Being Mary Jane, or onscreen black girls

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A few weeks ago, I was very kindly invited by the good people at BET to a screening of their new original drama, Being Mary Jane, starring the talented and ageless Gabrielle Union. After nibbles and drinks in one of the bars in the Soho Hotel, we settled into one of the screening rooms to watch. I have thoughts – and feelings – about Being Mary Jane, but let me point out three things real quick. These three things are small but telling – and they could not have been written except by the hand of a black woman (in this case Mara Brock Akil, the creator of the much missed characters of Maya, Toni, Joan and Lynn in sitcom Girlfriends). Here are the three things:

  1. Mary Jane mentions her edges;
  2. At the gym, Mary Jane pulls on a shower cap en route to the shower;
  3. At work, in a discussion with another woman of colour (her Latina colleague Kara, played by Lisa Vidal), Mary Jane calls up and calls out the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’.

I did an internal cheer for all three of these moments (one slipped out and joined the audible chorus in the room – it was a screening with mostly black women, and we were encouraged to voice our many feeeels).

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I’m imagining a good number of the black women who are reading and leaning back and nodding. I say this not because we are a monolithic group – a more attractive, less violent Borg, if you will – but because there are experiences that are seemingly universal to us and our lives that never make it to the screen. Or, if they do make it there, haven’t become twisted and mangled in order to fit an alien narrative.

On Tumblr a couple of months ago, I saw a post in which someone – presumably white, presumably male – asked what edges were, and why black people seem so preoccupied with them. The replies to the original poster were increasingly hilarious and deliberately useless in terms of answering his query. Thankfully, this is the information age and you can Google that shit any time so I won’t explain what they are here (if you still can’t find a clear definition, WELP, I guess it’s shit you don’t need to trouble yourself with). But hearing MJ talk about edges, and with the kind of Kanye-shrug Chimamanda used when writing Americanah (I wrote about that here), was wonderful.

It was equally wonderful to see MJ about to take a post-workout shower – in a previous scene we’d seen her sweating on the elliptical – standing there with her towel rolled up under her armpits, weave carefully tucked away under a clear shower cap. I love Scandal, I do, but seeing Olivia and Fitz doing it in the shower, with her 3C hair openly absorbing the showerhead’s expensive and even spray and then cutting to a scene of them in bed in which Liv is sporting sleek, pressed hair always rubs me the wrong way. Black girls are from the future, yes. And they are magical. But not they are not that magical, Shonda! So Mary Jane’s shower cap felt like a little victory in cinéma vérité.

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The third moment, in which Mary Jane calls out Kara for making her seem the ‘angry black woman’… Well. I wrote about this in 2012, and have experienced it all my life. Don’t argue with my lived experience. It’s there, in coded – and not so coded – language, in smirks, in emails, in appraisals, in casual descriptions between line managers. Here’s the thing – you can’t win once the ABW label is upon you. Nothing you do is free of meaning – no anger is ever legitimate, no quiet keeping of your counsel is ever sincere. It is what it is, up there with political hair textures and implied Mammyism or Sapphirism. And to have it called out, not as a trump card of allyship, a sort of insincere “look, black sisters – we get it!” but out of the mouth of a black woman, written by a black woman was quietly revolutionary.

Being Mary Jane has had a mixed reaction from critics, but nothing it can’t handle. Brock Akil has a two-season order to fill, so who knows where the show will go? I’m just glad she’s back making television with a black everywoman at its core. The television landscape only benefits from diversity – and black girls writing black girl characters is a wonderful and very welcome thing. Long may it continue.

Being Mary Jane is at 10pm on Mondays, on BET (Sky 187/Virgin 184/FREESAT 140)

One response

  1. I am always miffed by TV and film that don’t deal with the realities of natural hair shrinkage. It’s almost as annoying as answering the many interested, but naive, friends who don’t understand Black hair and ask me if I cut my hair every time I rock a wash & go. Kudos to BMJ for including a shower cap, indeed!

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