Being Mary Jane, a new BET show written and directed by husband-and-wife team Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, is the story of Mary Jane Paul—a single, young, successful African-American television news anchor (played by Gabrielle Union) who juggles her demanding job with a complicated personal life. When the series began on Monday, Jan. 7 (after its pilot episode had been aired as an “original film” back in July), it opened with a disclaimer: “Forty-two percent of African-American women have never been married. ... This is one black woman's story, [and it’s] not meant to represent all black women."
The event attracted over 4 million viewers, which helped Brock Akil get a two-season contract with BET. Because there are so few black or minority female lead characters on scripted network television, however, many viewers ended up comparing Mary Jane to other TV characters played by minority actresses.
In a recent New York Times review, Jon Caramanica first compared Mary Jane to the Indian-American character of Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project, then (of course) compared her to the only other black lead female character currently on scripted television, Olivia Pope. In Caramanica’s opinion, Mary Jane is “unfortunately … less complex than say, Kerry Washington’s canny Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal.” On Twitter and elsewhere, viewers and reviewers drew similar comparisons: “Being Mary Jane is a much more realistic Scandal.” “Will #BeingMaryJane hold yall over until #Scandal returns?” “Some people were offended by the masturbation scene on #BeingMaryJane. How many times have we seen Liv's panties on #Scandal? Relax.” “[A]s much as I enjoyed #BeingMaryJane it is NO #Scandal and Gabrielle Union is NO Kerry Washington.” And so on.
Granted, Gabrielle Union auditioned alongside Kerry Washington for the character of Olivia Pope. Even Washington acknowledges that the chance to play a powerful and successful black female lead character like Pope on scripted network television was an attraction for many black actresses.
But pitting Scandal against Being Mary Jane is still an unfair comparison, whether in reviews or on Twitter. These are shows with extremely different characters; Pope is a high-profile political fixer who happens to be sleeping with the President of the United States and whose father (spoiler alert) happens to work for the CIA, while Mary Jane is a local TV news anchor still helping to support her siblings, and whose primary goal outside of work is simply finding an eligible, ready-to-commit black man to marry and start a family with. And more importantly, comparing Being Mary Jane to Scandal obscures one of the great strengths of Gabrielle Union’s new series: the relatability of its protagonist. Part of the brilliance behind Brock Akil’s work is that she uses a black lead character and a primarily black cast to appeal to women of all races.
As much as fans love Olivia Pope for her great wardrobe and her fierce ability to handle hectic situations at various levels, it’s clear even after just three installments that Mary Jane is arguably more accessible to the majority of women, black or white. Brock Akil shows this in ways that are likely to elicit snickers of familiarity. (Last summer when I watched the first episode, I called up my girlfriend Micky as soon as the credits rolled. “There’s a TV show about us!” I said gleefully into the phone.) For example: Mary Jane walks into her house after a tough day at work and the first thing she does is pull out her bra and toss it on the counter. We see her sitting down on the toilet, then calling a friend and flipping through a magazine. To catch Olivia Pope doing those things might warrant something needing to be “handled.”
According to AkilProductions’ Twitter feed, 13 minutes into the third episode on Jan. 14, Being Mary Jane was already trending worldwide—and many of the tweets came from women posting tweets of ways they could relate to Mary Jane and the people around her. “Oh, snap! We all do leg lifts + squats the same way. Washing dishes, eating a snack and reading, love it! #BeingMaryJane.” “Mary Jane & Kara will go at it anywhere, real friends do that from time to time #BeingMaryJane.” “Reminds me of my Dad. #BeingMaryJane.” No seriously that's exactly how I feel about the whole ‘marriage’ thing!!!!! #beingmaryjane.” “This is a good show though. It shows what goes on in many people's lives. #BeingMaryJane."
And unlike Olivia Pope, Mary Jane does not pretend to be an unbreakable force unto herself. She is networked into complex and intimate professional and family relationships in which any one of us might find ourselves; she has supportive and sometimes vulnerable relationships with other women. Mary Jane has girlfriends, like her colleague Kara—who supports her vocational drive and reminds her of what she’s working towards professionally while simultaneously pushing her buttons. And she has girlfriends like Lisa, who’s professionally successful while secretly battling mental health issues.
Olivia Pope, on the other hand, seems to keep even her one girlfriend, Abby, at bay.