In Lil’ Kim’s 1996 debut, “Hardcore, ” the first track proper is “Big Momma Thang,” where Kim spits: I used to be scared of the dick / Now I throw lips to the shit / Handle it like a real bitch. It’s an impressive trajectory. Kim goes from being fearful and sexually inexperienced to a commanding queenpin and “real bitch.” Accordingly, her corpus from 1996’s “Hardcore” to 2016’s “Lil’ Kim Season” has her expertly navigating men and sex, outpacing her many suitors both physically and financially, then discarding them when their charms no longer satisfy. Her music celebrates a certain vision of “having it all,” and being a Black woman in control of both men and money.
Similar to Beyoncé, Trina, Lady and Rihanna, though, Kim’s career has always orbited the respectability politics of Black womanhood and whether it’s possible to be both explicit and empowering—to boast “I can spin around and keep the dick still inside” while asserting a Black feminist cause. Remember when alarmists asked if Beyoncé could still consider herself a feminist if she didn’t wear pants while performing? Black feminist scholarship eventually worked to flip the binary on its head: Instead of asking if Black women could still be feminist while extolling sex, they asked, whose feminist cause is advanced when Black women’s sexual freedom is policed under respectability?
This conversation has recently been re-energized and explored with brilliant dynamism by HBO’s Insecure, written by and starring Issa Rae, and Netflix’s U.K. comedy Chewing Gum, written by and starring Michaela Coel. Radically different in tone, both are comedies about working Black women trying to get ahead in life while searching for the kind of mythic sexual satisfaction championed by their idols in ratchet hip-hop.
In the premiere of Chewing Gum, Tracey (Coel), raised fundamentalist and still a virgin at 24, asks her best friend to give her a makeover “like Beyoncé’” to convince her deeply religious (and just as deeply closeted) fiancé to finally have sex with her. He rejects her for being openly desirous of sex, saying she looks like if a Barbie doll “rolled around in the mud then turned into a negro.” When that fails, she falls into bed with a new, white boyfriend, Connor (Robert Lonsdale). In an uproarious scene in the premiere episode, Tracey, having no clue how to kiss properly, licks Connor’s nose and bites his hair, all before triumphantly sitting on his face. Fully clothed. Confused, he muffles “What are you doing?” Tracey looks into the camera with a demented smile: “I don’t know!” It’s certainly not sexy, and who knows if it’s empowering, but there’s real joy in discovering Tracey’s sexual absurdity over the season’s six episodes.
When they eventually try intercourse, Tracey finds Connor to be prohibitively well-endowed and later comments that white men’s penises look like “raw chicken skin” to her. (She later settles on “pink balloon” to describe Connor’s penis). Outlandish and crude, Chewing Gum works because it’s an honest and unpredictable subversion of Kim’s “real bitch” arc. Black women have so long been accepted into pop culture primarily as sexual provocateurs that seeing a Black woman explicit in her failure to be a sexual queenpin is almost revelatory. Tracey leans into and explores a sexuality that’s weird, cartoonish, and ultimately doesn’t even involve penetrative sex—Chewing Gum is instead preoccupied with the awkwardness and anxieties of sex, ignoring whether it’s unflattering and disinterested in whether or not it’s empowering. It’s about honest sexual expression and the joy of learning not to care when you can’t meet a lofty standard.
Insecure is about the opposite. The series premiere sees our protagonist, Issa (Rae), drunkenly freestyle about a “broken pussy” during open mic night, unintentionally cribbing from an earlier conversation with her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), who had complained of a stalled-out love life. Issa is technically the star of Insecure, but I absolutely adore Molly. She’s goofy, brilliant, ambitious, manipulative, supremely hypocritical, and deeply insecure despite her successful career. To the beat of Kelis’ “Bossy,” Issa raps about poor Molly: Maybe it’s really rough/ Maybe it’s had enough / Broken pussy. It’s a clumsy, slurred counter to Lady’s anthemic “Yankin,’” about the Georgia native’s prodigious sexual prowess: I can’t even lie / Fuck better when I’m drankin’ / Ride dick like a pro / Throw the pussy like I’m famous.
Listen, we’re all just shitty freestylers trying to keep up with trap hooks about unattainably athletic sex. But Molly’s sex life routinely collapses despite her looks and wealth, precisely because she thinks romantic and sexual success means following the “real bitch” narrative of empowerment. Letting relationships happen naturally means relinquishing control and allowing yourself be surprised. Molly isn’t having that: She wants a man who’s wealthy, handsome, hung, polite, always texts first, and is ready to commit immediately. And she’s adamant that she shouldn’t have to settle for anything less.
At a party in an early episode, Molly says confidently, “Just because [Black women] have standards does not make us difficult.” It’s true. And Black women are routinely pressured to lower their standards in order to maintain the black family, torn apart by generations of racism, the abominable American prison system, the drug wars, etc. But at what point does this cultural truth obscure the elitism that comes part and parcel with insecurity? Molly doesn’t just want to date the perfect Black man, she wants to be seen dating the perfect Black man. The need for social assurance is core to the insecurity and hypocrisy shaping her decisions. She wants the perfectly respectable Black man—a telling hypocrisy, as she seems acutely aware of how respectability politics paralyze Black women. Black men are not either thugs or senior executives, no more than women are either virgins or whores.
A flawed man will reflect Molly’s own carefully concealed shortcomings, which would undo her tailored image. At the same party, Molly shows up with on and off boo, Jered (Langston Kerman). Jered is charming, supportive, and suave, but works at a rental car company. Molly loves their chemistry, but recoils at his every flaw because of what that signals to outsiders about her. Molly emerges as the most compelling character in Insecure because her story is at the intersection of pride and shame, explored in emotionally explicit, yet somehow still hilarious, terms. If Molly could just see how her dedication to this idealized image holds her back, she could be free.
In a certain light, Molly falls victim to exactly what Insecure and Chewing Gum are working against: the dearth of Black images. Maybe Molly could find security if she lived in a world with more diversity in how Black female sexuality is represented. Imagine if Black women were given the space to explore the emotional nuances of sex and its shortcomings with richer detail and dexterity. This isn’t a dig at any musical artist—“Yankin’ and “Big Momma Thang” make the world a better place—but to say that we’ve gotten too comfortable with the image of the Black female sexual savant. Insecure and Chewing Gum offer us a new provocation and a new message—one that isn’t packaged for either easy male consumption or the rote “female empowerment” arcs craved by white feminism, much less by dragging down women like Nicki or Kim in the name of respectability. Seeking fulfillment means welcoming failure just as much as success.
Sidney Fussell is a critic and reporter covering technology, culture, and gaming. You can follow him on Twitter @sidneyfussell.