When the ABC and BET television executives met to discuss the demographics before premiering their shows, Scandal and Being Mary Jane, they had women like me in mind; Black, educated, professional or semi-professional, ages 25 or 30 plus, and highly interested in watching a show starring a strong Black female lead. Both shows are supposed to be reflections of Black women during this era. Of course, Scandal is based on a dope concept of a high-powered Black woman in the nation’s capital who specializes in crisis management. As for Being Mary Jane, this show kinda feels like an updated spinoff of the Savannah Jackson character from Waiting to Exhale. Mind you, I applaud Shonda Rimes and Mara Brock Akil for getting a green light on their television series in such a hard industry for women, in general, but Black women particularly. Unless you’ve been living on Venus for the past fifty years, you know that Hollywood is finally coming around to the idea that Black female actresses can portray more than maids, prostitutes, drug addicts, welfare queens, and crime victims. So, given that, this post doesn’t really have anything to do with the producers (well, kinda) or the actresses. Look, Kerry Washington and Gabrielle Union have to make their money. Who in the hell aspires to be an actress and doesn’t want to do major work during their career?
To briefly surmise, both Mary Jane Paul and Olivia Pope, regardless of their professional status, have one thing in common — they’re both having illicit affairs with married men, one of them happens to be the white, Republican President of the United States. For some, this aspect is bothersome because it flaws the, otherwise, positive image of Black women as successful and in control of their lives. Here’s the thing though, a nice rosy television show featuring a strong lead character, regardless of race or sex, without any wrongs would never make it to production. I’m certain that both Shonda and Mara incorporated the affairs as a way to give the lead characters more depth and complexity, albeit, it’s in typical fashion. As you watch shows like Revenge and such, white female lead characters are sleeping with married men as well, but the difference is that the story lines are more textured and layered. So, yeah, I’ll go here. If you just gotta give me a Black female lead having an affair with a married man, does she have to be so weak, insecure, and sniveling about it? Why can’t we have a Black female lead that likes sleeping with married men because she prefers to remain emotionally detached? That would be far more interesting. From here, I’m in agreement with Kimberly Foster’s post on ForHarriett.com about Black women always being portrayed as tragically single…and that’s why I say I’m not Olivia Pope or Mary Jane.
So where did the tragically single phenomenon come from? Well, I’ve already mentioned it. It is my belief that it happened in 1995 with the film release of Terry McMillian’s bestselling novel, Waiting to Exhale. It’s been nearly twenty years, and according to both Black and White Hollywood, Black women are still not breathing freely. Prior to that, however, we had a breakthrough in 1986 with Nola Darling in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. The only thing that was tragic about Nola’s singleness was the inability of the three men she dated to accept that she was not a ‘one man woman’. In the context of cultural productions, we are seeing white women forge ahead with progressive ideas about love, romance, sex, relationships, and marriage, while we, as Black women, continue to pursue & approach these things in the most traditional manner possible, despite the growing chorus of Sistas who are beginning to call a lot of these things into question.
Another thing that concerns me is the social commentary and opinions surrounding these two shows. While both of these shows have fueled the ongoing critical discussion about the state of Black relationships, I’m concerned that the dialogue is not as productive as it should be. It seems the shows have provided yet another way to pit Black men and women against each other, as if we needed anything else. If you have a Twitter account, it’s easy to plug into Black Twitter while they’re live tweeting the two shows and see the reactions. As they watch vicariously, many of these people are exposing their own unresolved issues about love and relationships.
Instead of using these two shows to establish some kind of connection where we can talk intimately, honestly, and compassionately about the state of our relationships, we’re using them to perpetuate distrust and suspicion of each other. Black men are accusing Black women of making poor choices when it comes to men while Black women, on the defensive, lash out about Black men and their apparent failure to commit. How can we win this way? If we’re going to use these shows as a premise to make assertions about relationships, then we need to respect each others’ life paths and experiences while allowing a nonjudgmental space as we share our thoughts.
While I have not been involved with a married man, I have talked candidly with women who have and their reasons were varied and perplexing. On the other hand, I’ve had discussions with women who had to deal with their husbands’ infidelity. Their stories were also complicated. Lastly, I have talked with a couple of men who had affairs while they were married and they have much to say as well. In having those discussions, I learned that we are all complex individuals and that relationships cannot be confined to such simplistic ideals. Understandably, we want to condemn; profess the right or wrong of a situation and act accordingly. I get that. But life doesn’t always grant us that opportunity; just ask Gabrielle Union as she continues to deal with the public finding out about D. Wade’s new baby. We need to keep all of this in mind whether we are watching a representation of ourselves on television or dealing with each other in real life.