Why "Insecure" Star Feels Good as a Black Woman in Hollywood

R: Yvonne Orji by graphic illustrator Monica Ahanonu

When Insecure actress Yvonne Orji says, "I feel good as a woman in Hollywood. I feel good as a black woman in Hollywood," you can tell she means it. And she doesn't think her job would be easier if she were a man. "No, because I like being a woman. I think there is beauty and benefit to being a woman. I like being able to go into male-dominated spaces and blow people’s minds away."

That’s not to say she is blind to the discrepancy in Hollywood. Race issues. Age issues. Wage issues. There’s no way to avoid them.

"I like being able to go into male-dominated spaces and blow people’s minds away."

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Her journey through Hollywood certainly hasn't been without sexist moments. Having first made a name for herself on the stand-up circuit, Orji says there was always a moment where the  announcer would prep the crowd. "Are you ready for a woman? are you ready for a woman?" they'd ask. These are the micro-aggressions that continuously diminish women at work. "They never do that for man," she says and it's no laughing matter. "Apparently," says Orji, "there are rules as a female standup comic. You can’t be pretty, skinny, and funny. Pick one. You can’t be all these things. To be funny, you have to be overweight, and you have to be dirty with your jokes." That's not the case for Orji. "I do clean comedy and just really want to make people laugh in a positive way. Yes, I know how to work out and put on makeup. Why are there so many fractions in order to make people laugh as a woman? You don’t hear this from guys. You can just be funny."

But she's never let those intros deter her or hold her back. "I stand my ground and stand my own. This is me. I am not backing down. You may not know me now, but by the time I finish my set, you’re going to think I’m incredibly funny."

These are also stereotypes she’s been working to break with Insecure, which is about to release its highly-anticipated second season on HB0. Orji plays BFF Molly (a high-powered DTLA attorney) to Issa Rae's character, Issa. The show has been properly lauded for being an important show with great roles with great roles for women as well as one that tackles social and race issues while avoiding cliches. "Molly can be insecure. Everyone can be insecure. And that happens in life. You have one thing set and then you don't. You’re dating someone, but then you want a new job. You have the job, but you don’t have the relationship. There are always things that aren't working." 

Orji and Rae on  Insecure.

Orji and Rae on Insecure.

It's this kind of material, and the specifically multi-faceted role she's currently playing, that makes Orji love being a woman in this town. "Especially now," she says. "With the type of content we put out there and the content creators that are allowed to have their voices expressed." She brings up Living Single. “There were shows that were popular in the ‘90s that featured strong black characters, and then that fell off for a minute. There was a gap in programming." But shows like Living Single allowed for the progress and next iteration of strong black female-led comedies. i.e. you can be a high-profile black, female attorney who also doesn't have it all together. It's the true Millennial experience, where women, and here specifically black women, are more than one thing. 

When asked about the latest success of Wonder Woman and Gal Gadot, Orji quotes an article that talks about how true success will be when a female-led movie is allowed to fail and Hollywood will still make another. “Men have been failing for years. And they are still given development deals and big deals with studios. There is so much pressure on women. ‘Oh if this fails, Hollywood will NEVER make another movie like this. It HAS to be great.” It’s a dangerous setup. For Orji, “Divide and conquer doesn’t work here,” she says. Not if Hollywood wants to make progress. "Women helping other women is the way." And it's why she explains, "It’s so important for Issa and I and why we work really hard at it. It’s also more comfortable to look around a set and see a female sound tech, a female executive producer." She brings up award-winning director extraordinaire Ava duVernay, a champion for diversity in Hollywood. “It’s the same thing with directors like Ava. When people say, 'I don’t know another black actress.' Ava will say, 'Well, how about her?'” We bring up the all-female set of Zoe Lister-Jones’ new movie Bandaid. “Ooh, checkmate, Hollywood,” she says. Except Orji isn’t sitting around waiting for Hollywood to make its move. She’s making her own. Taking her future into her own hands— a space where she is clearly comfortable. She's been tied down with ADR for Insecure Season 2 (which returns Sunday, July 23rd of HBO) and she's also hard at work on her own show, First Gen, which draws from her stand-up and her experience as a Nigerian-American and the daughter of two immigrants. 

"I came to Hollywood as an intern in the writer’s room and I didn't really know what that meant, but I saw how much power exists in there. With First Gen, maybe I didn’t know structure, but I knew people. And you have to be willing to take the risk. At least for me. It was up to me to take this into my own hands." Thats’s the kind of go-getter she is. And that part is so crucial.

"I stand my ground and do my thing as me. I can go toe-to-toe with the next guy. There is strength and power in being a woman: we are smart, we are creative, and we are compassionate. Are there great women out there doing amazing things, with a guy coming in not doing anything extravagant and everyone thinks what he’s doing is amazing, but yet she has to prove herself? Yes, that does still exist and it does still suck, but not to the point where I want to be something other than an African immigrant black woman. No, no, no! I’ll take my portion, I like it." 

She also notes there has to be more diversity because the women at the forefront of society are more diverse. “Who is going to play the First Lady (Michelle Obama), who is going to play Oprah?” she asks. Good questions. We have a couple of answers and a strong feeling she'll be in the running.