Why BET’s ‘Being Mary Jane’ Is A Win For Women Of Color
The night of the premiere, I decided not to watch Being Mary Jane. I saw the hash tag all up and through my Twitter timeline with all sorts of comments as people followed the storyline. I didn’t want other opinions clouding my thoughts as I watched. So, I waited a day, found the show online, and watched in solitude.
The original movie-turned-show chronicles the life of Gabrielle Union’s character, Mary Jane Paul. She’s a largely successful television news anchor who is gorgeous, smart, and wealthy, but who is quite unlucky in love and unfortunately is the sole breadwinner for her entire family.
I watched with baited breath praying that the acting would not suck – it did not. Neither was the storyline dull or unrealistic. In fact, it was so realistic, I found myself laughing throughout, remembering similar instances in my own life. I enjoyed it from the opening post-it note to the ending booty call, because although it might not be a squeaky clean portrayal of a black woman – it’s an honest one.
I can fully appreciate Mary Jane for the same reasons I appreciate Kerry Washington’s portrayal of Olivia Pope in Scandal – the unmitigated honesty. The typewritten disclaimer at the beginning informed viewers that the show isn’t trying to account for the lives of every black woman everywhere…just one. The show doesn’t seek to lump all black women into one group of romantically challenged workaholics, it just lets us follow one woman who is trying to navigate that space in her life. A life full of choices to be made. Sometimes she gets them right, and sometimes she gets them wrong. You know, like a human being?
I saw glimpses of myself or people I know throughout the storyline. Who hasn’t gone back to the man who is no good for them but feels so good to them? Who hasn’t fought for a cause they truly believe in on their job only to be shot down? Who hasn’t flooded themselves with messages of affirmation and encouragement? Who hasn’t tidied their whole house and gotten “effortlessly” sexified in a matter of minutes before inviting their boo inside? And yes, who hasn’t employed the quick “squat-and-wash” method of washing up before an impromptu hot date?
I screamed when Mary Jane was Facebook chatting with her ex. More than once I have started typing, then rethought it and deleted, started again, then deleted it again only to end up with coy one or two-word answers – trying to tailor my responses to get the responses I wanted from a guy – whether via Facebook chat or text message.
My point is – I wasn’t mad at the creators of the show for displaying a truth that many of us won’t admit to living. I was thankful, in a way, for being shown that I’m not the only one who wrestles with some of these issues.
While people have a right to dislike any work of art they choose, I noticed that most of the criticism of Mary Jane (which was luckily not a lot) stemmed from a belief that it showed black women in a poor light. It’s the same mentality that met Viola Davis when she decided to play Abilene in The Help. It’s the mentality that black actresses are not allowed to show the whole truth. Just the pieces that sparkle and smell clean. If the image isn’t 98.7 percent positive, we get uncomfortable.
My response? We have got to get over the fear of telling the truth about ourselves individually and collectively. One person’s truth doesn’t necessarily blanket a whole race. And if art reflects life then for goodness’ sake, allow it to. I’d like to take for granted that most people are smart enough to watch television without coming away with all-encompassing thoughts about an entire group of people from ONE television show. While I love watching Scandal, I believe that anyone who draws the conclusion from the show that all black women are looking to be mistresses to white men are incredibly unintelligent human beings with no real right to voice their opinions. Just saying.
Being Mary Jane seems to be a story of trajectory framed in a way that many women of color will be able to appreciate. And, hey, it debuted with four million viewers so I think that signifies a win with some longevity. There are layers in it and the character as there are in our everyday lives and I’m excited to see what is revealed throughout Mary Jane’s journey.