Asking creators of “Being Mary Jane” to push the narrative of the tragically single black woman
After contributing to shows like “Moesha”, “Girlfriends” and “The Game”, among others, I feel indebted to say “ain’t nobody coming for Mara Brock Akil”. As a black woman, I salute her, her work, and her proven ability to infiltrate the streams of television with multi-dimensional portrayals that haven’t always been able to swim freely through American airways. She’s up there with Shonda and earned her seat at the table. We need her and are proud of her.
So, I’ll just say it: the storylines of “Being Mary Jane” are reminiscent of the ever-constant and dare I say, cliche narrative of the black woman. The tragically single, opinionated sister, down for a cause, who is celebrated for her independence and resilience…amidst a life of unfair burden and emotional turmoil usually misinterpreted as anger. Once again, a deeply-hurt-but-still-standing-strong-and-successful black woman is the one that Hollywood is comfortable with.
To be fair, the show does intentionally aim to breathe life into the statistic that 42 percent of black women will never marry but in many ways leaves us gasping for air and hopeless. From Joan and her Girlfriends, slathering of “can’t find a man” to heaping doses of “can’t keep a man” from the divorcees of “The Game” and reality TV’s “Housewives of Atlanta”, we see constant examples of Hollywood acting as though they’ve teamed up with Wale to read “The Diary of a Black Girl”, only to prey and capitalize on the notion that black women do not and cannot have successful relationships. It calls to question, what shows like “Being Mary Jane” cement as cultural archetypes in the public’s psychological schema of the “black community and it’s women.
After, falling in love with the show, I felt actual sadness when I reached the final episode. In the brief moments of scouring the internet for the possible existence of a fifth season, contrary analysis, pushed my rose colored glasses on the floor and I’ve entered another mode of digest.
So, here I am venturing to ask whether or not we continue to give standing ovations to shows that further exemplify the black woman as tragically single, emotionally unsupported, with an inescapably lonely reality prescribed for her future? I loved the show, but more often than not it scratched at a wound that may have managed to heal without such scarring had it been handled with more care. As a single, approaching middle age, educated, black women pangs of relatedness to main character, Mary Jane Paul, were unavoidable. Her scars from filling life’s voids with personal striving and status take her through a dysfunctional, at times pathological, emotionally sparring, series of heartache and unrequited sacrifices, and psychological turmoil, that struck a few chords and yes, we get it sis.
However, included in the narrative of the black woman is the expectation that her response to dysfunction is to always maintain appearances of unabashed strength and an unbothered sense of esteem….and “Being Mary Jane” falls right in line. Well if you ask me, this is just simply not what Maxine meant.
“Hair done, nails done, everything did” is not a wholistic prescription of personal care and her fashionable wardrobe, big house, nice car, and good job more often than not, do not offer much healing to the scars of achieving and maintaining alone. In watching “Being Mary Jane”, I realized how desensitized we’ve become to the pain of black women. So much so that the narrative suggests that black women are some type of emotionally immune super-heroines who respond to pain, heartache and dysfunction with powerful struts in fly outfits…each and every time. No tears over not getting to ever play the damsel in distress but couldn’t more be done to validate the struggles of single black women and their need for care? Especially from a show that was not only created to tell the tales of “the single black woman” but as well one that’s getting credited for doing so.
Proving strength, worth, or value by being “unbothered” enough to maintain outward appearances at the neglect of genuine care, just flat out needs to get out the narrative, like yesterday. We know we are powerful and resilient, but baby that ain’t the magic…so don’t come blowing no sparkle dust in our eyes.
Touting the maintenance of appearances as resilience amidst hardship is like wearing an imposter Marc Jacobs bag. A few fakes could of bought you the real one…and while your cheap fake may say Marc Jacobs it’ll still wear as the pleather statement of over-compensation, that it is…(and for what? Have you seen his workwear line or the sales at on the website?). Getting back on track, audiences are ready for authentic portrayals and black women deserve them. Plus, girl you can get that bag! Have you noticed our increased ability to construct our own messaging? It’s not just Mara Brock Akil, I mean we’ve got Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, even Oprah on the team. Up to bat, we’ve got Issa Rae and Gina Prince Bythewood. We are in the big leagues now and guess what, it may be time to stop the game and think critically about characters like Mary Jane Paul and yes…even Cookie. Yes Cookie. “Empire”’s loud, beloved, ex-convict mother of three who’s “always ready” now that’s she’s out of jail after selling crack to “hold her man down”… the same man who despite his three children and felt love for Cookie, eventually devalues and leaves her, right in the same big ass pile of single-angry-but-magically-resilient- black woman Hollywood loves to create.
I love Taraji so much, critiquing characters like Cookie, Mary Jane, even Olivia Pope is painful for me but make no mistakes. This is not an attack as much as it is a reflective way to push the conversation forward.“Hair done, nails done, everything did” does not have to continue to be the prescription of care messaged for black women confronting contemporary issues.
Pam’s hair was was laid, Olivia’s outfits are as “bossy” as Kelis ever imagined, and Mary Jane stays snatched…. But all three are alone and victim to unfair societal expectations. Their fashionable wardrobes, big houses, nice cars, and good jobs do not have to leave us completely desensitized to unhealthy expectations being placed on them or us. It maybe time to “ask” to refine the narrative.
I mean I’m am just saying, after all. So that’s got me thinking on the “asks”. What would I ask for if “Being Mary Jane” was to have another season? Toying with “if not this, then what”, was a pause for me. Like the moment the teacher says “why don’t you come and teach the class”. My moment of “oop.” was just a fraction ,of an inkling, of the pressure Akil, Rhimes and others must have felt not just as black women creating black women for television…but as simply creators(see why Akil feels that it’s no longer her problem). But still,why not attempt to fill some gaps here? Looking for the places the light has not touched can help us to be contemplative on the proverbial “elephant graveyards” of “Being Mary Jane” and illuminate just how much the show has to offer going forward. It’s entirely safe, the show is not on right now and Akil hasn’t been on the production team since the third season and true to form BET’s is up in the air about what’s next for “Being Mary Jane”. So, we’re talking hypotheticals for those creating narratives attached to not just black women but diverse people who are spoken for, by these portrayals.To be sure, shifting thinking from critiques to contributions and solutions, will hush up the most rushed judgements, I however have managed to think about four “asks” l’d have for the future of “Being Mary Jane”:
- Diversify the spectrums and don’t fall prey to tokenism.
Eric, Niecy, Cameron, Kara and Patrick. The one gay guy, the baby mama, the absent father, the latina best friend, the recovering addict in the family, are just some of the countless coins dropped into the slots of “Being Mary Jane”…and in some ways they’re cashing in on the backs of stereotypes instead of really developing the characters and their storylines. The show can push further to offer some complexity and widening our views into these perspectives, as opposed to allowing for single characters to symbolically represent these constant stereotypes of black tv and film. These characters can be developed with unveiling more about them and the variety of their lives.
2. Show us that diverse family structures can be healthfully maintained by utilizing and the diverse families on the show.
It does nothing for our generation or community to perpetuate the notion that family was something only past generations could establish, have, and maintain. While there’s no need veer into the depths of discussion “the black family” could lead us into. Modern families of all shades are being established and maintained in very different ways…but are existent nonetheless. It is clear that family is a major facet of “Being Mary Jane. Thus the show is primed to further develop a variety of statements on family. Mary Jane’s mother is a black woman who has who has achieved the unachievable status of “wife” by side-sweeping her goals of being a jazz singer to fulfill her place as a domestic matriarch. She is one of the only women on the show with a healthy, consistent relationship (in the form of a marriage) and the origin of the only constant family structure on the show. Like Viola Davis’ character out of “Fences”, she is the hushed nuance that, for black women, only subdued strength and sacrificed potential can receive commitment and love. While it’s problematic that healthy relationships are so scarce for black women on the tv and movie screen, those are different bones, to be picked later. The point here is that: family is not exclusively established by married folks over the age of 55. Even in modern contexts, families can be established and healthfully maintained. Kara, Mary Jane’s Latina TV producer and friend has a family, but the structure is shifted when Kara invites her ex-husband back home when she struggles, even as a top executive, to balance motherhood and her career. Patrick Mary Jane’s recovering addict brother, has two daughters Daija and Niecy, who’s family structures have both been dynamic in very different ways. Niecy, is a 22 year-old single mother with two kids of two very different but both absent fathers. Speaking of absent fathers, Mary Jane’s love interest of Season 4 has a family of his own that introduces the idea of mixed families. Layering on the contour, his now lesbian ex-wife’s wishes to establish a new family with her lover and have a baby. All these examples offer up some more room for pushing the narrative. While these families, exists much differently than the one established by the Mary Jane’s two-parents who were in love, got married and had kids , it does not mean that they cannot be structurally constant and maintained family structures. Too often contemporary family structures are characterized by their struggles. Perhaps “Being Mary Jane” can provide examples and put out some messaging around ways in which contemporary generations win at the establishment, maintenance and stabilizing of their families, no matter their structure.
3. Give some new portrayals of Black women and their responses that normalize healthy lifestyle choices.
No, the post-its, nightly drinks, serial dating and casual encounters are not enough. Mary Jane has had an abortion, faced the suicide of her best friend, lost key players in her support system (Mark, the therapist, etc), been in a life-altering accident, gone through huge transitions with her life and career, and makes it to forty with a trail of lost loves and burdens to face alone. She is human and it would good to see how and why she’s not bat shit crazy. I’ll refrain from mentioning Sojourner or Anna Julia Cooper here…but contrary to popular belief black women are not exempt from needing the emotional and psychological supports, all humans need to persist through hardship and heartache. It’s time to see the healing journey that so many of us know are now almost necessary rights of passage for any woman wanting to remain happy and whole, let alone continue on any quests for love. Let’s peel back the layers and demystify where the strength comes from and how the magic is maintained, instead of placing unrealistic expectations. Mary Jane’s post-it notes, social support system, baking, and safe sex practices were a start. In the episode where she, presents the testing swabs and kits to her one night stand I could not believe how empowering a few scenes could be in promoting healthy choices. Still I’d like to see future episodes do more, and say more about stress-management, emotional wellness, and healthy lifestyle choices.
4. Consider the “asks: that can be highlighted through the show.
Use the platform to advance contributions to ills highlighted on the show. While 42% unmarried is a somehow too large minority to stay in the shadows of the remaining 58%, the decline of the institution of marriage is not exclusive to black women. However, some of the decline may stem distinct realities persistently plaguing the black community and the show is poised to not only shed light on these issues but to make statements, that suggest and ask for solutions. We know that mortality rates are high for black men, that black men are also imprisoned an at a rate six times higher than the imprisonment rate of white men. Contrary to patterns in other race-ethnic groups, black women have higher educational attainment than black men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18.4% of black men were jobless, that’s almost 1 out of every 5! Racial disparities persists even when we hold education constant, black men are still more likely to be unemployed or economically deprived. The high ratio of black women to black men and what seems to be an undersupply of free, educated, employed black men attests to the lower likelihood of marriage for black women. We know (and knew) that but what are we doing with this knowledge? How can the show use it’s characters and storylines to make statements and present audiences with some “asks” of their own? Whether they focus on chronicling the need for improved job opportunities for black men, take a stab at the over-criminalization of young black boys, in American schooling, or choose to show successful diverse families…it’s my hope that the future writers of “Being Mary Jane” come up with some constructive “asks” of their own and push the narratives further for us all.