As a self-confessed lover of fashion and all things beautiful, I was naturally drawn to Being Mary Jane, an African-American TV show that aired on the BET network in early 2014. When the pilot episode aired, I was drawn to the exterior trappings of the show—beautiful clothes, flawless make-up, and the exquisite interior design of the main character, Mary Jane’s house, played by actress, Gabrielle Union. But as I watched the show week after week, I noticed something else, something fundamentally important. Underneath the veneer of all this beauty, lay tugged away, a social commentary on an array of issues that affects the black community.
For one, family is an important concurrent theme that runs through the thread of the show. Mary Jane is depicted as the matriarch of the family. She is the glue that holds everyone together and provides for her family in various ways. She wears many hats, be it the caregiver to her ill mother, the voice of reason to her unemployed niece or the financial provider to her older brother. Mary Jane does it all. Though she sometimes seems overwhelmed by her multiple roles, she somehow manages to survive through it all. Mary Jane’s character resonates with the real experiences of many women of colour across the world. The changing nature of societal roles now puts many women in the position that Mary Jane finds herself. While juggling a demanding career, the modern woman is tasked with the role of care-giver, voice of reason, financial provider and pillar of strength etc.
The politics of race is another important sub-theme that features throughout the show. Being a black woman at the top of her news anchor career, Mary Jane is not deluded about the struggles that other black women face. This is due to a phenomenon that is sometimes known as the “double handicap”—being black and female. In conversations with friends, Mary Jane often brings up these issues, which in reality, touches on broader issues of racial and gender inequality faced by not only African-American women, but other black women across the world.
Another particularly captivating theme is the difficulties that many black women face today with regard to relationships, settling down and finding happily ever after. In the show, this is depicted through Mary Jane’s quest to find Mr. Right, get married and have a family of her own. Although this quest has so far proved elusive, Mary Jane continues in her search, pruning away the weeds (or the Mr. Wrongs), all the while battling her own internal “demons” of insecurity and self-sabotage, in a bid to find her happily ever after. According to statistics provided in the pilot episode of the show, 42 percent of black women have never been married. Although these figures do not qualify the particular age group or state if these women will get married at a later stage, it communicates a strong message about falling marriage rates for many black women. And this is not always by choice, as more and more women are finding it increasingly difficult to settle down, even when they want to. This poses an important question about the changing nature of societal values for both women and men. And why it is seemingly harder today than ever before, to find Mr. Right.