justifiable) disappointment, he claims he’s “just not looking to get into anything serious,” then apologizes for leading her on. The apex of the conflict comes with Tasha’s glorious response: “You a fuck nigga who thinks he’s a good dude.” It’s a moment recognizable to many women, though it’s satisfying, in the end, because Tasha gets the last word. Here, Lawrence is the guy who blatantly disrespects you while refusing to believe he’s being disrespectful, the guy who plays hurt when he’s called out for his bad behavior instead of actually changing it.

But the most obvious display of the disparity between the effort required of men and women is the fact that Issa is dilligently making her rounds on the dating apps—starting, like many women seeking a connection, on Hinge and Bumble, before taking to Tinder for a hookup—while Lawrence is happily meeting woman after woman without the slightest bit of help, technological or otherwise. Lawerence, who (to the audience’s delight) has shed his sweatsuit wardrobe from Season One for a tighter, tailored wardrobe in Season Two, can be a broke dude in a grocery store and end the day in a threesome.

This, as we see, presents its own set of unreasonable expectations: The pressure Lawrence faces is to romance each eligble woman who crosses his path, even before he’s had time to heal following his breakup with Issa. He’s expected to wield control by having as much sex as possible—an expectation imposed on him ruthlessly by Chad, and again by his co-workers. Finaly, at the end of “Hella LA,” we see that this bounty of options isn’t always as fun as it seems, as two women use him to fulfill their sexual fetish and nothing more.

The distinction between the pressure on women to “have it all” and the pressure on men to take it all makes for a very messy and imbalanced dating scene—a scene that leaves many, both men and women, searching for more. It’s a circular struggle that, to the viewer’s delight, Insecure captures perfectly.

Insecure airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.

Emily Smith is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon, HuffPo, The Establishment, Femsplain, PopMatters, and Catapult, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @emjsmith.

Brittany Washington is a filmmaker based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @BW009.

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