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.
What the characters do have in common, somewhat unfortunately, is that they are both involved with married men. This plot line has caused some understandable concern among viewers who worry about media portrayals of black women as “side chicks.” But overall, Being Mary Jane makes black people’s lives seem normal and relatable even to viewers who aren’t black. It offers a platform upon which others can look for ways to relate to the lives of black women.
And that’s a marked departure from the norm. Recently, Essence conducted a study and found that black women in America were unsatisfied with media depictions of black women. It’s refreshing, to say the least, to watch a black, female character on a television drama series who 1) is a lead character, and 2) does not portray black femininity through extremes or stereotypes. Mary Jane is not the token sidekick or short-term black girlfriend to a white male, an unwed mother with multiple baby daddies, a welfare recipient, a maid, a drug addict, a sexpot, a video vixen, an ice-cold independent strong woman without emotional needs, an angry black woman with a chip on her shoulder, or a sassy-talking, head-shaking trope.
Charlie Jordan Brookins, the Senior Vice President of BET’s original programming told me this departure is by design: “While things are changing, there still aren’t enough depictions on television of three-dimensional African-American women with real flaws, real passions, challenges and triumphs on television.”
Of course, Being Mary Jane is not the first television series with a lead character (or lead characters) to whom many black women could likely relate. Friends came on NBC when I was just entering my twenties, and at that stage of life there were aspects of Monica’s and Rachel’s lives I understood. I knew about that post-college stage in which some of my friends had steady jobs and some didn't, and we were all just trying to figure out how to live as grown-ups together.
But historically, in American culture and society, the perspectives and experiences of people with white skin have always been considered normative for the whole, the standards by which non-whites were supposed to measure their lives. An added delight of Being Mary Jane is that the lead female character is a black woman and the women that support and nourish her, as well as those whom she supports and nourishes, are ethnic minorities.
The effect that Being Mary Jane could have, then, is similar to what The Cosby Show did in the 1980s and what made it such a powerful and successful series: The Cosby family portrayed black life in ways that allowed both whites and blacks to recognize themselves in the black characters. Being Mary Jane has the potential to slowly alter the way viewers see and relate to African-Americans as a people whose lives and experiences—their good and poor decisions, and their trials and triumphs—can be encompassed into cultural and social norms in the same way that the lives and experiences of white Americans have been for centuries.
Research has shown, however, what many of us already know from observation: It is rare for TV programming with primarily black actors to arouse interest in a white audience. Indeed, three-quarters of the viewing audience for Being Mary Jane, was composed of women, and according to a recent Nielsen report, black women make up the majority of TV viewers. BET has roughly an 85-percent black audience. It seems fair to assume that the majority of women watching Being Mary Jane are black. So I get the opening caveat: Let’s not make one black woman’s life representative of all black women. Of course not all aspects of Mary Jane’s life are healthy or advisable, nor representative of black women.
But Being Mary Jane does represent aspects of the lives of many black, single, vocationally successful young women in America who are trying to navigate the demands and responsibilities of family and work while facing the complexities of personal relationships, romantic and otherwise—and in so doing, it also represents aspects of the lives of many single, vocationally successful young women across racial lines.
“Mara Brock Akil is a brilliant student of human behavior,” Brookins says. “She digs to find the humanity of situations. So while Mary Jane is culturally and authentically an African-American woman, her choices, her quiet moments, her dreams, her fears, her family challenges, et al., are universal not just to women … but to women and men.
“She’s successful, but she has real flaws and often says those things that we would want to say in a given situation,” Brookins says. “Audiences respect authenticity. Mary Jane lives her life fully exposed on camera, and consequently she is very relatable and appealing.”
Olivia Pope, make no mistake, is a complex character with whom some women might relate, but her particular issues are not exactly commonplace. Being Mary Jane is a show with a diversity of characters that highlight multiple dimensions of women’s lives, regardless of race.