Having It All: The Legacy Of 'Being Mary Jane' [SERIES REVIEW]

April 24th 2019

After six seasons and a movie, Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union) finally has it all: a man, a baby, and a booming career. She has the stereotypical dream every hetero working woman wants after years of break-ups, breakdowns, and restarts.

I began watching Being Mary Jane when it debuted in 2013. It came at a time when networks were rapacious to fill their diversity void with African-American women in leading roles in an effort to duplicate the success of ABC’s Scandal. But where most women enjoyed the well-heeled messiness of crisis manager Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), I felt more closely aligned with Mary Jane because of my job as a news producer.

The brainchild of Girlfriends creator Mara Brock Akil, Being Mary Jane illustrated the double-consciousness and code-switching Mary Jane was forced to employ at work and at home. It is a lifestyle, coping mechanism, and behavior pattern instantly recognizable to Black women.

Mary Jane’s work life is my work life: The fight to be seen, the fight to be heard, the fight to be taken seriously, the fight to move up, and the need to find solace in those sista-friends who understand all the fights you face on a daily basis.

She  began as the host of a news magazine program on cable and has ascended to main morning news anchor on a broadcast network. She was egged on by her producer, Kara, a divorcée who works early mornings and late nights to meet the demands of her job—demands that led to Kara’s divorce, creating a storyline centering the delicate dance that is work-life balance, and the judgments women, and mothers in particular, face when they pursue their career ambitions with their whole heart.

To her family, she's Pauletta, their relative that  has made it. She is an example of what you’re supposed to do with your life for her two brothers and her niece, Niecy, who is a single mother of two children. Pauletta goes out of her way to help take care of her extended family and is put on a pedestal by them, but the audience knows Mary Jane Paul is far from perfect. Her friends know, too.

Lisa, one of Mary Jane’s closest and most complicated friends, was a doctor who struggled with depression that was exacerbated by her relationship with Mary Jane. In an early episode, Mary Jane ran to Lisa’s aid to revive her after an overdose. Yet, Lisa still succumbs to depression and dies by suicide. In Lisa, we are reminded struggles with mental health can manifest in the most successful of our sisters. This storyline started online conversations about how we take care of our sisters who are letting us know they need help.

Mary Jane wasn't equipped to help her friend or even herself, at times. The Post-It notes of affirmations surrounding Mary Jane’s home gave us a glimpse into her inner-workings. Her struggle to reconcile her present success with her humble beginnings and her lofty goals for the future is apparent in the lack she feels at not having enough or being good enough. This intrinsic understanding made the discussion of the show and its main character a weekly topic of water cooler conversation.

But no conversation about Being Mary Jane is complete without discussing Mary Jane’s men.

There was the married man, Andre; The on-again, off-again boyfriend, David; Her maintenance man, Cuddy Buddy; The man who wanted a relationship but didn’t believe in marriage or cohabitation, Sheldon; The divorced comedian, Lee; Her executive producer, Justin; And finally her geeky college boyfriend-turned adult snack attack Beau. In all of these relationships — save for Cuddy Buddy — Mary Jane sought, fought, and prayed to make each man “The One,” until Justin finally was.

The focus on Mary Jane’s relationships and the consistent idea of having it all is a theme that follows women no matter what career field they enter. However, in an industry as public as news media, the scrutiny is more intense. The dream is always to go from a small town to Good Morning America or CNN. That kind of ambition requires late nights, early mornings, and overtime. It also requires sacrifice; time away from your family, or a delayed start to creating one. "No days off" is not just a memeable affirmation but a way of life.

 As a news producer, an author, a wife, and a mother, I write from 9:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. and I work at my station from 2:30 p.m. until midnight, in addition to my home life. My entire life is about making sacrifices for my ambition or for my family. These sacrifices are what I have chosen for myself, and it is what Mary Jane chose, which is what makes it so insulting that her story was boiled down to who she was going to meet at the altar.

 I have been asked more times than I can count, “How do you do it all?” The honest answer is, I don’t. If I’m succeeding in one area, I’m most likely failing in all the others. The same can be said of Mary Jane. In the finale, her reunion with her college boyfriend revealed that he was the jilted lover.

 “I wanted you, you wanted your career,” Beau said to Mary Jane over afternoon coffee. Instead of defending her decision, Mary Jane capitulated and apologized for the error of her ways saying, “I no longer let my wild ambition run all over my life.”

After seasons of watching Mary Jane balance her work life and her extended family, why is Mary Jane, not allowed to be both ambitious and family- oriented in the finale?

Being Mary Jane has tackled many topics" politics, police brutality, addiction, depression, suicide, mental illness, racism, ageism, sexism, hair and breast cancer. As a whole, Being Mary Jane was subtle and nuanced. The series normalized black womanhood without being antagonistic, high-handed, or relying on stereotypes that did more to other us than include.

But for as smartly written, beautifully shot, and well-acted as Being Mary Jane is, it was disheartening to see the finale culminate in a wedding. It is the finale longtime Akil fans didn’t get in Girlfriends. It is the fairytale we have all been pedagogically taught to believe in, and it’s what some suggest is the biggest and most important decision a woman will ever make.

But it doesn't even compare to how much your life changes should you decide to raise children. Mary Jane’s casual comment about “barely treading water” even when she had a baby nurse is real. I worked and wrote through my pregnancy. When my maternity leave ended, I returned to work with breasts full of milk, and my double pump to relieve the rocks protruding from my body in the name of preserving life. My ambition did not diminish; it intensified.

I am happy to see Mary Jane have it all. I am glad she got her “At Last” moment. But what about the subconscious messaging that a woman’s worth and value is not the good of her life’s work, but rather to whom she tethers herself to for a lifetime? Just as the show tackled so much more than her relationships with men, I want the legacy of Being Mary Jane, to be more than who she married. I want the character, and women in the world like her, like me, to go get their happily ever after; but for once I’d rather that part of the story be the footnote and not the headline.

by Nikesha Williams on April 24th 2019

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