There is a real fear and borderline disgust for the single Black female stereotype among colored folk in this country. There is always someone ready to correct something about the way we live, so our presence is less menacing, our media representations are neater and more palatable. It’s a futile charade because the stereotype of single Black women as being noble yet sickly, sorrowful and lonely people is only as powerful as we make it out to be.
“Being Mary Jane,” the TV drama starring Gabrielle Union just got the green light for a third season on BET only two days after its season two premiere. “Being Mary Jane” follows the messy personal life of a sexy and successful news anchor named Mary Jane Paul. At a distance, she has all the things a career woman could ask for: a glamorous, high-level and high-paying job, celebrity status, stunning looks, a beautiful home and a fabulous wardrobe to match.
Yet her luxurious lifestyle is a sharp contrast to her dysfunctional and emotionally unhealthy love life, given her affairs with men that are committed to other women. She has a lot of people and a lot of baggage to juggle and quite understandably, Mary Jane does a poor job of it.
TV critics and some in Black Twitter took issue with the show’s arguably trite depiction of a single, upwardly-mobile Black woman who makes sloppy decisions in her personal life. Some pointed out the flaws in the storytelling techniques of Mara Brock Akil, the show’s executive producer. Some simply compared the protagonist, Mary Jane Paul, to a Jezebel for her immoral (and at times self-destructive) sex life. Finally, some felt the show was exploiting stereotypes of professional Black women and called for more diverse representation.
Yet I challenge past critics to rethink their analysis of the show. Do people take issue with the program because it irresponsibly regurgitates stereotypes about Black women? Or is it because it exposes our dirty laundry for the world to see, showing us things in the mirror that we don’t want to look at or admit to? Why does this show make people so uncomfortable? Judging by the clumsy ways people have discussed the show and the overall topic of single womanhood in the past, it seems like many people have a genuine fear of acknowledging their own vulnerability in the realms of dating and relationships—and then spew bullshit analyses as a result of it. Calls for “diversity” in the media have become a buzzword, or catchall phrase to insert arguments when we’re at a loss for words, or when we just don’t know what we want anymore.
I agree with critics like Hillary Crosley Coker and Jon Caramanica when they say that the show’s storyline can often appear rushed and doesn’t give you the time and the background information to be invested in the characters. I also agreed with Janell Hazelwood when she asserted that contemporary TV has dramatically changed its tone in the way that Black women are depicted as leading characters. But maybe the Mary Janes and Olivia Popes of the world are currently having their moment. As lovable as Clair Huxtable, Maxine Shaw and Joan Clayton were as characters in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, they weren’t necessarily relatable to or representative of everyone. Hazelwood’s complaints about diversity in her blog has a lot less to do with the shortcomings of how Mary Jane’s character is constructed and more to do with the fact that mainstream media still has a ways to go in creating a wider spectrum for stories about Black life.
Just like everyone else, Black women deserve characters depicting us that are nuanced and innovative. But let’s face it—we as television viewers will never be satisfied. Plus, being confronted with a character that rubs us the wrong way doesn’t mean that we can dismiss her altogether. I can’t do that because I interact with women who embody Mary Jane’s faults and bad decisions every day. I’m right there with them.
What do you think of “Being Mary Jane” beauties? Sound off in the comments below.