Issa Rae’s hit HBO series, Insecure, is more than just a show about the romantic exploits of L.A. twentysomethings. Following the love-highs and love-lows of the main characters every Sunday is a big draw of course. (If only for an objective look at what not to do sometimes.) However, the show recently did a deep dive into another timely topic: the gender wage gap — and specifically how it impacts Black women.
In "Hella Questions," the second episode of season 2, Molly (played by Yvonne Orji) accidentally learns that she is being paid far less than her white, male co-worker Travis — an obnoxious loud mouth who does as little work as he can get away with. The episode debuted on July 30, the evening before Black Women's Equal Pay Day, a ceremonial day that commemorates Black women reaching pay parity with white men in 2016. (It takes more than seven months of work in 2017 for them to catch up, on average.) The timing was a happy accident, but a welcome one, according to the cast.
"When we got the script, it was like, Oh wow," says Orji, in a phone interview with Refinery29. "I'm proud that we're addressing it, and it was one of those cosmic things that it was right in time for Black Women's Equal Pay Day."
Insecure's writers shared personal stories when writing the episode, says Natasha Rothwell, one of the show's writers and the actress who plays the outspoken and unfiltered Kelli. They used those experiences to paint a realistic portrait of how issues like Molly's develop, are perpetuated, and are resolved — or not.
Rothwell's character, Kelli, who is an accountant, had one of the funnier reactions to Molly's pay problem. She's unfazed: "That's why I make sure my white clients get less on their tax returns — it's reparations."
"That Kelli has access to white people’s money is a scary thought for certain people. I love that she isn’t afraid to poke fun at that insecurity," Rothwell says. "It is a parody of equity and how people are treated. You can use [Kelli] to facilitate real anger about the lack of equal pay for women, and specifically for women of color."
"We’re not in the business of solving problems on our show," she adds, "but bringing up really good questions to get people talking. If you have that oblivious coworker who doesn't know your struggle, then is the question: Why aren't you articulating your struggle. Or are they being daft?"
In the show, Molly doesn’t take on Kelli’s Robin Hood ideals. Instead, she does a little digging to find out if Travis got a pay bump. When it becomes clear that this isn't a one-time bonus, Molly tries to ingratiate herself with her male colleagues by going to a hockey game. It doesn’t work (her boss barely registers her presence the next day), and unfortunately, a lot of Insecure viewers could relate.
"There was a young woman who tweeted: I'm going through the same thing right now. I want to ask my bosses for a raise, and I think I'm going to," says Orji. "She said she'd keep us updated, and she did. She went in and talked to them, and then she tweeted us again saying: I went in. I got a little bit of a bump. It's not as much as I wanted, but it's better than nothing.”
"It's your sister’s paycheck; it's your mom's paycheck; it's your wife's paycheck."
The actress thinks most people don't realize how difficult it is to "navigate a predominately white space as a brown face," which involves mastering "unwritten and unspoken politics" to get the things they know they deserve. At the same time, Orji says she believes that women aren’t solely responsible for ensuring they receive equal pay in the workplace, as equal pay isn’t only a women’s issue.
"It's just as important for men to be involved in advancing the dialogue," she says. "It's not just like, Oh, she doesn't get paid more, but I'm good. It affects everybody. It's your sister’s paycheck; it's your mom's paycheck; it's your wife's paycheck."
Orji's male Insecure costars have taken up for her in their own ways. She cites Get Out actor Lil Rel Howery (who plays Molly’s coworker Quentin) as a friend in real life who is always down to talk business. Just as Quentin encourages Molly to pursue professional opportunities where her value is recognized, Orji says Howery charges her to know her worth in the entertainment industry.
"He'll say, Don't accept less than this. Or, This is about how much you should be getting. Or, You should probably talk to this person as far as…" Orji explains. “He really gives me advice, which is great, because I'm fairly new to this, and he's been at it a little bit longer."
She adds that Jay Ellis, who plays Issa’s ex-boyfriend Lawrence, is also generous with his knowledge. "During season 1, he always offered up suggestions about things we should do, like, Do you have a publicist yet?" Orji says. "He's so forthcoming in sharing his insight, and it's amazing; that's the way it should be. We're not in a competition. We're not in a race. We're in this together."
It’s unfortunate that examples of behind-the-scenes collaboration still feels like a nice surprise, especially because they can make a big difference. New York magazine blogger Madeleine Aggeler recently highlighted that all of Forbes' top-10 highest paid actresses are white. "Seven of them are currently blonde, and four are named either 'Jennifer' or 'Emma,'" Aggeler wrote. Nonetheless, Rothwell is optimistic, even if Insecure is still an anomaly in a variety of ways.
"It’s not lost on me how rare this writers' room is, or how rare this show is, and how timely it is," she says. "I feel really lucky to be part of it, both behind and in front of the camera."
She does, however, find hope in the rising generation of writers, actors, and creators who are taking up for themselves on YouTube (as Rae herself did) or on other platforms. Just look at the success of Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey, the writer and director of Brown Girls, a viral web series about young and queer women of color in Chicago. The pair landed a development deal with HBO earlier this summer. Rothwell also recently inked her own deal and is currently working on her project with the network.
"It's encouraging to see young writers and producers look at making their own show as a probability instead of an impossibility," Rothwell says. "For a long time it was just, Oh, maybe I’ll get that chance. They're going from that to, Oh, I can create my own show and my own chance. I don’t have to wait for permission. I can just do it. That’s exciting to me. We need more people writing and auditioning so the industry has no excuse for not having representation. That’s the biggest thing that Insecure is doing, and that I’m the most proud of. We’re inspiring the next generation to keep speaking out and telling their own stories."