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?

Singles in the News: A childfree roundup, black love in a time of poverty, Google me! and visual reinforcement for staying single

The Childfree Life: “When having it all doesn’t mean having a baby” is an actual sentence in this Time Magazine article. What!?

Amanda Marcotte points out that none of these trend pieces on the childfree life include men. Check out the sexy bar graphs to go with the Pew Research data.

Also see: No Kidding, this hilarious anthology that I was reading during my lunch break when one of my co-workers asked me who was going to take care of me when I get old. My answer to her was that there was no way to know, and even if I had a kid, there was no telling that said child would still like me enough as an old lady to take care of me. So, BOOM.

On a more serious note (even though I wasn’t kidding! See what I did there?) Stacia Brown tackles the role of trauma and poverty in our cultural narratives about black love in this great post, Black Love in a Time of Poverty:

 If you’re trying to figure out why the poorest of black and brown communities continue to procreate against all odds, think about what children represent (and what they are) for so many families. If you’re wondering why the poorest partners in black and brown communities don’t marry their partners, think about how difficult it is for the most disenfranchised and marginalized among us to maintain healthy relationships without money, emotional support, family counseling, and the other very necessary resources they would need to thrive.

One of my favorite kindred writing spirits in the blogosphere Deonna Kelli Sayed wrote this great post on her blog called Google Me. I Dare You. It really resonated with me though I haven’t told anyone to Google me and it totally reaffirmed my love for her candor:

Sometimes – but not always — I write about the raw stuff, like insecurities, fears, loneliness. If a man can’t approach me about that, he is going to be clueless about the rest of me.  I’m at the point that if someone doesn’t want to know my complexities, they aren’t worth my time.  I have a big story, and if a man can’t swallow the whole of it, (or if he can’t even ask me a little bit about it) then I don’t need him around.

So, now that we’ve covered the important stuff, you get a treat!

Buzzfeed spies on me, I think, because they know that I find photos like these really embarrassing and funny engagement ones so affirming. I can’t decide if I like the couple in the water the best or the ones where the women look completely sad and bereft.

Singles in the News: What if you die alone? What is singlism? Single black men want commitment more than black women?

I was surprised by this one: So Single Black Men Want Commitment. Really?

We recently found that single black men were much more likely to say they were looking for a long-term relationship (43 percent) compared to single black women (25 percent).

Those numbers come from our ‘ views of their lives and communities (the poll was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health). Our findings about the dating lives of single folks — that is, respondents 18-49, widowed, divorced, or never married — have sparked the most conversation so far.

And the gender skew has elicited straight-out side-eyes.

Right. Fans of this blog know that I have written a lot about the odd politics of interracial dating for black women and the overabundance of stories about how women’s achievement (black women’s achievement, in particular) is keeping the number of women who are single high. “Maybe the truth really is that lots of black men really do want to get boo’ed up while lots of black women are ambivalent,” my friend Gene wrote.

Well, maybe. I’m dating again. We’ll see how it goes. I have a good feeling about it! So, something more positive than ambivalent, for me, at least.

That reminds me of this article I read and am still processing, “Life Without Sex“:

Are you single, married, engaged, “it’s complicated”? Are you straight, gay, a lesbian? All of these categories suggest sexual activity, which somehow reassures us. You are doing something.

But I don’t think that’s our true life and rhythm. We are not machines. Nothing is so tidy about our sex lives. We are very alone in how we dream. We are not making love as easily as we boast we are. And when we are making love, it is not always enjoyable.

Here are some other articles I liked about the single life (and a couple about introverts because…those are my people):

Who benefits from modern-day monogamy?

Ridding the stigma of being single

Living Single, Dying Alone: Our (Un)Social Network at theHotness

10 Myths About Introverts 

How to Live with Introverts (A Helpful Chart)

Thoughts on desire

Spring is here. Until recently, I’ve had some ambivalence about the season.

Out come the flirty dresses and the pretty skirts. Because I’m out more, I tend to get more attention, not all of it welcome. For instance, I was propositioned by the lawn guy, who is an otherwise very nice SO MARRIED AND NOT REALLY MY TYPE! guy.

Even if he were single, my heart isn’t really in it.

I told one of my friends I think my fun button is broken.

My favorite of the marriage equality signs. Love is love.

Some of it is being busy. More of it has to do with the energy it takes to grow and change, to move in a new direction. I don’t ever admit this in public, but…I’m tired. Like, all the time.

It’s a great direction, one that I’ve worked hard for. But it’s still new. And I liked the old me, my old habits.

They were comfy security blankets.

There’s something really great about bad habits, even when you know they’re bad. I kind of enjoyed being blissfully ignorant, except that there’s nothing really great about ignorance when you know that’s what it is. Life does seem simpler when you don’t know what you don’t know.

On the matter of desire, especially.

When I simply wanted someone to show up for me the way I wanted them to, I could generally mask self-sabotage by telling myself that guys just “weren’t ready for this jelly” or some other Beyoncé lyric. The truth was harder for me to accept, that I was trying to be a hunter-gathering goddess on the love front –  “I’m goin’ huntin’!” — applying my work ethic to matters of the heart. I know, I know: men say they like it when women chase them. But I think there’s a coy way that men like this to happen that might be a gender rule I’m making up, but I almost never operated that way.

Maybe I just needed face paint and that would’ve helped more? (From Petersenshunting.com)

I think this is why it’s easier for folks to play games.If you’re just playing around, if it doesn’t work out, you can just pretend to shrug it off and save face. Because you weren’t serious, allegedly.

There are still things that I’m passionate about, but dating is not one of them, for this very reason.

Except, the weird thing about desire is that sometimes when you stop chasing the thing you want the most in the world, it starts chasing you.

This has come up a couple of times, but most recently I noticed it when I went into a store where I crushed very hard years ago on a local dude I’ll call Steve.

Steve was kind of a jerk, because I used to really like jerks (it was a way of being mean to myself, enduring the company of guys who made Kanye West seem congenial.)

And he liked me. I think.

At the very least, he gave me free food, and his sister thought we should get together and he even sometimes took long walks with me to get coffee when I was in the neighborhood. So, I gave him my number.

He never called. I let it go.

Years have passed since I’ve been a frequent customer. Because, you know. Pride.

Only funny because it’s true! In my case, more like ambivalence.

Well, I dropped by the other day, just because I was hungry and it was on my way home and he was there. I thought he was going to jump out of his skin. He was super…melodramatic. “Where have you been?!”

“Writing. Around. Living,” I said. I wasn’t trying to be dispassionate. I was just confused by this enthusiasm.

“It’s so good to see you. Don’t be a stranger.”

Huh. The difference four years makes? Maybe. Also, everybody says that to everybody. Don’t be a stranger. It doesn’t mean “I’ll call you soon for a date.”

I suck my teeth when people talk about how women shouldn’t be afraid to approach men, because sometimes men are terrified of us. If I had a dollar for every time I asked the wrong a guy out, I’d be rich. I know that guys hear all this stuff about independent women, and how they think those of us who are feminists don’t “need” them — but none of that matters. Who cares about necessity when what you really want is for someone to want you the way you want them?

I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, in which she writes about vulnerability. I love me some Brené Brown in general, but also because reading her work has led me to a really important conclusion about my own vulnerability. I realized reading this book that sharing my love and heart with people irrespective of their capacity for intimacy has been a habit for a long time. All the scars that come with dating the wrong people come from this assumption that there is something more that I could do or become or achieve that would make the difference when really, at the end of the day, we just weren’t compatible.

I used to be bound to a twisted, limited notion of love and desire, one that considered love/affection a response to a deep need for validation, a thirst for healing and rescue, an unnecessary burden I never had to carry but decided to anyway. I’m not sorry that I have compromised my heart and my dignity through despair and on my way to healing, but I wish I’d figured this out a little sooner.

It would mean that I’d get to see jerks like the shopkeeper without averting my eyes in shame or irritation that he couldn’t see what I gift I was then, though he sees it now. What spring offers me this year, like every year, is a gift. Yes, the pretty skirts and the nice dresses, but also the promise of a fresh start. A new way of thinking about what desire really means, what it feels like with a heart that’s more open and not so bogged down with immature notions.

Singles in the News: When dating is like The Hunger Games, good teeth and the Manhattan Myth

Can I haz a mate who writes good?

“Among the “must haves,” women want respect and men want someone in whom to trust and confide; both rate a sense of humor as key qualities for a partner. When judging a potential date, both men and women rate teeth at the top, followed by grammar. The online survey of 5,481 individuals was conducted by MarketTools Inc. for the Dallas-based dating website Match.com.” – USAToday covers a survey looking at what singles want. (Check out the infographics…funny women win!)

Live anywhere else and you lose:

“Television would have us believe that, in order to lead independent and successful lives, we must live in New York City.” — Bitch Magazine’s blog, “TV’s Manhattan Myth: Do Single Women Have to Live in New York to be Successful?

Dating in your thirties is just like The Hunger Games, Amirite?!

“It’s not like I don’t ever date. But as you get older, there are longer spells in between dates. My perception—and that of my many thirtysomething, unattached girlfriends—is there’s a run on single men our age.” — from an essay in TimeOut Chicago. May the odds be ever in your favor, honey.

We’re good. You saw him first. Excelsior.

The Root: Dating While Celibate

…many folks will make you think you’re crazy for not having sex. Put this in perspective: There are a lot of women who are having sex — wild, swing-from-the-chandelier, they-only-do-that-in-pornos kind of sex — and they are just as single as you are. Sex doesn’t guarantee you any sort of relationship, much less a marriage. – Demetria Lucas, Dating While Celibate: Men Who Respect Your Choice Exist

As much as I dislike using statistics to generalize, I think it’s worth looking at data when it comes to sex and singles. We can talk about all the black woman dating numbers later, but for now, let’s look at the statistic that 95 percent of Americans have sex before marriage. Eighty-five percent actually approve of sex before marriage. The biggest factor in delaying sex until marriage is religiosity, even though abstinence-only programs and their ilk tend to backfire.

So, most people are doing it, religious or not.

I think it’s healthy to get to know someone before having sex, regardless of whether you want to get married or not, but I don’t judge people who decide that they want to have sex just for the sake of doing the damn thing. Because marriage is not for everyone. And not everyone can legally get married.

But for single black women, in particular, celibacy is a double-edged sword. If we’re talking about black women who only want to date black men, that’s a really small group or marriage market. As noted in The Root comments, which I usually skip, a number of men consider women who claim celibacy or abstinence suspect and move quickly on to a willing, easier prospect. So while I’d like to believe that Demetria is on the right track – just hold out for the rare man who will respect you — I wonder about how singles who choose not to have sex deal with that dilemma.

Choosing celibacy always makes me think of that line in Love Jones where Larenz Tate tells Nia Long, “But we’ve already done it before!” I do think there’s wisdom in taking a break, but I wonder if that’s a lot of ask unless you’re a celebrity like Lenny Kravitz or Lady Gaga. But for those of you who are dating and celibate, do you agree that it’s a challenge? Is it worth it to wait?

My two cents is that I always hear from people who are celibate or claim that they were until they got married that it was a good decision. But the downside of that anecdotal data is that I don’t know that many people it actually applies to.

Dealing with Rejection at Hope from Nope

A friend of mine wrote about this guy, who has been shoring up his tolerance for rejection on his blog, Hope From Nope.

He’s experimenting with asking for things and hearing no a lot. I love it. He has really great insights that are pretty useful. It turns out he’s married, but this is what he says about asking a woman out to dinner:

Rejection hurts, and the fear of rejection cripples. One of the most dreaded rejections comes from romantic settings, where people often associate rejection of the request (going out on a date) with rejection of the person. That’s why many people are very afraid to approach the opposite sex with romantic requests.

In term of romance, although I am not a relationship or pickup expert, as a person in a blissful marriage, I gained some perspective in this request. Whether or not I get a ‘yes’ here doesn’t change the fact that my wife loves me and is very attracted to me. That’s really all that matters. Moreover, even in a hypothetical world where I still hadn’t met my wife yet, it still doesn’t change the fact there is a woman (my future wife), who is a perfect match for me, would love me and be attracted to me. I just haven’t met her yet. So even if I get rejected 100 more times, I shouldn’t be discouraged, because I simply need to keep looking to find my wife.

Learning: When you get turned down with a date request, don’t equate rejection with the idea that you are not attractive. You just haven’t met your match yet. Keep looking!

Well, easy for him to say because he’s married. But…noted!

The Rumpus: Dream Girl

In my solitude, I wonder about the reasons I am alone. Am I too fat? Too boring? Too weak? Maybe they think I’m too—what? The worst thing about a blank slate is everything we write onto it. We carry our best selves into public and our worst selves into solitude.

-Kristen Forbes, “Dream Girl

My friend Erin sent me the link to this Dream Girl essay and so much of it resonated I thought you would enjoy that I wanted to blog about it.

Forbes writes about how we present different versions of ourselves online –  the selves we really want to be. She also writes about how that complicates dating, because we choose who we want people to become more often than we choose them for who they really are.

That’s all really good stuff, even if it’s hard to admit and hard to read. The part about sleeping on the couch not because she’s lazy but because it feels less lonely than her big bed got me all choked up, and I actually do fall asleep on the couch out of pure exhaustion 80 percent of the time.

It’s worth repeating –  since I’ll be sending you the link for the book tomorrow (!!) –  that I’m not against online dating. I just don’t think it works for everyone. In fact, I meet at least two or three people every week who say they found online dating to be tragically horrific (or some version of that). I realize it’s not as sexy to say, “Hey, that might be an expensive and quick-like fix for being shy, but it may not be what you need.” I think the legal disclaimers/waivers that you sign say as much. But the truth is usually not as sexy as what we’d rather believe.

All that to say: I appreciated Kristen’s authenticity here. I experience some of the neuroses associated with solitude sometimes, too. This stuck out most to me, though, I think because it gets at the heart of what we yearn for when we long for companionship and intimacy:

This is the most me I’ll ever be, and it’s the me I work carefully at concealing.

I’d like to meet someone who likes beer and coffee and rain and camping and brunch and smiling, but more than that, I want to know someone. I want someone to know me. I want someone to peel off my persona, see the madness behind my silliness, and like me anyway—not just in spite of my truth, but because of it.

Top Posts in October: When they only date white girls, Gosling & the unfaithful marrieds

I totally stressed myself out looking at photos of Hurricane/cyclone Sandy flooding, and got so exhausted that I went to bed at…it’s a time I’m not proud of. But my little psychological and emotional reaction pales in comparison to the discomfort of those who are directly in the path, without power or comfort. This too shall pass. Like everyone else who lives in another part of the world that is not the mid-Atlantic or the Caribbean (God, please, give Haiti a break), I’ve been meditating and praying for everyone who has been affected and the families of those who lost their lives. Before I went to bed last night, I was thinking of how long it’s been since I lived in New York – over a decade now. But once you call a place home, that place & the people in it are always connected to you, no matter where you physically plant yourself. All the people I know are conquerors, so I have faith that they will prevail, even if things look bleak and scary at the moment.

Just had to put that out there.

Now, for the monthly roundup.
Fun Fun Fun Fest is coming to Austin. I won’t be there because I made other plans (which include more camping!) But it does mean that Ryan Gosling might still be in town. I was running the other day and thinking, “What would I even do if I saw him in person? Say, ‘Hi, I blog a lot about you’? Like a stalker?” Better to admire him from afar, methinks. What the Notebook & Ryan Gosling Taught Me About Love. 

My angst about interracial dating is no more. Although I was dismayed to see this video rehashing all the bogus excuses some black men have for dating outside of the race. It’s a miracle I still have love for the brothers. When They Only Date White Girls & Other Musings on Interracial Dating. 

So after I wrote this post, I had some very mature, healthy, reconciling closure with one of the misleading parties mentioned herein. Dare I Say it? I may be an actual grown up. Healing feels good. Me & Mr. Jones, or When The Marrieds Are Unfaithful.

Facebook is doing this weird thing where they want people and pages to sponsor their posts so they can make some money. As a business owner, I understand it, but it means that only a small percentage of people who fan the Single & Happy page will see my posts because I’m not paying Facebook to promote posts. But you can still come hang out with me here on the blog & on Tumblr & on Twitter. Six Things I Love About Facebook, The Single Lady Edition. Oh, and the essay I wrote about never showed up on that site, as far as I know. But it will be published somewhere even better. I’ll keep y’all posted.

Speaking of that: In book news, the cover is being designed as I type this. I’m wrapping up a few other projects and will be back to blogging more regularly shortly. Thanks for your patience. I’m also putting together a monthly writing newsletter. I haven’t started it yet, but if you want to sign up here, please do.

Like most people I had started internet dating out of loneliness. I soon discovered, as most do, that it can only speed up the rate and increase the number of encounters with other single people, where each encounter is still a chance encounter. Internet dating destroyed my sense of myself as someone I both know and understand and can also put into words. It had a similarly harmful effect on my sense that other people can accurately know and describe themselves. It left me irritated with the whole field of psychology. I began responding only to people with very short profiles, then began forgoing the profiles altogether, using them only to see that people on OK Cupid Locals had a moderate grasp of the English language and didn’t profess rabidly right-wing politics.

- Emily Witt, Diary: Online Dating, London Review of Books.

You already know how I feel about online dating, for the most part. But it’s nice to know that others experience it the same way. I know that Internet dating is a popular option for a lot of people. I have a feeling that a lot of them are extroverts who really don’t get exhausted by a dozen odd or awkward encounters in a short period of time.

I also hold out hope that if I’m wrong about all this that I will at least have enough money in middle age to sign up for JDate.

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