Why “Being Mary Jane” and Being Our Flawed Selves Makes Us So Uncomfortable

by Joy Bradford

In recent years, women like Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil have been at the forefront of producing TV shows that provide Black women across the country with glimpses of ourselves on the small screen. Sometimes these characters implore us to cheer for them and other times they drive us to complete disgust. However, I do not think that any other character has made us as uncomfortable as Mary Jane Paul of BET’s wildly popular Being Mary Jane.

Mary Jane is highly successful and deeply flawed in ways that feel all too familiar to many of us. Sure, most of us do not have containers of our ex-boyfriend’s sperm hidden in the back of the freezer, but many of us are definitely guilty of sending that text message we had no business sending. Of course Mary Jane’s flaws and brokenness may be magnified, as the drama keeps us watching, but truthfully her struggles are not all that different from our own.

So then why is she so polarizing?

In live-tweeting the Season 2 premiere, it was very interesting to witness the two distinct reactions to Mary Jane from Black women. Some women followed along with the narrative and could clearly see how Mary Jane ended up where she did by the end of the episode. Other women were appalled by her actions and choices, and felt that she deserved every bit of misfortune she was experiencing. It seems as though Mary Jane is forcing some of us to experience cognitive dissonance. For days and months on end, we do a fine job of packaging our messiness into neat little compartments that do not to see the light of day. But what happens when all of that mess comes spilling out for the world to see every Tuesday night at 10pm?

In romantic relationships, it could be argued that Mary Jane Paul is the poster child for bad decisions. She recently ended a relationship with her former married lover, Andre, and is currently pining over her ex, David, who seemed to be more attractive to her once he finally moved on.

Last season, we saw her go to great lengths to cultivate a relationship with Andre that was seemingly built on quicksand. She was there to encourage him when he needed it, pulled out all the stops in the bedroom, and even gave him a key to her home so that he could come and go as he pleased.

For extended stretches of time she was able to pretend that he was not living a double life, and every time she would try to set a boundary and get out, Andre would turn on the steam and she would find herself sucked right back into the fantasy. She was able to ride this wave until she admitted the affair to her mother, who told her that it absolutely had to end.

This season, finds Mary Jane completely and utterly obsessed with what appears to be the final closing door on her relationship with David. Every free moment she has is spent ruminating about why he chose his current girlfriend over her. She shows up at her friend Valerie’s job and home to inquire about this. And in true dramatic fashion, she even invites David to a hotel room so that she can ask him these questions herself.

Yes, I believe we could say that Mary Jane’s thirst is real! However, how many times have we continued in a relationship even when our needs were not being met, making excuses for our partners instead of requiring them to show up? You probably don't have a Google alert set to follow mentions of your ex, but I bet you've scrolled down their Facebook or Twitter timeline a few more times than you would care to mention. And while you probably are not renting a luxury downtown penthouse to have the "closure" conversation with your ex, I bet you have orchestrated ways to accidentally bump into them somewhere and have carefully rehearsed exactly what you would say if you did.

Mary Jane's behavior in romantic relationships is only rivaled by her painful to watch interactions with her friends and family. Mary Jane is very clearly the caretaker in most of her relationships, which then feeds into her sense of superiority. In the second season opener, we see her drunkenly demeaning the relationship Valerie has with her husband and brutally attacking her brothers for the life choices they have made. Last season, she was relentless in berating her niece for having a second child out of wedlock with a different man than her first child’s father. She is generous with her money but frequently turns her generosity into an opportunity to control others.

It is likely that many other highly successful Black women find themselves in the caretaker role and can identify with feelings of being overburdened or taken advantage of. While we might not call out a friend’s relationship choices during a dinner party, we will definitely call another friend and chat about what we are seeing. Likewise, many of us would probably not publicly berate our loved ones in the ways that Mary Jane does with her family, but I am willing to bet there is more than a little bit of passive aggressive behavior going on with family members who we support, though we may not believe they are living up to their potential.

Mary Jane Paul is overbearing, self-righteous, and controlling. She is also love, generous, and resilient. She is a deeply flawed character. All of these contradictions and imperfections make her human—as we all are. I wonder if we fear that Mary Jane is who we could become if we did not work so hard to construct compartments to compartmentalize our own mess and flaws. I wonder if it’s easier for us to view her as obsessed and out of control, rather than viewing her with compassion. It is clear that hurt, sadness, and disappointment drives a large number of her choices and actions.

I wonder that if we cannot recognize these things in her, does this mean we are unwilling to see the issues within ourselves? Are we as harsh with those parts of ourselves that are not so pleasant and palpable? In our judgments of Mary John Paul, are we allowing for ourselves to be less than perfect? Although she is a fictional character, how we relate to her humanity says a lot about how we relate to our own. How can we learn to be gentler and more patient with ourselves, as we grow into whoever it is we are becoming?

Photo: BET

Dr. Joy Harden Bradford is a licensed psychologist in the state of Georgia and specializes in relationship issues and breakup recovery. She is also the creator of the mental health blog Therapy for Black Girls.

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