How Being Mary Jane Challenged So Many Stereotypes About Black Women On TV

Photo: Courtesy of BET.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a massive assumption. I’m convinced that every Black woman who was a fan of Sex and the City played Spot the Black Woman in each episode. And this game is exactly what it sounds like: an exhaustive never-ending game of Where’s Waldo for adults.

By now we all know that SATC was a series that rarely, if ever, featured Black women. I can still count the moments in which Black women appeared in phantom roles. They were disposable, one-dimensional characters that disappeared as quickly as the appeared. These female actors were never awarded more than a few collective minutes on screen.

I still vividly remember Carrie Bradshaw’s enthusiastic hot dog-loving African-American limo driver in season 5, episode 5. Her role lasted for under two minutes. Prior to that character, we were introduced to chef Adeena, a.k.a. The Angry Black Woman, who pulled Samantha Jones hair in a nightclub. There was also the annoyed neighbor who introduced new mom Miranda Hobbes to a trick that would finally quiet her wailing child. That neighbor told Miranda she needed more “mom friends” to which Miranda agreed. Ooh, she’ll be back! I thought. Yet she, like the rest of them, was given their walking papers.

Of course playing Spot The Black Woman on a television series didn’t begin in 1998 when Sex and the City premiered on HBO. It also didn’t end with the show’s demise six years later. So in 2012, it was difficult to not play this game when Girls premiered on the same network. Though generations apart, both programs were pegged to speak to a young generation of professional independent women. But again: Where were the Black successful female leads characters?

In 2013 we got a glimmer of hope with Mara Brock Akil’s Being Mary Jane on BET. Showrunner Brock Akil wasn’t new to this audience. After all, she was the creator and producer of UPN’s hit sitcom Girlfriends — an iconic show in its own right — and had credits to her name including Moesha, and The Game. Yet this primetime series was different. And judging from the record-breaking 4.4 million people who tuned in for the show’s debut, it was a timely page flip to a new chapter in television. Audiences were thirsty. They needed a scripted series in which a Black woman was given the opportunity to just be normal. For some the premise was snoozy, for others it was spot-on.

It’s no surprise that television’s most nuanced portrayals of Black womanhood comes from actual Black women.

Gabrielle Union’s character, Mary Jane Paul, was an unmarried news anchor and the breadwinner for her family. She had two parents who — gasp! — are still together, two brothers, and a niece. All of whom she has close relationships with and we see the facets of these relationships unfold on screen. This is rare. We didn’t even get that level of character intimacy with the women of Sex In The City.

Though, we did experience some of this with Hannah’s relationship with her parents on Girls. MJ has also dealt with heartbreaks, suicides, and major professional setbacks. She openly talks about sex, and for BET’s 18-49 demographic that was risqué. After all, this wasn’t HBO. Most of all, though, Mary Jane was messy.

When the series first rolled out, it was instantly compared to Scandal (which premiered in 2012), another series featuring another successful, unmarried adult woman, the two were worlds apart. Mary Jane’s life in Atlanta and was far less dramatic than Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope character. MJ wasn’t stomping around Washington D.C. in taupe pantsuits, cleaning up debaucherous political fuckery. And while we did witness MJ’s relationship with a married man painfully unfold, that incident wasn’t nearly as nail-biting as Olivia’s affair with the president. Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal offers the kind of escapism that’s best viewed from afar, not experienced. At the time, it was hard for some critics to wrap their mind around the fact that our world was big enough for both Mary Jane Paul and Olivia Pope.

Photo: Courtesy of BET.

So it’s no surprise that television’s most nuanced portrayals of Black womanhood comes from actual Black women. Though Brock Akil has since left Being Mary Jane behind, after the third season, this isn’t a bad thing. “Moving on means creating an opportunity to grow,” Brock Akil said in an interview with the New York Times in 2015 after striking a multiyear deal with Warner Bros. “That’s part of the business side of what I do. And the Warner Bros. deal is going to allow for me to keep painting pictures in more places.”

While Being Mary Jane is still a show that is greatly needed on BET, Brock Akil’s plans to develop more programs for a major company like Warner Bros. is promising. According to a Women and Hollywood study, 17 percent of the women appearing on television are Black. And considering the lack of women in general occupying non-actor spaces, that number is even far less when it comes to working behind the scenes.

Women — all of us — need to see one another’s multitudes depicted in media. Black, White Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ…all of us. At its best, we learn from our media. We get a glimpse into lives we otherwise may not encounter. And this is why BET’s Being Mary Jane filled such a void during a period that was oversaturated with reality TV stars and stereotypes.

Other crucial shows have since sprung up — Issa Rae’s Insecure, Shonda Rhimes’s How To Get Away With Murder — though there’s a lingering possibility that we can indeed slip back into the dark ages. Even this week, as HBO’s Girls rolls out its final sixth season, it’s hard to believe that season after season a show this popular can still whitewash an entire demographic of Black and brown people and that’s okay.

Have we come a long way? Absolutely. Though, TV’s landscape is still deeply in need of pruning.

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