Being Mary Jane / Screen

Being Mary Jane: A Review of the Pilot

BET’s Being Mary Jane doesn’t premiere officially until January, but the preview of the pilot has me really excited for this show because 1) Gabrielle Union and 2) vibrators and 3) Rihanna’s “Cake” plus a more in depth reasoning below the cut. 

After the success of Scandal, networks are trying to capitalize on black women in lead roles because somehow it’s only now occurred to networks that viewers may actually enjoy a show about a black woman. While this is bound to produce some ill-conceived material (like NBC’s Deception) BET has done well with Being Mary Jane.  It’s from the creator of Girlfriends and The Game (I really miss Girlfriends and those couple well-written seasons of The Game) which makes me excited about what’s coming.

Mary Jane Paul is a successful news anchor with a hefty set of romantic and familial troubles.   Even though the show initially seems that it will focus on Mary Jane’s status as a single woman who doesn’t want to be single anymore, it’s also very centered on Mary Jane’s work and her family drama which includes an ill mother, an unemployed brother who often turns to Mary Jane for money and a niece who’s pregnant again, and Mary Jane takes care of them all.  She’s taken on a lot of responsibility in caring for her family, and she has ambition that they lack. This is frustrating for Mary Jane who’s worked hard to get where she is.  Now she’s a public figure and a homeowner, and she shares her success with her family.

But Mary Jane isn’t all business.  She’s a sexual, intelligent and funny woman who keeps a vibrator in her desk at work and treats herself to expensive shoes.  She doesn’t stay quiet about things that upset her, and she calls out her brother on his request for money and  makes sure her niece knows that Mary Jane is getting tired of having to provide for the babies in their family that aren’t even hers.   Yet this doesn’t make Mary Jane inaccessible, and it doesn’t make her selfish.  She still takes her niece to the doctor and throws her a baby shower, and it’s clear that she loves her family despite their conflicts.  She provides for them because she has the means to do so, and if she doesn’t do it, then no one will. By the end of the pilot, Mary Jane was likable and sympathetic, and though I can definitely see where her annoyance with her family members comes in, they aren’t all one-note either (like Mary Jane’s brother Patrick who wanted money to buy his daughter the stroller she wanted), and I’m excited to see what else is coming for them.

Part of what makes her so much fun to follow is that Mary Jane is a black woman who’s aware of the societal disadvantages that come with being a black woman.   She and her friend Kara (Lisa Vidal) both react to the world as women of color, and at one point Kara points out to Mary Jane that her anger over a disparaging magazine cover that claims black women are ugly is only going to make her seem like an Angry Black Woman to the higher ups at their network.

Just the acknowledgement of this stereotype made me incredibly happy.  Mary Jane’s anger is totally justified, but the anger of black women is typically treated as irrational.  On an issue that’s deeply personal to Mary Jane, her feelings on it aren’t validated by anyone, and even Kara can’t grasp just how personal it is, something Mary Jane points out.  As a Latina woman Kara doesn’t know what it’s like to be a black woman in any more than Mary Jane knows what it’s like to be Latina, and the touch on how varied racial experiences are was a highlight.

There’s a lot that could be said about Mary Jane’s sperm stealing in the pilot’s final moments.  It was certainly a nutty call to make, but I’m thrilled with it.  There have been countless films and television shows about white women who go to extreme lengths in the name of having it all – a career, love, family –  and it was like a breath of fresh air to see Mary Jane being allowed to make a comically bad decision.

I don’t think this very rom-com brand of goofiness is a slam for Mary Jane or black women characters.  In fact I think it would be more upsetting if Mary Jane’s whole character was wrapped up in just how perfect she is and how she can keep it all together all the time.  The Strong Black Woman is becoming more and more prevalent in media,  and this is a problem because that “strength” is tied to us being considered as less than human.  Strong Black Women aren’t allowed to have emotions and certainly aren’t allowed to be troubled and multifaceted, which isn’t true of Mary Jane.  Like her white counterparts Mary Jane should be allowed to make questionable choices in her desperation and to be an absolute mess in her romantic life even if she’s doing wonderful things professionally.  The point of having more black women on television is not to display a perfect black woman.  There isn’t one. White women leads are allowed their messy antics, and it doesn’t reflect badly on white women as a whole.  If Mary Jane was perfect, she wouldn’t be human, and it’s very important that black women characters are written as being human.


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