There is a disclaimer at the beginning of BET’s new series Being Mary Jane that informs viewers the show isn’t trying to account for the lives of every black woman everywhere, “just one.” But is that possible, especially when there are so few black women on television?
Gabrielle Union portrays Mary Jane Paul, a beautiful, successful and well-educated news anchor for a CNN-like network. “Mary Jane seems to have it all. However, despite the trappings of a well-heeled life, she is looking for love in all the wrong places,” BET advertises. Union has called such a role rare for black actresses and see’s it as an opportunity to build a legacy.
“She’s not a caricature,” Union told Entertainment Weekly. “The thing about [Mary Jane] is she doesn’t get it right—she doesn’t even get it right like 50% of the time which is life! Most people are jerks on Tuesdays and then Wednesdays they can be saints. That’s the reality of human nature but it’s very rarely reflected accurately on screen.”
Being Mary Jane is likely to become a hit. An estimated of 3.3 million viewers tuned into the show’s season premiere and the pilot, which aired during the summer, received an impressive 4 million viewers and was just barely beat out by NBC’s America’s Got Talent across all of television in its timeslot. Like ABC’s Scandal, a large black female audience has bolstered the show’s early success. And coincidentally, also like Scandal, Being Mary Jane’s protagonist is involved in an affair with a married man.
Now, despite Being Mary Jane’s attempt to only tell the story of its lead character, some say another show with a black woman involved in an extramarital affair is problematic, adding to a list of negative images of black women in the media.
“As much as I root for black women in leading roles, it bothers me to see images of them as the ‘side chicks’,” said Olicia Pearson, a film student at Howard University. “It makes black women appear as if we are only good enough to sleep with or as if we can only settle for untrustworthy men.”
Pearson adds that while other shows may place non-black women in similar circumstances, for black women, the portrayal is compounded by limited representation and common stereotypes.
“Black women are continuously portrayed as the jezebel, but now it’s in a fashionable or badass way,” she said.
A November Essence magazine survey sought, in part, to measure how black women are portrayed in the media and the data suggests Pearson is right. More than 1,000 respondents reported most often seeing black women negatively portrayed as, “gold diggers,” “jezebels,” “baby mamas” and “angry black women.” Compounding that, a Gallup poll named adultery as the least “morally acceptable” in a list of 19 actions and behaviors that included abortion, the death penalty and gambling.
When asked about the morality and impact of her show last year, Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes took the issue head on.
“I don’t feel like we’re making adultery acceptable,” Rhimes told TVLine. “We weren’t setting out to make adultery okay…To me it’s not about adultery or not adultery. We’re telling the story of these two characters who very specifically have this kind of relationship.”
Being Mary Jane creator Mara Brock Akil echoed Rhimes’ sentiments in speaking about her own show.
“Obviously that’s not everybody’s story. This is one woman’s story,” said Brock Akil. “Sometimes we are saying one thing, but we are living something else. Sometimes we don’t act out something, but we are feeling something else. Or we can speak the truth to someone else’s condition but we can never speak to our own.”
So how do we being to measure the impact and significance of this moment in media for black women? Actress and filmmaker Reagan Gomez says concern over moral implications aside, Scandal and Being Mary should at least be applauded for adding complexity to the images of black women.
“I don’t think we’re used to seeing such flawed, complex characters being played by black women. They have to be good, God-fearing, perfect human beings. Well, that’s not real life. We’re all flawed,” Gomez told Global Grind. “Women – particularly black women – are held to such an unrealistic and unfair standard. There ‘s no such thing as perfection and there’s beauty in flaws. With both Being Mary Jane and Scandal, we’re so caught up in them not being what patriarchy says a good ‘black woman’ should be, we don’t even notice that not only are two black women the stars of these shows, they’re also created by black women.”
Gomez added, “These are fictional characters. I enjoy them. I enjoy Michonne from The Walking Dead. I’m looking forward to watching Sasheer Zamata on Saturday Night Live. Niecy Nash is fantastic on Getting On on HBO. So Scandal or Being Mary Jane may not be your thing. The point is: women of color are finally getting the chance to play great characters. Find a show you like and stan out like the rest of us.”
Ultimately, one thing is for sure: Being Mary Jane and Scandal are premiere and rare showcases for images of black women. That distinction, perhaps, comes with a burden. They’re charged with being entertaining and vehicles for imagination, while not further damaging the already embattled image of black women in popular media. That’s indeed heavy lifting for any one show or any single character. But while it’s a huge responsibility, it’s also a tremendous opportunity to break new ground – to give black women something to relate to and of which to be proud.