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.

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.

Single Lady Music: Beyoncé

File this under #GuiltyPleasures.

I became totally enamored of Destiny’s Child back when Wyclef was closer to relevance and I halfway believed a singing career a la Mariah Carey or Lauryn Hill was in my future. I could sing a little bit, despite awful stage fright, so the yearning, sticky-sweet ballads of my generation were right up my alley. I was as likely to jam to Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin as I was to try to reach all of the high notes of Whitney Houston or Rachelle Ferrell.

As much as I love soul, R&B and gospel, there’s something about pop music from the 1990s, particularly, that inspires a deep nostalgia that I’m not yet comfortable with entirely. I don’t want to say that Beyoncé is the Diana Ross of my generation, but the glamour, the talent and the iconography are all there. It’s likely that “Single Ladies” tipped her into the pop artist stratosphere, but maybe she was going to be that famous anyway because she’s just that talented.

Nineteen-ninety-something.

Why is she always so naked? Why is she telling girls that we run the world when, clearly, there’s still so much misogyny in the world? What kind of message does our love for Beyoncé send to little girls who can’t live up to the standard of beauty that Beyoncé seems to set?

I don’t have answers for any of those questions. And I have written defenses of Beyoncé in the past, so I won’t go back into it. But the reason she’s become so popular is that there aren’t many singular black female figures in popular culture (not just those who are unmarried, since Mr. Carter put a ring on it a while ago) who seem to “have it all” – beauty, brains, a loving partnership and a sense of self outside of that partnership. For me, Beyoncé’s confidence and self-possession counterbalances the hypersexual sultry stuff.

There isn’t anywhere in our culture where women don’t get mixed messages about women, independence and relationships. I don’t think it’s fair that Beyoncé is the symbol of our angst about not committed to chastity or promiscuity. I love that she uses what she has to get what she wants; that’s what I aspire to do.

Here are some of my favorites.

Upgrade U: I know the feminists among us will pretend that we didn’t like this song, but I’ll just come out and admit that I loved it. I love it still.

Diva: I was inspired to write an essay about my short, failed attempt at being a rapper for an anthology when I heard this one.

Independent Women Part 1: Wow, it makes me feel old that this was 12 years ago. But whatever. I like the remix better, though.

Irreplaceable: Every woman who has had to, um, put someone out loves this song. It’s just a given.

Best Thing I Never Had: Honestly, I hated this song when I first heard it. But it resonated with me for a dozen reasons when I started listening to Beyonce 4 again recently.

What’s your favorite Single Lady music? I’m a Keri Hilson fan, too. We’ll get to her in a minute.

Top Posts in September: Facebook and online dating rant + Ryan Gosling love

So, while Ryan Gosling was being spotted in Austin, I was in Marfa, Texas for the first time, jamming with buddies in the desert, getting rained on and trying not to make a complete fool out of myself over Meshell Ndegeochello, who I have loved since the 1990s. She was a sweetheart, absolutely gracious while I stammered and shook her hand.  Her voice is even more amazing in concert. I highly recommend her music – it is instantly soothing, if sometimes heartbreaking. Do it. She rocks.

In September, I was relieved to find out that you guys also have a little bit of animosity/angst about using Facebook. What a relief. What’s that saying – that you know you’ve got a friend the moment you talk about something and the other person says, “You too? I thought I was the only one!” That was how I felt after that post.

In September, I got to meet one of my favorite bloggers who lives on the other side of world, and even though I tried not to gawk, he’s hotter than Gosling (I didn’t even think that was possible. Life is incredible and I am a very, very lucky old soul.) Plus, I got to meet my favorite living musician in a magical place. So, two out of three can’t be bad, huh? Anyway, here’s what The Gos and The Notebook taught me about love and relationships. Ironically, I’m reading a Danielle Steel book at the moment. (Don’t judge.)

Apparently, there are a lot of women in the world who have had less than desirable online dating experiences. So my situation with Chris the salivator wasn’t that odd after all. I don’t know how to feel about that, except that I’m still relieved that I’m not dating at the moment.

Hey, y’all! Not sure this car works, but it’s still cute.

The historical context of (some) black families & marriage, a brief overview

I just wanted to mention that posting will be a little lighter than usual as I finish editing the book, which I plan to publish before February 2013. This is my first book, so I’ve been losing sleep over it, but I do hope it will be worth the wait.

From the book:

My mom, like the women I grew up around, knew Jesus and loved God. For God-fearing Christians, marriage has been deemed a badge of honor for centuries.

But she wasn’t actively avoiding marriage. She had tried. It just didn’t work for her.

While she never seemed interested in trying again, she was far from bitter. She continued to date more actively than even I was comfortable with into her late 60s.

Part of why she was able to be single and happy had to do with the cultural sentiment around us, which was You don’t need a piece of paper to certify your love. This is how people of color and women who are not interested in the politics of respectability (or assimilating as much as possible to mainstream culture) find space for their own models of self-worth and self-love: by appropriating for themselves what they need to feel affirmed, often outside of the gaze and judgment of popular culture.

This cultural self-approval was popular during slavery by necessity even though some of the bravest women who are depicted and often written about as single or singular black women – Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, for example – were married. In Tubman’s case, she married a few times, including one marriage that her biographer Catherine Clinton notes in Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom happened when she was likely well over 50 years old. Back then, marriages between free blacks and slaves were considered informal arrangements, not legally or biblically binding enough to trump the commerce of slavery. Clinton wrote:

“Free blacks were faced with the prospect of choosing liberty in exile or a return to enslavement by remaining with their families…A slave’s master could choose to honor or ignore the couple’s commitment, rendering such unions inherently unstable. The sale of the slave spouse might throw the entire relationship into limbo. Thus, slaves who chose a life partner, whether a free black or another slave, constantly confronted fears not only that their marriage might be shattered through salve, but that they might lose contact with their children as well.”

Any book that purports to be geared toward black unmarried women and/or instruct them on getting a mate that doesn’t acknowledge this historical context is irresponsible.  That history, along with reports like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on the black family (known best as The Moynihan Report) offers a more detailed explanation of black women’s perceived powerlessness in matters of intimacy and love in the United States. While it is easier to just point to statistics and talk in witty sound bites, the truth is that black unmarried women have always been required to do much more than their white counterparts in every sphere of life.

Matters of the heart, then as now, are apparently no different.

Single Lady Books: Single, Arguments for the Uncoupled by Michael Cobb

The review’s not available online, but you can find it in the latest issue of Bitch Magazine, the Elemental Issue, #56

I really loved Michael Cobb’s book, Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, even though there were parts that I felt were a little over my head. Here’s part of what I wrote in my review for Bitch:

It’s hard to beat Michael Cobb’s description of single people as “avatars of the lonely crowd.” While Cobb’s last book had a catchier title (2006’s God Hates Fags: The Rhetoric of Religious Violence), I’m  guessing readers will appreciate that he takes a lighter touch with the expansive possibilities of single life.

The central message of this concise treatise is that freedom, potential, and possibility all exist within the life of a single person in a way that is impossible in the context of coupledom. Essentially, one is not the loneliest number. In a chapter about couples, families and the law entitled “The Probated Couple,” Cobb writes that couples join “the grip of loneliness’s totalitarianism” by creating the “special residue which marks their endurance in time: children, relatives, and all sorts of relations…”

If you want to read the rest and you hate paper or you want to read the rest of the brilliance in Bitch on your gadget, you can even by a digital copy here. Bella DePaulo adds that it’s the beginning of National Singles Week and she adds more quotes from Cobb’s book here.

Top Posts in August: Single Lady Car Maintenance, Learning Intimacy & Wisdom from Alice Walker

August was a hit month at Single & Happy with Zen and the Art of Single Lady Car Maintenance.

Zen and the Art of Single Lady Car Maintenance was a global hit, which genuinely surprised me. I wish for all of you a day when you get Freshly Pressed. It was like being prom queen on the Internet – and I met a lot of great readers from all over the world.

Break-ups, learning intimacy & ending self-sabotage was not as popular. But a lot of you still liked it. (Maybe because I posted it the day after the Zen post?)

I need to remind myself of this at least once a week: “No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.” More wisdom from Alice Walker here.

You know how people will ask you if you’re single, then get shocked and say, “Why?!” when you tell them? Well, I tried dating so that I would figure out a better answer to that question. But that, too, was a #fail.

On the New York Times’ great Opinion piece, The Busy Trap, and the difference between being busy and being lonely.

NY Times: When all the single guys live together

This Sunday NY Times story about four single guys sharing an apartment together caught my eye because the single male experience is rarely highlighted.

Even if it’s not always particularly diverse when it comes to sourcing, the Times does a good job of at least attempting to illustrate cultural trends. I am not at all surprised, by the way, that Mayor Bloomberg would try to cram single people into small spaces:

Sociologically, the men represent the apotheosis of two trends in American life. While Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg may be promoting the idea of tiny apartments for singles, the most recent census figures suggest that many people do not want to live alone; they prefer or need the company: The number of roommates in nonfamily households in New York City increased by more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2010. At the same time, Americans, especially men, have been pushing back the age at which they first marry — for men, it climbed to 28.2 years in 2010, up from 26.8 a decade earlier.

Indeed, though the men might resist putting so much weight upon their living arrangement, they are part of an ongoing redefinition of family life in the 21st century, in which traditional structures are replaced by fluid networks and bonds not dependent on blood ties.

“Now there are so many variations on how to live,” said Bella DePaulo, a social scientist and author of the book “Singled Out.” Many adults in middle age and beyond, she said, are choosing the “friendship model” for their living needs, opting for roommate arrangements similar to what they had in college or in their 20s, “except now they’re so much more thoughtful about it.”

It’s really rare to see mainstream outlets write about single men in a way that isn’t about chasing tail or being overgrown frat dudes, so this was refreshing. It made me think about the section of Kate Bolick’s article in the Atlantic where she writes about The Begijnhof, an single-sex community for women founded in the mid-12th century with 106 apartments  for applicants who commit to living alone (but in community with one another) between the ages of 30 and 65. Sounds like something the U.S. might need for all the single ladies.

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