On Being Mary Jane and Images of Black Women in Media

22 01 2014
Photo via BET.com

Photo via BET.com

Since Being Mary Jane first aired on BET last summer, I’ve seen and heard a bevy of negative commentary about what the main character represents for Black women.

“Why does every Black woman on TV have to be a jump-off,” I’ve heard.

Or, “Really, you’re okay with every Black woman being represented as emotionally unstable people?”

I’ve even heard things like, “And Black women want to know why you all can’t get married? Because you’re obviously content being Sally Hemmings to married white men and whores to married Black men.”

Or, “This show, like Scandal, plays to every bad stereotype of Black women there is — she’s pushy with her family, bossy and impatient at work, over-sexualized and willing to play whatever role she’s offered in relationships because she can’t find a man of her own.”

Clearly those last two saw fit to add their commentary about Scandal into their commentary about Being Mary Jane — because you know, they are two shows helmed by Black women characters on TV so they must be about the same thing. (insert sarcastic font here)

If you can’t tell by now, I absolutely do not agree with any of these statements/questions. But I find it extremely telling that I’ve heard them all from Black men and women.

I even got into a heated discussion with a male co-worker who was so completely disgusted by the idea of the movie and then the TV show, Being Mary Jane, (even though he’d never seen either) and couldn’t understand why women would want to see themselves portrayed in “that manner in front of the world.”

I responded with, “you mean, why in the world would women (especially Black women) want to see a Black woman on TV who’s human? Who’s not Clair Huxtable? Who tries her best, but makes mistakes and you know, isn’t perfect all the damn time? Yea, I have no idea why we would want to see something like that… except for the fact that we’ve been asking for it for years now.”

We never resolved our argument, but since then, it’s really sat on my spirit how so many women and men have responded to the show. Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that everyone has to like the show or that its themes are relevant to everyone, but what I find troubling is what I mentioned to the co-worker at the end of his tirade — we’ve (Black women) been asking for this for years now.

I can remember when I went to go see Juno with CJ when it first came out. We both laughed throughout the movie (and I cried some too, of course), and we came out of the theater thinking the same thing: it was great, it’s probably going to be a classic, and it could never have been made with a Black girl cast as Juno. The last point had to do with this idea in the Black community that had been perpetuated for some time now — that only certain stories were okay to tell. That of a teenaged girl impregnated by her high school sorta kinda boyfriend? Yea, that wouldn’t quite meet the criteria.

But because of this lofty criteria we’d set, the only images we were seeing in the movies and on TV were civil rights movies and tropes about the strong Black woman enduring all with her cape never getting tattered in the process. I get the reason for this protection of our image, though, don’t get me wrong. It comes as a result of Black women feeling as if they had to present a counter image to the woman seen in all the hip hop videos, shaking her ass for the masses, allowing herself to be devalued and over-sexualized or if not in that image, working as the mammy character who couldn’t get a man to want her if she tried.

The problem, however, is that in seeking that counter-image, we never allowed for the images of Black women to you know, actually portray us. Everyone became the sassy strong woman or the confident strong woman or the accomplished strong woman… noticing a pattern here? That strong woman trope began to be just as damaging as the video vixen did.

Because while it’s great to see strong women who look like you on TV and in movies, sometimes it’s just as empowering to see those same women show that they don’t always have the answers. Show that they are insecure sometimes. Show that they question if they are doing the right thing. Without those aspects, you get lofty images that no one can live up to strangling the actual women and making them feel like they are less than because, I mean, Clair could do it all — so why can’t I?

To be clear — this is not a knock against Clair Huxtable. I love Clair Huxtable! I love Phylicia Rashad (amazing, fierce Howard alumna as she is) even more. But you can’t just have Clair on TV. That’s not real life.

I’ve always felt that we needed the other side as well. We need to be able to tell the stories of the women who look like they have it all together on the outside, but if you delve deeper, you’ll see that’s not true. We need those stories, not only because those shows actually stay on longer since no one really wants to watch two-dimensional characters (we just say that we do), but also because those women are much closer to actual life than the strong, unfazed, always assured Black woman could ever be.

What do you all think though? Do you disagree with me and think the characters of Olivia Pope and Mary Jane are more harmful than good? And why is no one talking about the amazing job that Nicole Beharie is doing on Sleepy Hollow? She carries that damn show.

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11 responses

22 01 2014
trenicia

Amen! Agree so much with you on this! I was watching Oprah’s special with Phylicia Rashad, Gabby Union, Alfre Woodard, and Violetta Davis and Violetta made such a great point. I’m paraphrasing but she stated that black actors struggle to really play truly complex characters because we get so weighed down by the idea of stereotypes. If people are so concerned about how black women are portrayed on TV, they would do better taking aim at these reality shows, since those are real people versus a fictional show. Just my $0.02!

22 01 2014
dbaham

Trenicia!! So excited for your first $0.02 on the blog! Wooot!!

Now, to your comment lol — I still need to see that special (since I don’t get OWN, I wasn’t able to watch when it came on), but I’ve heard nothing but amazing things come out of it, your paraphrasing quote included. I mean, I just don’t know what people expect. Who do you know in your actual life that’s perfect? Who’s not complex? Who never does anything wrong? No one! So why should we expect it from the characters we see on TV?

22 01 2014
JP

It truly infuriates me when I hear people denigrate the characters that Gabrielle Union and Kerry Washington portray on television; especially when those nay-sayers have never bothered to watch a single episode from beginning to end and only hypothesize about the character’s range and content. Like you, I absolutely LOVE Phylicia Rashad’s portrayal of Claire Huxtable. But I recognized long ago that I am not Claire. Seeing Union and Washington play LEADING characters with flaws is empowering. Their flaws may not necessarily mirror my flaws in entirety, but the fact that they have visile cracks in their facade is a statement in and of itself. I seethe when I think about the fact that if they weren’t Black women that no one would have much to say. The truth of the matter is that Black women have diverse stories and backgrounds. There are some Black women who don’t even think twice about being the “side chick”. There’s also some non-Black women who aspire to that same “position”. Maybe one day, when we finally get to the post-racial American society that allegedly already exists, then we’ll see a broader range of Black women portrayed and we can focus less on the two that happen to be leading women on television shows.

22 01 2014
dbaham

Hey JP!!! Love your input here — and welcome 🙂

I’m so with you on this (obviously haha). No, I’m not planning to try to steal anyone’s semen anytime soon, but that’s because that one thing is just not my flaw. But I don’t have to have that particular flaw to relate to seeing a woman trying to find the balance between family, work, and love — and not always getting it right.

And, honestly, I bet if a TV show were written about a fictionalized version of my life — there’d be a whole lot of people upset about some of the things I do (and probably some of the things I enjoy doing with no shame lol).

Also, I really do hope we get to that point one day (someday soon, in fact). As of now, there are a lot of shows I still watch to this day where I find myself saying, nope “we” would never let ourselves tell that story. And unfortunately for many writers out there, it’s so disheartening and discouraging to know that not only will you get push back from others, you’ll get it from the Black community as well — not because it’s a badly written script — but just because they don’t like what it “represents.”

22 01 2014
SephardicScribe

This is what I’ve pledged to do, and what I’ll continue to do when it comes to shows or movies featuring black characters: I’m not judging representation first, and I think it’s a disservice when you focus on that … first.

Because what makes a TV show good or isn’t solely representation: it’s writing. There are myriad things worth criticizing about both Scandal and Being Mary Jane before you even get to how the black women on the show are portrayed: pacing, dialogue, character development, using rape as plot device (Scandal), one-dimensional secondary characters (BMJ), plausibility, acting ability, etc. My problem with both of those shows probably lies in the fact that I just don’t like soap operas very much.

I think it’s funny that while simple-ass Negroes are busy slut-shaming Olivia and Mary Jane, they’re missing what is arguably a bigger injustice: that neither of these shows is very *good* based on the writing elements I just listed. I don’t really care that infidelity is portrayed. Guess what? Everybody cheats. White people cheat, black people cheat, Asian people cheat, Inuit people cheat, Indian people cheat, EVERYONE FUCKING CHEATS. That’s why humans never get sick of reading about it and watching shows that center around it.

If black folks want to demand something, demand better shows, better roles, and better scripts. That’s why a show like “Orange is the New Black” is important. It features multi-dimensional black women, and they’re not perfect, either. But the show is compelling. It’s just good television. Honestly, how great would it be if House of Cards was the same show, but the majority of the characters were played by really great black actors instead of white ones?

I think when the shows are better-constructed, you see a lot of this morality policing go away, because good writing means getting you in the characters’ corner, even when they do shitty things.

22 01 2014
dbaham

Sephardic Scribe!! I can always count on you to give a good counter opinion 🙂 (and still sort of end up agreeing with me lol)

And here’s the thing — your opinion is one that I truly respect. You just don’t like the writing on the show. And hey, like I said, it’s definitely not for everyone. I get that. And if the comments I’d been hearing from people were centered around that — it wouldn’t be so infuriating. But they’re not. They are exactly what you mentioned: the morality police getting all up in arms because the damn woman is in a relationship with a married man. Hell, one of my favorite characters ever on a show had a relationship with a married man, asked him to leave his wife (pick me, choose me, love me), and then ended up marrying said man and everyone who watched the show cheered it on! But she was a white woman, so I guess that was okay.

Now, listen, I personally LOVE soap operas (day and night time) — clearly why I love shows like Grey’s Anatomy and 90210 and such. So I’ve been waiting (do you hear me, WAITING! lol) to see something like this on TV for awhile now. And I think it just boils my butter that we can’t have a show like this without folks’ slut-shaming the main character and trying to make the women who watch the show feel bad because they enjoy it.

On another note — unfortunately, I don’t have Netflix, so I haven’t been able to see either of the shows you mentioned. But I have heard that they’re very good. At the same time, I don’t think every “good” show has to be something that deals with such hard hitting issues as those shows do. But that’s a debate for another post 🙂

22 01 2014
SephardicScribe

That said, black folks should be afforded the same right to create mediocre-ass television as anyone else. But I think Jon Caramanica sums up the problems with “Being Mary Jane” quite nicely: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/07/arts/television/gabrielle-union-stars-in-being-mary-jane-on-bet.html?ref=joncaramanica

I want to see complex black female characters as much as the next woman, probably more. But I think in BMJ, what we actually get is scattershot and unfocused masquerading as complex. And that’s disappointing to me.

(I’ll go to my corner and shut up, now)

22 01 2014
dbaham

I’ll check out the link this afternoon and get back to you with my thoughts 🙂

23 01 2014
dbaham

I finally had a chance to read the article… you didn’t think I forgot, did you? And what I will say is that it seems to me it was written prematurely. A lot of the plot points that were asked for in the article have actually occurred since then, because you know, it takes time to develop characters on a TV show.

Also, I found it interesting that the show was compared to the Mindy Project (which I love, btw), especially since that show was given the time to get its bearings. I didn’t find everything right and funny about it during the first season, but I stuck with it because I saw its promise — and guess what? That panned out! I love the new season of Mindy and think there’s been a lot more fleshing out of the characters. All I’m saying is that a lot of folks are so caught up on this one aspect of Mary Jane that they’re using it to brush off what I think is a great TV show. And then using things like not having a fully developed supporting cast as a cop-out. Since when do we determine that after one episode and a pilot? C’mon.

23 01 2014
29tolife

Girl, you better speak. Where’s my tithes and offerings? Ok, look. First, I do want to say that Necole Beharie is doing all of the damn thing on Sleepy Hollow and Crane is my boo. He is NOT cartoon Ichabad Crane, ya heard? That show is soooo funny and gives so many nods to history and it’s just everything for nerds. EVERYTHING. I’m going to be Abby for Halloween 2014. Calling it now. It’s freaking everything. And I love the casual nods to race type things that Abby and Orlando Jones’ characters present for context. They don’t make a big stink, they just put it in there and walk away. Love the writers, love the actors.
Now, back to the issue at hand. I got one thing to say to all the people who think Scandal and Being Mary Jane make black women look like power hungry, angry, reckless, horny, harpies… May I please present one of my favorite series of all time before the court. SEX AND THE CITY.
Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda were the original #teambaddecisions. And everyone lauded and loved them because they were “flawed.” White women get to be flawed. We get to be crazy. Ok. Cool.
We don’t need to go into the double standard and stereotypes of black women and the passes we AREN’T given to just be human. I think both shows are brilliant, guilty (or not so guilty) pleasures. They are messy as hell just like SATC, and my other favorite shows Revenge and Nashville, that feature white women. OH Nashville is my joint! So whatever. White women are allowed to be Messy McMessingtons. They are flawed.
We get a little emotional and horny and we’ve let down the entire race real and fictional. Have all the seats. Sentarse por favor. Whoosah. I feel better now. Great post!

23 01 2014
dbaham

Yesssssssssss!!!!! I’m so happy to have a fellow Sleepy Hollow fan in the midst!! OMG — I mean just how good is that show?? Just HOW GOOD!? And I love it for all the reasons you mentioned — the nod to history, the fineness that is Ichabod Crane, the casual nods to race, the amazing storyline, the constant twists, and then of course NICOLE FREAKIN’ BEHARIE. She is everything on that show. Everything!

Okay… now that that fandom is out of the way lolol — I am so glad you brought up Sex and the City. I’ve been trying not to. I’ve been biting my tongue, but yes — let’s go there. I can’t tell you how many Black women I know who considered themselves a Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, or Miranda. And not that there’s anything wrong with that — but they all did some wild ass shit on that show. And that’s why we loved it. They were flawed. They were real. They were messy as hell. And they were given a pass because no one has the same crazy perfect woman expectations for white women as they do for Black women. Or to be even more real, Black women don’t have those same high expectations.

I scream and all of a sudden other Black women are worried that I’m going to come off as an angry Black woman. I cry and other Black women are looking at me like, get your shit together, you don’t have time for all that! I mess up and fall in love with a man who I didn’t know was married and Black women are worried about what I represent to the masses. (Note — these are all just examples, not things that actually happened to me lol. To my knowledge, I’ve never fallen in love with a married man haha.) It’s just infuriating!

Whew. Okay. I’m sorry for that quick rant, but all that to say, I’m now amen-ing your comment and need to pass you back your tithes and offerings lol. Especially after this –> “We get a little emotional and horny and we’ve let down the entire race real and fictional. Have all the seats.” Yes ma’am 🙂

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