If I knew nothing about black women other than the characters and ‘scandals’ that are portrayed on mainstream television, I’d think that very few exist in loyal, loving, long term relationships. There seems to be a common thread that ties the black, leading ladies of scripted television to the female, reality stars featured in unscripted television programs. Many of these women are portrayed as being headstrong, nurturing and business oriented. However, as it pertains to their romantic lives, each is either tied to a married man or helplessly in love with an emotionally unstable and unavailable guy. Rarely, in this day and time, do we see characters created in the likes of Claire Huxtable, Harriet Winslow or Florida Evans. Not only has the conventional black family been washed from primetime, but the ‘married, black mother of two’ is now an endangered, televised species. Mainstream television now features beautiful, talented actresses like Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope and Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane in dramatic roles where their characters lack solid, monogamous relationships. Their stories are written to frame them as the heroine; the woman we all sit back and cheer for each week. Then, however, we’re drawn into cringe worthy scenes where our Mary Jane’s and Olivia Pope’s are thrown into closets or locker room shower stalls for a quickie alongside their unhappily married lovers.
As I watched the pilot episode of ‘Being Mary Jane’ three or four weeks ago, I was very impressed with the writing style, accompanying music, as well as the dramatic performances. The series felt like a relatable, nuanced story that just so happen to feature a predominately black cast. The fluidity of the show made me forget for a moment that my friend and I were even tuned into a BET program. I could see a little bit of my sister, eldest female cousin and even some of my leading lady friends in the characteristics and many dimensions that layered the character of Mary Jane. As a man, I could even relate to Mary Jane’s conscious decision to stand clear of men who were already involved in other, romantic relationships. I silently cheered for Mary Jane each time Andre attempted to ignite communication and she immediately shut down his advances. It was the level of control she maintained over her emotional desires that allowed me to identify with her internal struggles. During each scene, I watched Mary Jane as she attempted to remain strong and collected for her suicidal friend, physically ill mother, uneasy, male co-worker and somewhat dysfunctional family. She remained focused and in charge of herself throughout the many issues that plagued her daily routine. It wasn’t until the final scene of the first episode that I felt a sense of harsh, disappointment.
In the final scene, Andre bursts into the female locker room of the gym that he and Mary Jane both attend. As Mary Jane is exiting the showers, Andre forces a stream of conversation. Mary Jane initially rejects his advances. However, she then requests the password to Andre’s phone in an effort to erase the naked photos that she previously texted to him. In the process, she sees a photo of Andre’s children saved as the screen saver in his cell. It truly bothered me at that moment to watch Mary Jane give in to temptation by letting Andre penetrate her against the shower wall. Once the reality of Andre’s family situation was placed directly in her face, I assumed Mary Jane would fight harder to submerge her physical and emotional desires beneath the surface of her longings. It did not make sense to me that a woman who fought so hard against her emotions and broken heart, would wait to sleep with her married suitor again after being exposed to his children. As far as Im concerned, the reality of the children should have pushed her further away from Andre. This plot twist painted Mary Jane as a woman who ultimately isn’t in control of how she behaves as a result of her feelings.
The back and forth between Mary Jane and Andre has become the central plot line of the ‘Being Mary Jane’ series. The same can be said for the unhealthy, back and forth that exists between Olivia Pope and the President throughout the ‘Scandal’ series. Despite their strides as intelligent, professional, well adjusted, black women, the instability of Mary Jane and Olivia Pope’s romantic relationships has become the main focus of their televised lives. Since the scripted characters of Mary Jane and Olivia Pope are presently the most popular and celebrated amongst the black community, Im concerned about what the disfunction in their romantic lives says to the world about black women. Both Mary Jane and Olivia Pope consciously choose to exist as the other woman. Shockingly, I see many of the women I follow on social media applauding the extra marital affairs.
In comparison, when I do find time to watch full episodes of Basketball Wives, The Real Housewives Of Atlanta or Love & Hip Hop on VH1, the screen time is always dedicated to the story lines focused on the instability of the black woman’s romantic life. Even though Evelyn Lozada isn’t black, she is still a woman of color. This most recent season of ‘Basketball Wives’ solely featured Evelyn in collective and confessional scenes where she spoke endlessly about the cheating and abuse that framed her relationship with Chad Ochocinco. During this current season of ‘The Real Housewives Of Atlanta’, Porsha Stewart monopolizes at least 20 – 25 minutes of an hour long episode as she intimates the tragic loss of her marriage, and the subservient role she had to play in order to keep her ex husband happy. ‘Love & Hip Hop’ brands its leading ladies as nothing more than women who are beautiful and determined to make their career goals a reality. However, each of them usually exists in a broken relationship or unhealthy ‘situation’ that they aren’t strong enough to permanently leave in the murky past.
The story lines that are written and created for black, female characters in scripted and non-scripted, contemporary television displays a strong sense of weakness as it pertains to the decisions these women make in their romantic relationships. If the black female leads aren’t sleeping with and embracing the sexual advances from married men, they’re seriously involved with guys who don’t want to solidify the bond exclusively. While we can easily dismiss the portrayal of these women as mere entertainment, it’s important to remember that there aren’t enough images of black love on mainstream television to combat the stories that frame black women as the contemporary concubine who has lost total control of her love life.