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.