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: 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)

Yes! The last of the holidays! I mean, Happy New Year!

Best holiday ever! Except most of my New Year’s Eves have been sort of odd. Like, the kind of odd that makes me feel like I should try to sleep through them all.

There was this one time when I was still a teenager that was kind of cool. My boyfriend and I were with a group of other rowdy New Yorkers on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, staring down at what looked like a street filled with moving confetti but was really just millions of people partying to welcome in the New Year.The security guard made us leave after the ball dropped in Times Square, the party pooper.

But that’s one night/early morning in three decades of weird New Year’s Eve stories. I have ushered in the New Year with my homegirl in Long Island as we trailed a Suge Knight look alike from his Watch Night visit at his grandma’s church (we met him at a tattoo parlor earlier that day and he invited us out. She looked at me like, “Abort mission!” and I couldn’t say no, and I’m pretty sure she almost stopped being my friend after that) to a really ridiculous house party that we left 10 minutes after we arrived. I think that was Y2K year, and we thought the world might end and we were both kind of sad there wasn’t more excitement either way.

The mid-twenties and thirties were not much better. There were lots of lonely texting streams and Dick Clark Rockin’ Eves. I’m pretty sure I slept through midnight at least three years in a row. Certainly, I was drunk at a New Year’s Eve shenanigans fest at my house before I made my way to a neighbor’s house to drink more before I had to get up and go to work three hours later.

Once, I let one of my favorite people drag me to the house of a couple in Brenham where we brought in the New Year with Scrabble. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had been watching Dick Clark or Ryan Seacrest, but as it was, we ended up watching fireworks from around the world, wondering if the New Year had arrived in our part of the world yet or not and trying to avoid the gaze of their chihuahua, who had just had eye surgery.

In my relentless quest to have the Most Fun New Year’s Eve Ever, I dragged my bestie with me to the Driskill hotel for a champagne toast and pigs in a blanket, basically, for more than $40 a pop. We ended up at the Ginger Man, a local bar that I love, where we were serenaded by drunk men who could not, for the life of them, sing a lick. One of these guys was with his girlfriend at the time. But that was closer to what I envisioned for my New Year’s Eve fantasy.

Last year was even closer – I had a perfect date that included a little serenading and I ushered in the New Year listening to soul music, eating good food, surrounded by friends like family.

I mention this to you because that means that this New Year’s Eve is going to be amazing by comparison…but also because as much as I love being festive and all that, hallelujah, the celebrating will pause for most of us. (My birthday is approaching, so I’m just getting warmed up. Plus, there’s this book launch situation that’s coming in two weeks.)

I’ve mentioned before I think the holiday season can be alienating, especially for single folks. But just because you’re not with someone on New Year’s Eve doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.

I hope that you have a safe, joyous Happy New Year.  See if you can’t get a little dancing in like this. Even if you have to pull a Billy Idol. I’ll be toasting to y’all at midnight.

Thought Catalog on five steps to embracing your single self

A friend of mine kept sharing well-written blogs from Thought Catalog last year, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I noticed this list in January and it made me smile. I hope it’s useful for you, too:

..Single means you have no significant other, and by significant, I mean someone not genetically related to you for whom you’d walk on newborn babies or hot coals or dissolving wads of cash to save him/her from even an ounce of pain. The person you sleep with, even regularly, does not count. He or she does not cuddle under blankets with you pre-midnight and put up with your ice cold, winter-crusted feet to watch bad reality television. Your 3 A.M. “hangout” buddy doesn’t feed your cat when you’re out of town, or buy fabric softener in your favorite scent so you smell heaven when you’re dreaming. Single means you’re alone at the end of the day, both literally and figuratively speaking. But it’s ok. Here’s how to enjoy it.

 
1. Continue to sleep with your special friend
That is, however, only if he/she doesn’t make you feel like crap. But if you enjoy the company of a late-night someone providing you pleasure on a platter like a midnight gourmet cheese tray, stick with it. Enjoy it. Recognize it for what it is, and don’t try to turn that person into your boyfriend or girlfriend. If you two (or three…kinky!) have never left the bedroom, you probably never will. If you can’t accept this, then stop fooling yourself, or stop seeing this person.

 

2. Be all that you can be
No seriously, this is not just the Army’s vague mantra. We all know that when you’re in a relationship, you get round and happy from all the eating and midnight sex games involving whipped cream and chocolate and the love-for-one-another-through-thick-and-thin-emphasis-on-thick and the comfort and security of lurrrrve. So if you’ve always wanted to run a marathon or speak a new language or learn how to cook or sew or grow plants or dance the damn jig, now is the time to acquire new skills. Once you have a significant other, they suck the life out of your life in every area except love. (Just kidding! Kind of).

 

You can read the rest of it here. When is the world supposed to end this year? May? I might need to get on this list, then. Joking! Sorta.

Reads for the Weekend: Tips for being happy when you’re single, Valentine’s Day & International Quirkyalone Day

I’m going to follow The Oatmeal’s advice here. Less complaining. More sexy rumpus. I got you.

Laurel House, known as QuickieChick, on surviving Valentine’s Day as a single lady.

Agapi Stassinopoulos talks to The Happiness Project about what makes her feel good when she’s blue. Fluffy pillows and reading whatever she wants are involved. It made me happy just to read it.

Yes, it’s true, you can tell by the fact that no one can make any reservations at their favorite restaurants for a party of one that the mega-holiday of marketing love genius celebration is approaching. I love you Valentine’s Day! It’s also International Quirkyalone Day, started by the phenomenal Sasha Cagen. If you wanted to have a party of other self-loving, non-coupled folks, here’s a party pack to get you started. If you don’t know if you classify as a quirkyalone — it doesn’t matter if you do or not, we’re all very accepting and totally non-judgmental — take this quiz. Or, just follow the advice below. & have a great weekend.

Salvation & Friendship

Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends, what the Irish call anam cara. It’s what the Wrinklies did for one another, what the French resistance fighters in Auschwitz did for one another, what women do for one another in real relationships with real consequences in real time, every day, what my friends do for me. We help one another other live and sometimes, we watch – and help – one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life – now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.

~ Emily Rapp, “Transformation and Transcendence: The Power of Female Friendship.”

My mother died on January 6. My father killed himself in 2010.

I am an orphan who never quite had parents in a traditional sense, anyway. I thought the day when I would write those words would be far into a future I can’t imagine. The days, the news, the grief came instead, back to back.

Maybe if I stayed busy, I figured, I could find myself back to words. Funny, sharp ones. Beautiful ones worthy of my single mother, with all her flaws & mischief & vivacious laughter. But then people would talk to me & I could not hear them, or something that would have once moved me to tears left a throbbing knot behind my heart.

The one person who called me her best friend in the whole world was gone now. She would not be calling again. I would have to talk to her by looking at the stars, wiping her presence from the tears on my cheeks while I meditated. I would have to listen for her in the wind.

I am deeply terrified by sadness & its weight. I love happiness, the shape of it, the generosity of it. This is mom’s fault. She had a relentless optimism & zest that sometimes wore me out. But when her death became real to me, it somehow solidified my father’s suicide, too. I suddenly needed retreat from a world that was spinning forward without me.

Books. Water. Tea. Dirt. Plants. Sleep.

Maybe if I had found love, like my mother wanted so desperately for me, maybe this winter would have been less cold. This was my first thought. I was only kind of alone before but now…

I do not want for love. My sister is a superhero of grace, strength & humor. From East and West, Canada to Florida, the condolences swept in via social media & angels in the form of new friends. They coaxed tears from my numb spirit. They reminded me of what love really means. These women, locally & nationally, made me spaghetti & fed me red wine. They bought me flowers & poems & thoughts & hugs that I wrapped around me like a cover for whatever sadness will rise and fall, like these Austin temperatures.

So, when I read Emily Rapp’s essay about the power of female friendship, I thought of them, their faces & gestures flashing in my mind like a slideshow. Too many to name, so many to thank. She reminded me, like the flowers that arrived on my doorstep from two dear friends, that some people think if you are single, you are alienated & cranky and missing out:

The Wrinklies weren’t spinsters or old maids and they were not “failures” in any way. They were free. It was I who failed to see them, until later, for who they really were: educated, hugely intelligent, fascinating, financially independent. Women who led rich lives full of meaningful work, deep and lasting friendship, sex when they wanted it, time with the beloved children of their family and friends, conversations about politics and art and literature, culture, travel to remarkable destinations where they did not journey as unconscious tourists but as guests in people’s homes and hearts. Despite these full lives they owned their own time, they owned their days. I did not. I was too busy trying to find someone who would spend the days with me, as if this would validate my presence in the world.

I recommend the whole piece. It’s quite beautiful & it was right on time for me.

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