‘Being Mary Jane’: Young, Black, Successful and Single

Gabrielle Union and Omari Hardwick in a tense scene in "Being Mary Jane."

Gabrielle Union and Omari Hardwick in a tense scene in “Being Mary Jane.”

Last week, the wait was over. The series premiere of “Being Mary Jane” aired on BET to an audience with cell phones in hand, ready to live tweet every minute. I absolutely love Gabrielle Union and am glad she’s getting the opportunity to showcase her amazing talent. Several of my girls asked me what I thought of the show. My answer remained the same.

I think “Being Mary Jane” is the most authentic representation on television of life as a young, single Black woman. A few of them agreed; many of them hit me with the side eye. One blatantly asked “since when did sleeping with married men become the most authentic representation of us?” I told her if we make the entire show about that, we miss the point entirely.

One of my friends asked why couldn’t Mary Jane (MJ) be shown doing every day, run of the mill, garden variety stuff. For her, MJ covering breaking hurricane news, saving a suicidal best friend, navigating workplace politics and sleeping with someone else’s husband in the gym shower was doing the most. My friend wanted to know why Mary Jane’s life couldn’t be simplistic.

Maybe that’s the point. Being a Black woman is revolutionary in America. We, unfortunately, don’t have the luxury of being seen as simplistic. Caring for ourselves, loving our mates, pursuing dreams, sustaining families, maintaining friendships are all acts of resistance in a society that needs us oppressed and marginalized in order to prosper. Consequently, the inability to see Black women’s routine as normal is an indictment and reflection of that more than anything else.

And, almost in unison, after the first episode aired, updates to social media declared “We want Claire Huxtable back” as if Claire’s presence somehow negates Mary Jane’s. When we met Claire Huxtable, she was a 40-something married mother of five with an established career. When we meet Mary Jane Paul, she is a 30-something single woman with no kids at the start of her career. When have those two perspectives ever been the same? It’s like expecting me, at 32, to act like and make the same decisions as my mother, who is…not 32. It doesn’t work like that.

Part of “being”, especially at this stage of the game, requires a lot of trial and error, mishaps and missteps to get to seasons in life of sage wisdom and experience. And yet- have we even considered that before Claire became the wife-mom-attorney we all know and love, she could have been just like Mary Jane? I’m often amazed at the personal stories my mother now shares with me to accompany lessons on financial wisdom, boundary setting and self-care. Getting to this place within herself, spiritual walk, career and personal walk took many sharp turns and detours. But she arrived with a greater acknowledgment of who she was, understanding of who she is and articulation of who she can become. Shoot, I’m still emerging from my quarter life crisis. Growth is a process.

I hear the groans about complicated depictions of Black women in media. I hear the collective sigh about yet another Black female lead lacking a certain aspect of morality. Believe me, I hear you. And while I don’t share all of those sentiments, I do believe that it’s an important conversation to have. Yet, even with that, I saw all (yes, all) of my friends, married and single, in “Being Mary Jane.” I saw myself too. I saw how fiercely loyal we are in our friendships, even if it’s to a fault. I saw how we are constantly holding in tension our desire for success and our desire to remain true to ourselves. I saw the complicated, sometimes fumbling nature of our love lives. I saw how we have often made decisions out of a lack of love and awareness of self. I saw us. And seeing us means, as I believe the show aims to suggest, we all still have work to do.

So what can a woman like Mary Jane Paul, a woman half of Black America has already written off as a home wrecker, teach us about ourselves? If we’re willing to momentarily abandon our proclivities to be judgmental and turn up our noses at people who sin differently than we do, MJ teaches us a great deal. She teaches us that we can’t be everything for everybody. We can’t put out fires for our family and friends while we’re standing in infernos. We have to put those oxygen masks on ourselves first…and breathe. And that’s foreign to us as Black women; we see that as a very selfish and Western concept. It was no coincidence that the season premiere opens with the issue of Black women and depression. While we’d like to turn a blind eye and pretend that it is not as pandemic as some suggest, Black women are suffering for a myriad of reasons. And that suffering is leading many of them to engage in destructive behaviors, while at the same time trying to maintain senses of normalcy for the people around them. And, for some sisters, it is leading them to take their own lives. So while many choose to ignore the plight of Black women in America, kudos to Mara Brock Akil for addressing it head on.

Mary Jane also teaches us that we aren’t the sum total of our mistakes. For sisters, that’s also a hard concept to embrace. In being everything for everyone, we often forget that we are human. In our humanity, we will make mistakes and beat ourselves up relentlessly for it. Granted, your mistake may not be having sex with a married man in a gym shower. But I guarantee that we all have a “God, I can’t believe I did that” story (or stories) in our recent history. That still doesn’t reduce our capacity to be great and do great things. It just means we were dumb once…or twice…or three things. And that’s the beauty of a show like “Being Mary Jane.” This one mistake doesn’t negate the fact that she’s a devoted daughter, sister, aunt and friend. And maybe embracing that goodness about herself will cause her to make more informed choices in other areas of her life. After all, we’re only one episode in.

At the beginning of the show’s 2 hour movie preview, the words “this is one woman’s story” are typed across the screen. The truth is it’s not just one woman’s. Mary Jane Paul embodies the experiences of many young Black women coming into their own today. We see ourselves in her. We can relate to the family strain, investments in friendships and fumbles in love. We may not have mantras written on post-it notes around our homes but they are found in abundance throughout our Instagram accounts and our copies of Iyanla Vanzant’s “Yesterday I Cried” and “One Day My Soul Just Opened Up” are never far from us. But maybe being mary jane isn’t your personal story or maybe you’re not ready to admit that it is. That’s okay, too. There’s more than one way to be a Black woman; thank God for that. But since we’re all watching it, can we try to learn something from it? Let’s work to establish clear boundaries in all our relationships, professional and personal, so that we are constantly articulating our expectations and acting accordingly. Let’s attempt to be more cognizant of the issues many Black women face, becoming allies and not adversaries. Let’s examine ways that we may have contributed to creating some Mary Janes- projecting onto the sisters around us- repent for it and create new plans of engagement.

Some people want perfect representations of Black women on big and small screens. And that’s fine. I’ll take Mary Jane. She may not be perfect, but at least I know she’s real.

Do you agree with Candace? Are you more critical of the show? Let us know what you think.

Candice Benbow is the host of Divine Dialogue, an iTunes podcast that discusses social and religious issues in the African-American Community. A writer, Candice is currently at work on her first book.

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