Sunday, January 26, 2014

Being Mary Jane & Reflections on Being a Single Black Woman

I'm not sure what age it starts when girls and women are supposed to start feeling bad about not being in a relationship. Everyone is quick to make fun of a girl who dislikes being single if she's in high school or below but they never challenge the causes for their feelings. Everybody is quick to disparage a woman who is single in her mid twenties and up even if she is happy being alone.

And I'm stuck in a weird kind of purgatory at 21. I'm supposed to be enjoying my independence and focusing on professional and academic development but simultaneously I should be thinking about dating. But not seriously. But I'm supposed to still do it or else something is wrong with me.

Of course, when you add race everything is exacerbated. And BET's Being Mary Jane reminds me of this. It is one thing to be a single woman. And another entirely to be a single Black woman.

This is because in our hetero-patriarchal society "single" means "worthless" when attached to women. It means "faulty." But Black means all the same things in our racist cultural imagination. So it's really a double problem to say "single Black woman."
And Mary Jane has entirely internalized this message. Without ruining the plot line for any late viewers, I can say that every stereotype ever in existence about single (and successful) Black women is embodied in the one character of Mary Jane. Miraculously. I could hardly believe the triteness of the entire thing myself.

And I'm angry. I'm angry because I've been lied to and I continue to be lied to. Being Mary Jane comes up at a time in my life where I am consciously trying to rid myself of the internalized hate that makes me question the value of my life when I'm not involved with a man. When I watch the show I see every single problematic thought pattern I've decided I can do without replicated and multiplied back to me on the screen and then painted as reality.

This is not reality. This is the box we place ourselves in when we capitulate to racist and sexist ideologies.

The unfortunate position of being a single Black woman is double sided.

It is a problem because patriarchal white supremacy has devalued Black femininity. So singleness is the default status for Black women because singleness is the default status for "unworthy" women or women outside of hegemonic femininity.

For the same reason why romantic comedies often feature a girly girl who is actively dating and a "tom boy" who is just there for emotional support but has no man in her life, these same romantic comedies often feature a white woman with an active dating life while her Black female friend is the sidekick who is miraculously happy while being alone.

Sometimes the Black woman is even the catalyst for the more "appealing" white woman to realize that they in fact don't need a man. Because Black woman done figured that out ages ago. Duh. That's why there's the "Single Black woman who don't need no man" meme!

This is seemingly benign, but when patriarchy has clearly signaled that being a single woman is an issue and then it's reinforced that as a Black woman that's your natural position it becomes a problem.

It's a very confusing problem because being a woman without a man is bad because of patriarchy and being Black is bad because of white supremacy and now all of these things are amalgamated together until it's easy to lose track about what is actually bad within this entire structure. Hint: It's not being a Black single woman.

But then on the other side is the real lived reality of humans (of which Black woman are included!) where we often want and desire care and affection. It isn't even necessarily that anybody truly believes that the only source of care and affection is a heterosexual romantic union. It's that the heterosexual romantic union is valued above and beyond other relationships as a signifier of being "good enough" in a (to channel bell hooks) capitalist hetero-patriarchal white supremacist society.

All of this leads to a very confusing situation for single Black women who may or may not be interested in dating but are definitely interested in how they are viewed socially as a single Black women or a person with (at least) two strikes against them. One strike (race) is permanent. But the second strike (singleness) is apparently temporary for the "best" and luckiest Black women of which you then desperately try to become a part of.

It's the desperation that leads to disastrous results.

Black women ask me all the time if I'm anxious about whether or not I'll find a "good Black man." I hate getting questions like this because I see it as an internalization of anti-Black notions about the general inferiority of Black people.

I'm not concerned or anxious about finding a good Black man. I'm concerned about finding the right man any at all.

Let's face it. Finding love is messy, largely incidental, and extremely complicated. Finding the person who I will be able to mesh with on a lifetime basis is no easy task. It's not one to be taken lightly and as somebody who is extremely interested in romantic love of course I think about this stuff (sometimes anxiously, but mostly optimistically). What isn't hard is finding a Black man who is responsible and respectful if that's what is meant by a "good Black man." It's anti-Black to think otherwise.

The myth of the ever elusive "good Black man" is one that I get from the standpoint of white supremacy but what I don't understand is why the Black community itself holds onto the idea so strongly. So much so that when I say I don't believe in it I'm charged with not accepting "reality."

Then there's the people who say okay, I believe there are "good Black men" but not ones who are into dark skin and natural hair. Black men internalizing white beauty standards is a real issue. But seeing this as an insurmountable barrier to (Black) love is also problematic because then we are commodifying ourselves. We are placing ourselves on the race/ gender/ class/ sexuality hierarchy and looking for it in our intimate relationships.

It's no wonder then that some Black women feel Mary Jane is a realistic portrayal of us. Because when we watch her we are watching a woman who is not only desiring of love and affection within the context of a romantic relationship, but a woman who clearly believes that there is nobody who is both willing and able to show her that care.

It's the confusion I feel when I realize that mainstream society does not believe I need or want to be in a relationship and then turning to other Black women who feel the exact opposite and finding myself somewhere floating in the middle as somebody in the process of recovering from being a serial dater.

I used to think that I serial dated because I was desirous of love. Now I realize that if love had always been the forefront of my mind then most of the relationships I've been in would have never happened. Not because anything was wrong with the man. But because they were never the right man for me and I knew it.

I simply believed that it's not the life to be a single Black woman and so I avoided it at all costs without ever challenging why I thought this or what I could do about it.

But I'm glad that I've taken the time to think through these things now before I headed down a trajectory that would lead me to think and behave like Mary Jane. Maybe I can view it as a cautionary tale of what happens when we don't examine our own oppressive thinking. Even though unfortunately, the show itself is simply marketed as representing the inevitable reality of progressive Black woman.


  1. good. This whole issue is a breeding and picking ground for a whole host of issues in the intersections of race, women and class for Black women (the "good Black man" Black women are searching for subtly promotes Black inferiority, which probably seeps into White supremacist thought; many Black women (hello, me!) are searching for deeply emotional relationships too, and as young Black women, is this possible to find in men? Should we just date up in age? (which is another host of issues); the battle between wanting love and the fact that love only comes to you accidentally, when you're not looking) and etc.,...

    Otherwise, shows like Mary Jane need to be replaced with something fresh, and something more honest, that show the complexity of dating for Black women, more than just 'Black and wanting'. Forever wanting.

  2. As a black man and being an intelligent man in general I understand the power of the media. Having an understanding of visual media (television PROGRAMMING) and white supremacy (the ones who are actually promoting these so called "black shows") I have steered clear of television and in particular BET. This is why I don't support the Tyler Perrys of the world. Almost all of his shows depict black men doing things negative or acting like clowns. People think its entertainment and that its not to be taken literally but this imagery can shape the way a people think and shows like Being Mary Jane and Scandal are no different. Women look at these shows and wonder why they feel despair afterwards. These shows were not made to inspire these shows were made to brainwash. Cmon black women stop letting these white people tell you how to live.

  3. We are Brain Washed because WE WANT TO BE!!! We have the POWER to STOP WATCHING IT!!

    My daughter watches TV at the 'WEEKEND ONLY'. Her mum has a list of NOT WATCHING SHOWS, none of us WATCH THEM, also there is a Parental LOCK!!!

    Why do Black Women watch these TV shows? (Scandal, Mary Jane). Don't you have the power to TURN the Tel-a-lie-vision OFF??

    We know the TV shows us in a negative way, BUT we are into LOVE and Hip-Hop, Scandal, Mary Jane - (Grown BLACK women chatting about it on the bus!!!)

    The behaviour made me sick and ashamed, yet black people sits here EATING it up like PIGS!!!



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  5. I'm the type of person who will watch a show that I don't care for to see where the writing will take it. To analyze it's merits and it's losses. Being Mary Jane confused me over and over and over. Were the issues realistic or exaggerated? Does the audience know if the issues were sincerely handled or exaggerated. I'm fearing the answer is no because I don't know. Why does't the writing look at minorities of all kinds rather than striking opposition with everyone, Why doesn't the writing intelligently sift out ways to help a brother/sister out and then show the characters walking the talk? Why are police always White men, rather than Asian, Latino, Native American, MEN and never women? Why can't the show shed a little light on genuine White alliances? I'm just confused if this show (projected to be smart) handles everything generically rather than in the tricky nuances of navigating life. What a prime opportunity to hear all these real dynamics from a Black (Ugly= Unheard) Woman - but has it been lost to a soap opera? Sadness here. :(