On Being Mary Jane and the intimacies of single black women

I love the idea of Being Mary Jane, but I’m annoyed, too.

There are about 4 million viewers of the show. BET is boasting that it’s the #1 show on Tuesday nights — surprise! — among my demographic: All the single black ladies. If you haven’t been watching because you’re not one of the 55 percent of African-American  unmarried women in America, #BeingMaryJane trends globally on Twitter during every new episode.

Like a lot of scripted (and unscripted) dramas featuring single black women, while the show’s creators point out that Mary Jane doesn’t represent all of the single women mentioned above, there’s such a dearth of single black female characters on television whose love lives are a significant part of their narratives that it’s refreshing to see a show offer that.

I really miss the other one, Olivia Pope. Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is the lead in Scandal. The ABC hit show is based on a real-life problem solver inside the Beltway. Her power and stylishness is what makes Pope iconic, but her Achilles heel is the small problem of the fact that she’s in love with the very married President of the United States and his dreamy compadre. (Please read: Is Olivia Pope the New Sally Hemings? for a little insight into why this seems a little far-fetched and hard to digest for black women.)

Anyway, ‘Scandal’ isn’t back until late February. I figured I’d check out Being Mary Jane to fill in the big gaping void.

I don’t think it’s working.

So, both characters offer uncommon and refreshingly humane portraits of unmarried black women who are generally stereotyped as martyrs or hood rats and very rarely viewed as anything in between. Good on you, television, for trying to give us life.  Enuma Okoro writes at the Atlantic, “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.”

Does this about sum it up?

It’s a good effort. Better than good. I’m not optimistic about a wildly diverse audience for the show, though.

I watched the movie before the premiere earlier this month because I was intrigued by all the trailers showing Gabrielle Union submerging in a sea/bathtub littered with quotes on Post-Its, which I am fond of writing inspirational quotes on myself. The movie was good. For Gabrielle Union, who hasn’t had roles with the most, um…gravitas…in the past, it’s fantastic.

In the movie, we first meet Mary Jane baking at two in the morning. We rarely view black women doing domestic work for personal comfort in popular culture (looking at you, The Help), so as unlikely as it might be, it’s still nice to see. Her drunk boo, Andre (the excessively fine Omari Hardwick) arrives unexpectedly and cajoles her convincingly enough that she sweeps all her single lady things under her bed, empty wine glass and all.

She discovers Andre is married when she steps on his wedding ring accidentally. She responds by assaulting him with a steady stream of garden hose water. I don’t know if I squealed from pain watching this or glee? I couldn’t imagine this ending well in real life, I guess, so maybe it was a mixture of both.

Things with her family and at work are not any less messy. Mary Jane’s mother calls her all the time to vent, usually when MJ is at work. This is reminiscent of Whitney Houston’s character in Waiting to Exhale in almost every way, but in MJ’s case, the whole family follows suit. Her older brother seems to show up in every scene asking for money. Her little brother flips signs and sells weed for cash. Her niece is pregnant. She tries to get some retail therapy by buying incredibly expensive and fugly shoes, only to run into Andre and his wife, whom she later confronts at the pet store.

Yes, that’s what I wrote. Mary Jane goes to the pet store where Andre’s wife is buying kitty litter for her bereft friend and corners her. Since the one unmarried black woman everyone on the planet knows is Oprah, it’s not surprising that her name comes up. Andre’s wife immediately recognizes MJ from TV and tells her that she’s brought her so much comfort, especially after the talk show queen’s show went off the air. Mary Jane responds by saying, “Did you know I’m sleeping with your husband?”

Oh. Is *that* how that works?

Fast forward to MJ having an emotional night — she was baking a cake for her niece’s baby shower and had a nervous breakdown over a cute baby commercial. She has successfully delivered a story about women stealing sperm in what she calls the “rapey Africa story.” Mary Jane proceeds to steal and store the sperm of David, an ex that she has been labeled “Never Answer” in her iPhone.

Look, if she can’t bother to change the man’s name in her phone or actually meet him for dinner right after she said she would, does she really care enough about him to keep his sperm in a baking soda box in her freezer?

Proof there is a God.

At a party at her house where there are strippers (just because) when everyone is drunkenly confessing their dirt, she busts out the frozen sperm she stole instead of confessing that she’s been doing it with a married man. When she texts him later in what must have been the thirstiest string of texts in modern television, he doesn’t answer because after having an explicit conversation with his wife about why they’re divorcing — along the lines of: “No one likes to put a dick in their mouth first thing in the morning” — these two end up having make up sex.

Anyway, it’s nice that Mary Jane leans away from the Tyler Perry-model of shrill, psychotic and materialistic black women with standards that are too high and unrealistic, but she’s not that far away from that archetype. When she’s working, for instance, and tells David “Never Answer” she can’t go out, she calls him back two hours later to see if he can come over now that she’s finished working. She has a nonsensical hissy fit when she learns that he’s headed out on a date with someone else and she lies to him about Andre.

It’s the desperation that irritates me. That in every other area of a black woman character’s life she is together and in control and measured, but when it comes to intimacy, romance and love, she loses will power and totally becomes undone. [For a better and fuller explanation of popular culture narratives about single black women and how they are damaging in real life, I recommend Ralph Richard Banks’ book, Is Marriage for White People? I wrote a review of it here. You can buy it here.]

At least with Pope, we see her make an effort to date a man who is available, she just backslides (like all the way back through history) regularly. With Mary Jane, we continue to see the message that black women are content to be sloppy seconds no matter how successful we are — because our loneliness is so deep and broad that it makes us morally corrupt and reckless like nothing else.

On one hand, this resonates. On the other, I don’t watch TV for a mirror or a reminder as much as for fantasy and inspiration. So to see Mary Jane as eviscerating and judgmental with everyone but herself is painful, even if it’s glossy and there’s lots of eye candy.

I might just wait for Scandal to come back on. Have you been watching Being Mary Jane? What do you think?

“It is not worth the grief” An essay at the Feminist Wire about work & self-care

 

I wrote a piece for the wonderful forum on black women’s health published at The Feminist Wire today:

There was something really satisfying about it, I think, because I was used to abuse. I had no idea what to do with my feelings when I wasn’t working. My work addiction provided immediate gratification so that I was always accessible to anyone – student, editor, supervisor or reader.

As Gloria Anzaldúa wrote in another context, “no vale la pena…it is not worth the grief.” Like my peers in academia who are full professors, I know what it means to be fully committed to the world in which we find ourselves. When I started teaching, I had the same porous boundaries with my students. I was answering emails and phone calls at all hours, regardless of what the syllabus said. For my 60+ hours per week, I was essentially paid the wage of an intern with no benefits, which is why it was useful to continue working at the paper.

My life was my work. Work was my life. I was always exhausted. I thought this was what it took to live the American dream, but I was not really living.

I hope you enjoy it. Ironically, I still work all the time. It feels different (and more anxiety-producing at times) because I’m working for myself now, but I know it will resonate with some of you.

Why black women can’t afford to be shamed for being single

Earlier this year, I was reading Health First! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide and these figures gave me pause.

2010 Census Figures for Marital Status among Black Women in America

7,492, 890 Never Married
4,170,470 Married
792,263 Separated
1,422,370 Widowed
2,173,815 Divorced

53 percent of American women are married and living with their spouses, compared to 44 percent of Black women, who are more likely to be single heads of household. Single mothers of color are more likely to be poor than any other women.

…the average Black single mother has no assets; she has a median net worth of zero dollars, compared to $6,000 for a White single mom.

So, basically, it’s already expensive enough being a black woman & we don’t amass any more wealth when you add shaming to the mix:

“Lifting as we Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America’s Future,” also found that nearly half of all single black women have zero or negative wealth, meaning their debts exceed all their assets; one-fourth of single black women have no checking or savings account; and only 33 percent of African American single women are homeowners. Mariko Chang, independent consultant and author of “Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It,” notes that the legacy of the racial wealth gap is largely to blame for the discrepancy.

“So much of the racial wealth gap that occurred in our history is still really alive,” Chang said. “Because of both discrimination and a gender pay gap, black women, in particular, lack a lot of the traditional wealth safety nets that other groups have access to. Because of their lower earnings, and also because of the types of jobs they have – service jobs, for instance – they’re less likely to have fringe benefits, retirement accounts, paid vacation days. If they face unemployment, illness or any kind of negative economic shock, they just don’t have that cushion.”

I would like it very much if we lived in a post-racial, post-racist society, but unfortunately, the racial and class disparities that affect me as a black woman interfere with my ability to “just get married” to solve my financial problems — even if I were the kind of woman to marry for money, which I’m not.

When they only date white girls & other musings on interracial dating

The drawback of being a creative person is that sometimes you have a thought & it just will not leave your skull.

I have a good spidey sense, so I can usually tell when I meet a man who has been believing that Psychology Today hype about black women being mannish or whatever. Still, it’d be nice to have some kind of hand sign, T-shirt, or whatever that would separate the WODAWGS — Will Only Date A White Girl — from other potential suitors.

Taye Diggs. Still fine.

I’m about to start reading  Swirling: How to Date, Mate and Relate Mixing Race, Culture and Creed by Christelyn D. Karazin and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, so the question of interracial dating has been on my mind. The book seems to be a guidebook for black women who date interracially, which has been a hot topic in most media focused on single black women.

Specifically, I noted that Ralph Richard Banks’ book, Is Marriage for White People? was the most recent work to remind black women to broaden their dating options:

Banks writes with acuity and directness about the costs of that loyalty to black women who are most negatively affected by man-sharing and its consequences. He also mentions the skewed online dating market, where white men basically exclude black women outright (through silence or an explicit preference not to date us). He also offers a more balanced, objective viewpoint of how black women basically keep themselves from finding happiness in interracial relationships. Banks’ central thesis is that by dating outside of the race and marrying outside of the race more often, black women may save black love.

The reason it would be helpful to know if people only date within their race, though, is because you can’t ever take for granted that you’re not being fetishized as a black woman. And all of this talk about black women trying to get chosen because they’re so desperate, unfortunately, builds the mythical case that if a single black man is within a 50 mile radius, the nearest single black woman will hunt him down & trap him, Black Widow style.

As if you can make someone who doesn’t want you or anyone who looks like you in the first place want to date you with the stench of desperation alone.

When I was younger, I had a very simplistic glare reserved for black men who only dated white women — as if it were a personal assault against my very existence. I think my internal rationale was: One less date for me and what is wrong with me, anyway?  instead of Um, you can have that one, I’m good.

I believed that the person you chose to be with was a reflection of what you desired in yourself. And I desired (and still desire) black men. But at some point, particularly when I lived on the West Coast, I was surrounded by so many black men who were dating outside of the race that I became immune to it and finally just accepted that grown folk are allowed to choose their own mates. Eventually,  the presence of black men who only dated white women to the exclusion of other races (particularly black women) stopped hopping on my last nerve.

That only happened, though, once realized that I had limited my options based on what they were when I was younger. I didn’t date white guys until I was out of college, and even then, only sporadically. When I ventured into interracial territory, let’s just say it wasn’t as smooth as Something New made it seem.

I thought a lot of white men in popular culture were hot (looking at you Richard Gere) but because I never saw images of them with black women (there were rare exceptions…Iman and David Bowie, for starters) somehow the concept of white men who found black women attractive  seemed…distant. The kicker? I was shocked to discover that random black men (usually the ones who didn’t date black women!) felt some kind of way about that. Apparently, they, too, had a gaze reserved for black women who dated outside the race.

News reports say that the number of people dating and marrying interracially is creeping up as the taboo associated with dating outside the race starts to fade:

About 24% of African-American males married outside their race in 2010, compared to 9% of African-American females. However, the reverse is true for Asians, where about 36% of females married outside their race compared to 17% of male newlyweds. And intermarriages for white and Hispanic people do not vary by gender, researchers found. Intermarriages also vary by region. In Western states, about one in five people, or 22%, married someone of a different race or ethnicity between 2008 and 2010. That drops to 14% in the South, 13% in the Northeast and 11% in the Midwest. Interracial dating services have also cropped up online, offering those looking for love an opportunity to find their preferred matches.

I only have anecdotal evidence. Among my friends, I would say four out of 5 of the married black women I know have partners who are not black. Most of my friends are a little on the maverick side, granted, but still. Those are pretty interesting statistics. I’m interested in hearing from y’all about your interracial dating experiences. If you only date a particular race, why is that? And if you date interracially, have you noticed that society has become more accepting? I’ll be back with a review of Swirling shortly.

Reads for the Weekend: February’s over? Women at War & Queering Black Herstory

So, yeah, we got an extra day. But March still snuck up on me. February was crazy!

Lovely Guest Post from WomenWellLoved: You deserve your love & affection

Planned Parenthood Saved Me (aka, Kiss It, Komen.)

I loved Nippy, crack quotes and all. My love note to Whitney.

Speaking of fantastic women, Rest in peace, Marie Colvin. I read this 2002 Vanity Fair piece about war reporters who happen to be women and it did my heart good. “Boys get fascinated by toys about age two, and that never changes,” Colvin says. “That’s not what I think is important about covering a war. I think the story is the people.”

I haven’t written a lot about the LGBTQ community here yet, but I intend to get there. In the meantime, this was a great piece about whether or not it is a disservice to women in black history to require that they present according to popular standards of gender norms.

In black relationship dynamics, incarceration has been a huge, tragic and ongoing factor. Michelle Alexander, an expert and scholar on The New Jim Crow, writes about the myth of desegregation in America.

News One: 10 Black Women Who Made America Great

I was reading a review copy of “My Story, My Song,” a lovely, slim book that will be published in April by Lucimarian Roberts and her daughter, Robin Roberts, the coanchor on Good Morning America. In it, the elder Roberts writes beautifully about how her faith and music sustained her over the years. One of the things that stood out to me was this lovely quote from Mary McLeod Bethune’s “My Last Will and Testament:

I leave you love.

I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you, finally, a responsibility to young people.

 

I was thinking of that when I revisited this list of ten black women in history whose contributions to America are often overlooked. My list would be much longer. I also need to read more Mary McLeod Bethune.

 

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