'Being Mary Jane' Changes Everything for Women on TV
“I never thought of her as a villain… The people that watch the show though definitely think differently. A woman came up to me in the store and told me, ‘You need to leave Mary Jane alone.’ That’s definitely different from what I’m used to. I usually hear, ‘I love your character, you remind me of my mom.’—Loretta Devine, Entertainment Weekly.
If you’re watching this season of “Being Mary Jane,” you know that there’s nothing more frustrating than asking another person if they’re watching, and hearing, “No.” Or, “No, but I’m watching ‘Scandal’ and ‘How to Get Away With Murder’.” Or, no, but I’ve been meaning to check out. This has to stop. The most important women characters—white, black and otherwise—are on Mara Brock Akil’s show and the masses should be watching (whether or not we should continue watching after Akil’s exit as showrunner is another question.
I celebrate this show as a TV critic who knows the series is far from perfect. The writing vacillates between brilliant and heavy-handed. There are too many times when I imagine Keenan Ivory Wayans popping in between scenes to shout, “Message!” But certain missteps must be forgiven when you have characters like Kara Lynch, Mary Jane Paul, Lisa Hudson, Niecy Patterson—and this season’s most incredible yet—CeCe.
“Being Mary Jane” was always different, and was always going to be different. From the first TV movie event, it was clear that Akil was trying to, as she has with her other shows in, bring a different sort of woman to TV. It wasn’t just compelling that Mary Jane was a successful black woman. And it wasn’t enough that she had this complicated family she felt obligated to carry. What made her stand out was the fact that, even as the lead on the show, she could be incredibly unlikable at times—arrogant, messy and self-righteous beyond belief. But it was Mary Jane’s commitment to unapologetic self-satisfaction that really stood out to me. And by “self-satisfaction,” I really just mean masturbation. “Sex and the City” may have been one of the first shows where women openly talked about it, and “Girls” has certainly done its part (“UnReal,” “American Horror Story” and “Mad Men” have all had their moments), but “Being Mary Jane” has shown its lead character pleasuring herself more times than any other TV show. It’s 2015 and these kinds of scenes are still considered “shocking,” whether they’re on HBO, network TV or cable. This is troubling because masturbation scenes for women TV characters are just as important as any other scenes that show us a woman is running the show. That is to say, as significant as it is to see women characters as bosses—as we’ve seen with the likes of Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating and Peggy Olsen—it’s equally necessary that we see female sexuality that exists outside of the presence of men. Of course, there’s nothing like a good ol’ fashioned sex scene—and “Being Mary Jane” handles those well too—but normalizing masturbation should be a part of any discussion about changing the way women characters are presented. Season three has tapered off from the self-satisfaction scenes, but let’s keep hope alive that they make a comeback in the future, and that they’ve inspired other shows to bring to light an act that is still, for some reason, kept in the dark.
And like any good series, the protagonist is, sometimes, the least interesting person in the room. In the same way that Gabrielle Union’s Mary Jane transforms the traditional single, independent woman character, Lisa Vidal’s Kara Lynch is unlike any other working mother on TV. This became abundantly clear in earlier seasons, when she openly admitted to preferring her work life to her family life. We’ve seen other women characters struggle to balance both, but Kara Lynch has been brutally and refreshingly honest about motherhood. After fighting against the idea of her ex taking full custody of their boys, she finally, boldly admitted that he was the better parent for the job. Kara completely dismantles the notion of motherhood as natural, and the maternal instinct as something present in every woman. It’s fairly simple to do this with a character who has no children (or with someone like Khandi Alexander’s Mama Pope, who’s a villain and, also, somewhat insane). But to have a smart and relatable woman of color represent another spectrum of motherhood is no small feat. This season we’ve watched as Kara worked to become more dedicated to her boys, and seeing that particular struggle (best exhibited in the episode “Being Kara”) was equally fascinating. The character remains true to self (she is still in her “natural” habitat at work, more so than at home), even as she grows into something different—like the kind of mom who brings her kids to work and plops them down in a conference room when need be.
Still, “Being Mary Jane” isn’t a show that merely highlights positive changes in its characters. Latarsha Rose’s Dr. Lisa Hudson was introduced in season one as a friend of Mary Jane’s who struggled with depression. In season three, an unforgettable episode opener served as a powerful reminder that many such struggles end tragically in suicide. This episode marked an important shift in the scope of the series. “Being Mary Jane” always dealt with deeper issues—the uglier sides, if you will, of being a black woman. But “Sparrow” made it clear that season three was not going to be about picking your favorite boo for Mary Jane, and many who’d been watching the show casually were officially converted. In addition to suicide and depression, the episode examined the culture of silence surrounding molestation, particularly when it happens within the family. Unlike past attempts to raise awareness about specific issues (wherethe hands of the writers were sometimes felt too heavily), Lisa’s closing storyline felt authentic and necessary to the greater narrative.
And in spite of all these great characters, and other significant turns from Raven Goodwin as Niecy and of course Margaret Avery as Mary Jane’s mother, nothing quite compares to the [presumably] gay, elderly, activist and criminal introduced this season by Loretta Devine’s CeCe.
There is simply, nothing quite comparable to this character on television today. The brilliance of CeCe is that she was introduced in a way that completely spoke to our expectations about the kind of person Loretta Devine would play as a guest on a series like this. A warm, forgiving and kind older black woman gets injured in a car accident caused by Mary Jane. And then, just as we thought she’d served her purpose as a sort of wake up call to the protagonist, she put on one of her signature fedoras, and got more gangsta than all of the TV anti-heroes we’ve been championing for the past few years. Devine has spoken about the thrill she get playing something so unexpected (a character that was initially written for a man), noting “I usually play someone’s mom or someone’s wife, where I answer questions like, “Are we going to dinner?” For her to go from those, to the role of an extortionist—who is stealing from a black, female member of the one percent to build a black book store and a community collective of sorts (all while quoting the Bible in defense of her gangsta)—was a brilliant move on the part of the writers.
This casting decision, more than any other on “Being Mary Jane,” changes everything about who and what a woman can play on TV. Devine’s slick-ass villain-turned-savior (because she does achieve some redemption in the end) is a refreshing break from so many tropes that continue to plague women characters, and especially black women who are still often written from a politics of respectability. Even Mary Jane’s character is emblematic of some of these tropes, which is why it’s so important that CeCe showed up, as a bold challenge to all that Mary Jane stood for. Devine’s role represents one major step towards the creation of more women who don’t fit any particular mold, and whose motives lie completely outside of the family, or career advancement.
In last week’s episode “Purging and Cleansing,” CeCe took over Mary Jane’s own TV crew, dismantling their predictable approach to storytelling on TV. As a result, the character became symbolic of a greater message from Akil and her writers—every single TV writers room and executive board, including the ones that appear, on the surface, to be diverse, can always benefit from one more marginalized perspective. This is because “marginalized” is just another way of saying “unheard”—and aren’t those unheard and untold stories the stuff TV script dreams should be made of? In an entertainment world full of so much sameness (save a few shows here and there that continue to break the mold, and use black characters to do so), Akil and her writers demand that we take note of their approach. Or, as the great CeCe herself would say, “Write that down, baby.”
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter:https://twitter.com/shannonmhouston.