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?

Fascinating stories about singles from 2013

I really meant to post this list a little earlier but I moved across country, celebrated that and the holidays with friends and family and as my birthday approaches, a big ‘ol snowstorm has arrived. You guys are my Internet-equivalent of a #winterboo, so I thought I’d say a merry/happy belated Goodbye-to-All-That, 2013 with this mini-list.

Anne Lamott on her year at Match.com: “You could say that my year on Match was not successful, since I’m still single, have been reduced to recycling my Starbucks companions, and am pleased with ‘pleasant.’ To have gone out so many times took almost everything I had, and then I didn’t even meet the right man. You start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you. Nah.”

One of the best reported and most illuminating stories was written by the founders of Onely.org at the Atlantic on the high costs of being single.

I just watched this wonderful video Op-Ed from The New York Times via Upworthy (h/t Natalie Tindall).

If you love videos, this sweet one I first saw at Love, InshAllah is great.

It’s also almost the anniversary of the publication of my ebook, Single & Happy. I had a feeling eventually someone would ask me about the white lady legs on the cover, but I thought I was just being neurotic and should let it go. Then, I wrote this.

And this commenter (as commenters sometimes will) wrote the question that I had been waiting a year for:

On the book cover the photographed legs look like those of a white woman? Why would you do that? Black woman are so beautiful!!

Yes. We are. We are so beautiful!

And whenever we write something that connects what happens to us to broader womanhood or humanity, it is categorized on the African American shelf or in the ethnic studies category. Nothing wrong with that. But I wanted to reach single people generally. Even so, I, too, winced a little when I got the design back and wondered who would ask me about the white lady legs (my brother said it just the way I thought it months ago.) I hoped that the main point of the book — which is only partly about race and a rhetorical, sustained assault on single black women from a particular era (that thankfully seems to have slowed) but mostly about fighting a stigma that impacts women of all races — wouldn’t get missed by picking a pair of legs that looked just like mine. It is my story, too, but it’s also the story of a lot of single men and women.

At least that’s what I was trying for. I might not have been successful. But 2014 is a new year. I’m working on some other books. I’ll keep you posted. Happy New Year!

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.

Singles in the News: Baby Mamas, Bachelors in politics and Single woman writers

Finally. Publishing in January 2013.

On Sale until Feb. 14.

Bella DePaulo, Queen of Singles, called my book, “A story of single life you haven’t heard before.” And Ezra, one of my most thoughtful commenters, posted a review on Goodreads saying that my stories of single life were “a better, maturer different.” I hope that you’ll get a copy for half off between now and Valentine’s Day. You can buy the book here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/270861 and to get $2.50 off, use the coupon code GM36A.

Did I mention there’s a party? There’s a Singles Party to celebrate the publication of the book. Feb. 14th. You can pay what you like at the door, but if you can pay in advance on Eventbrite: I’ll send you a copy of the book: http://singlespartyaustin2013.eventbrite.com/

So, now that I’ve said that, I’ve noticed as Bella DePaulo has noted (can you tell I’m a fan?) there’s been more positive coverage of singles in recent years. “Increasingly,” she wrote in a Psychology Today post, “Singles are getting some love and some respect!” It’s true. It also means I can’t always keep up with all the love singles get in individual posts. But I love digests, so I thought I’d start one.

OK, this isn’t exactly a love note to singles, but: “A gay president in a committed relationship will still be more comfortable for many people than someone who stays single.” That was the kicker quote in a story at The Root about bachelors (Cory Booker, haaay!)  who might be running for president in 2016.

From the “Amen, sister” files: “If you are a single woman writer, you live a unique, complicated reality. You may desire companionship, but you also desire to write. These are sometimes conflicting needs.” – Deonna Kelli on the challenges of being a single woman writer at Love InshAllah.

I go back and forth on whether or not we should write what we know. I know secondhand some of the challenges related to being a single parent, because I was raised by one. But I wrote about the All My Babies’ Mamas drama for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Basically: Most media we see portrays black mothers as single stereotypical ones, even when they’re not. Which is just weird. It was a joy to talk to other smart black women for the piece, including one of my favorites, Stacia L. Brown at Beyond Baby Mamas.

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.

It’s your anniversary: Reflections on Year One

There is nothing like standing in the middle of a crowd and feeling utterly alone.

The loneliest I have ever felt has been standing in a room full of dressed up people, my mind somewhere else entirely, my heart aching for something, though I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be.

A year ago, against the backdrop of other life changes, I started Single & Happy. It was initially called Single, Happy & Free for like, two weeks, but that seemed to be rubbing it in. And the tag line for months was about statistics be damned, because I was really angry about all of the stories in our culture that shame black women in particular for being successful, having standards and yet, somehow still being unfit for companionship.

I didn’t really want to write a book about it. I said I did, but I prayed for different guidance. A lot of people like the idea of mavericks, of people who say the thing that folks think but won’t write or talk about in public, but being one, going against the popular culture stream is something I didn’t think was in the cards for me.

Meanwhile, I had tried all of the online dating sites with the exception of a few, but what I learned after spending money I didn’t have to waste was that while there are all kinds of people who can find companionship that way, it wasn’t for me. I was also angry that no matter where I went — from my therapist’s couch to meetings with supervisors to happy hours and picnics —  the world reflected back to me what I believed about myself: I was not enough. I needed to get a partner. Sure, happiness and solitude – yeah, whatever! But you are a shell of a woman without a romantic relationship.

It was an incomplete story. I fleshed out what I was feeling and reacting to by reading books, like Samhita Mukhopadhyay‘s Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life, and Ralph Richard Banks’ Is Marriage for White People? and Florence Falk’s On My Own: The Art of Being A Woman Alone and Patricia Hill Collin’s Black Sexual Politics, among others. I could see how relationships for other black women in the past, the memorable ones, my heroes – Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth – had never been in the foreground for historians.

It turned out that Harriet Tubman was married a few times. How come I had only ever seen her pictured alone?

I learned that there is more than one way to find love, to be happy and fall in love with oneself while also reframing the discussion about what it means to be single.

For years, I had heard that single black women, and later, their white, breadwinning counterparts, were all these things: emasculating, overbearing, too fat, too dark, too much of everything. Those degrees would not keep us warm at night. That weave looked nice on a video hoe, but a man can’t run his fingers through that. Go natural if you want, but for some men, that makes you look too mannish. Too strong.

Too everything.

The message: These black women don’t know how to treat a man. “You don’t know how to let a man be a man.” Maybe you won at life by surviving all the things black women have to. But you have failed at matters of the heart. You have failed at the ultimate prize of womanhood: to be chosen. To be accepted, for life, in marriage.

And this: By succeeding, moving forward, we are making the brothers look bad.

And we are not alone. This year, I took note of the increasing rhetoric of the End of Men debate. What is a man without full ownership of patriarchy, when women are allegedly snatching up all the jobs and the money (spoiler alert: we are not). Why can’t white women, too, have it all – the partnership, the great job, the freedom and the money? Well, white follows black. So, welcome, sisters, to the reality of life as a black woman.

You can have most of “it,” whatever “it” is. But you will get called out for being something other than a woman. Insecure, mean-spirited, disenfranchised, coddled boys will find ways to remind you that you are only worthy when a man puts a ring on it. Which, as we know from the many stories of relationship mayhem, divorce and tragedy that circulate through our headlines, is just not true.

But I created Single & Happy thinking that I would keep it private until I could figure out what I was really trying to say, while I worked on a little book that I thought might actually be of service to some other folks. It turned out that I was right, that I had friends around the world who agreed with me, and when they didn’t, had reasonable arguments to the contrary.

I’m more Eeyore than Pooh or Piglet on any given day, so the Single & Happy title could often be read as a misnomer. But because of y’all, it is almost always true. Thanks for reading and for visiting. Looking forward to another year of sharing and commenting and dancing a little to old songs from the 90s with y’all.

Stop Trying to Convince Your Critics – Psychology Today on child-free women

No one asked me during Thanksgiving why I am still single. Hallelujah.

That leaves the other question. Not, “Do you have children?” but, “What do you mean you don’t have kids?”

Christmas is really the most special for children and the rest of us kind of do it wrong. So maybe that’s why it comes up every now and then. In my twenties, I used to hear variations on the question of whether I would bear a child more often. I wrote a little about that for Bitch Magazine this summer, including the estimated figure that it costs over $200,000 to raise a child.

So I thought some of you might be able to relate to this Psychology Today post by Harriet Lerner:

Many women have been raised with the message that we should want to have children. But (to state the obvious) women differ from one another. To assume that women should all be mothers is like assuming that all men should be accountants if they have the brain for math. And child-free is a better term than childless when a woman makes a choice to not reproduce. (Now that I think of it, let’s delete the word “childless” from our vocabularies. Like  “spinster” and “old maid,” the word  carries too much negative power to define who we are. Certain words need to go by the wayside).

I had a couple of experiences recently that were all very different and I’m not sure I’ve changed my mind about having any of my own. And no one has ever called me childless, though I agree that it should probably be retired from our general lexicon.

On Thanksgiving, I was surrounded by three sweet little girls, including one who, at 2 years old, sounded like a little Lena Horne. They were brilliant, spunky and adorable. About a week before that, I was out with friends and a mother of three warned me not to have any if I was ambivalent. She leaned in and whispered, “And I certainly don’t like other people’s children.” It’s nice to know that there can be such a range of experiences without anyone having to feel bad about their choices to have or not have kids.

I think that people who try to make women feel bad for expressing what may be true and authentic for them when they say they don’t want to be mothers are narrow-minded cowards. So I agree with Lerner: don’t try to convince your critics that you’re still normal even if you don’t want kids. In fact, send them this perfect blog: An open letter to all parents from a non-parent (which my friends have confirmed is really what parenthood is like).

She refers to being childless, too, but you know what she really means.

“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.

Contemplating hook-up culture and female empowerment

If women are so powerful now, why is there so much angst about their power?

This is the first thing I thought about when I read the article adapted from Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men, which I thought I wanted to read at one point. In the Atlantic’s September issue, she writes about the rise of successful women and ways in which women now have the agency – financial and otherwise – to plan for temporary intimacy in lieu of waiting around for love. The article is called “Boys on the Side” and here are some passages that jumped out at me:

Single young women in their sexual prime—that is, their 20s and early 30s, the same age as the women at the business-­school party—are for the first time in history more success­ful, on average, than the single young men around them. They are more likely to have a college degree and, in aggregate, they make more money. What makes this remarkable development possible is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career. To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.

It’s important to note a couple of things here. Rosin is specifically writing about the white middle class and upper middle class experience.

This is one of the things that riles me about writing and popular culture about single women, generally – in order for a case to be made for a strong story pitch, these stories are only considered universal (like the HBO show Girls, which is referenced in the story later) if they center around the white middle-class and upper middle-class experience. The reason that’s important is that it leaves out huge swaths of women of color who, culturally and sometimes out of necessity and cultural allegiance, make totally different decisions. I don’t know any women of color who could be described as cannily manipulating hook-up culture on college campuses to make space for their success. I don’t know any working class or poor women of any race or cultural background who would do that, either. There is, too, the underlying idea that hook-up culture is a white thing, not unlike marriage, ironically.

This article made me think a SPIN article published in 1998 while I was a sophomore at Vassar. The story, “Sex Ed,” featured at least one black male classmate I was friends with at the time, but it was essentially a story about the fact that for men on campus, “hooking up was as easy as ordering a pizza.” The reason hooking up was so easy, as explained by SPIN, was the fact that women outnumbered men on campus (the ratio was reportedly 60:40) and a large percentage of the men and women on campus were gay, which meant that heterosexual women had to be more aggressive if they wanted to hook up with men on campus.

I bring that story up because it points to an old idea: that for women to participate in the full secular college experience and have a little fun, they have always had to do more work than men. I was the exact opposite of the college girls that are characterized as dismissing overly serious suitors to make space for my success, so maybe I have a hard time understanding the sentiment. This strikes me as a dangerous corollary to the Having it All debate – where the narratives of women who suddenly act like men have traditionally acted are a new sociological puzzle.

Cultural, racial and class differences are key here, too, to say nothing of people who fall into non-gender conforming categories; the narrative that has been bought and sold to black women in particular is that we cannot afford to let go even of casual relationships with our black male peers if we seek marriage because they are so rarefied in academic and corporate spaces that if we act like some of the women Rosin highlights in Boys on the Side, we will be Forever Alone.

Here, Rosin goes into more detail about a 2004 study on sexual abuse on college campuses:

Women in the dorm complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic,” Armstrong writes, because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. “If I want to maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with,” one woman told Armstrong, “I have to work. I just don’t see myself being someone who marries young and lives off of some boy’s money.” Or from another woman: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job … I’m not in any hurry at all. As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.”

The women still had to deal with the old-fashioned burden of protecting their personal reputations, but in the long view, what they really wanted to protect was their future professional reputations. “Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, women “had to work to avoid them.” (One woman lied to an interested guy, portraying herself as “extremely conservative” to avoid dating him.) Many did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.

In that research, by the way, two-thirds of the subjects of sociologists’ research came from “more privileged” backgrounds. This idea of cultivating a “sexual career” is one that would offer a variety of side-eye glances from women of color, full stop. I understand the need to frame a story around existing data, but this is one example of just one side of the story.

The absence of women of color and people who are not so privileged from stories like this speaks loudly. It infers that the overarching narrative of white female sexual agency is the dominant story for all women everywhere, which is less true now than it ever has been, considering the growing diversity of our country. The absence of our narrative from discussions about women’s sexual liberation, too, shows that feminists still haven’t found a way to bridge the racial and class gaps that inform our discourse on everything from politics and business to love and relationships.

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