Pop Culture, Theory & Essay

Being Mary Jane’s Biggest Problem

BET NETWORKS GABRIELLE UNION

So, I know what you might be thinking. You saw the title to this, and you likely assumed this’ll be another piece criticizing Mary Jane’s sexual behavior and/or calling Black women bed wenches for following the show. This is not that.

While some people tend to gravitate more towards shows that reflect their lives, my favorites have either been about antiheroes (The Sopranos, Mad Men, etc) or people whose lives are much, much different than mine (The Wire, Hannibal, etc). So I know it is possible to enjoy a show without wanting to emulate the people the show is about. Oh, and I actually like Black women. So much that I’m marrying one.

So yeah. This is not that. It’s something else.

For obvious reasons, Being Mary Jane is often compared to Scandal. Both shows are centered around very successful, very powerful, and very beautiful Black women who, despite their billion dollar wardrobes and trillion dollar homes, make five dollar dating decisions. Both lead characters are surrounded by impossibly attractive and impossibly smart people, and both characters seem to inhabit a sterile, Bougie Black dystopia masked as a utopia.

The shows are so structurally similar that Gabrielle Union apparently was considered for the role of Olivia Pope. She (obviously) didn’t get it. Which was unfortunate for her. But fortunate for fans of Scandal. Because if she did, the show may not have lasted a year.

Despite the writing, the outrageous plot twists, and the dozens of eccentric characters, Kerry Washington is Scandal‘s fulcrum. Olivia Pope does some legitimately terrible things on the show, but there’s something about Washington’s portrayal of her that still makes us root for her. Perhaps we don’t want her to succeed, but we do want her to be happy. And much of this is due to an inherent…something Washington the actress has always exuded, a something that compels you to pull for her. I say something because I really don’t know how to describe it. But whatever it is (and no, it’s not the lip quiver), Kerry Washington has it.

Gabrielle Union, unfortunately, does not.

I’ve watched three episodes of Being Mary Jane. And before Being Mary Jane, I’ve seen at least a half-dozen movies she’s starred in. I’m not claiming to be a Gabrielle Union expert, mind you — I’ll save that title for those who’ve seen H-E Double Hockey Sticks — but I’ve seen enough. Well, enough to know that, for whatever reason, she just does not connect. You watch her and you don’t really feel or think anything other than “That’s Gabrielle Union over there.” You don’t root for or against her. You just see her, acknowledge she’s very pretty, and try to pay attention to the words coming out of her mouth.

I don’t think she’s a bad actress at all. I don’t even think Being Mary Jane is a bad show. But with a show that forces the audience to wrestle with the lead’s moral ambiguity, you need someone more naturally compelling. Someone who makes you want to know what makes them tick. Someone who, when they share the screen with a costar (Robinne Lee, in this instance) doesn’t always make you wonder how much different — and how much better — the show would be if the actresses switched roles. It may not be as popular. But it would be a little sexier, a little less literal, a little more sly, and a little better. Now, though, it’s a $500 North Face with no lining. Kerry Washington turns Scandal into orange juice. Gabrielle Union makes Being Mary Jane a pulp-less orange.

And, before you go there, this feeling has nothing to do with Union’s well-publicized personal life. I’ll admit, there is an irony in watching Mary Jane Paul grapple with an, um, “nontraditional” relationship while we watch Union do the same thing, But this lack of connectivity is something I’ve always felt when watching her act. I also know I’m not alone. When I spoke to Maya about it, she called it a “dimensionlessness.”

Of course, it’s possible she’s aware of all of this, and just doesn’t care. And maybe Mara Brock Akil was also aware, and chose her specifically because the lack of connectivity and/or personality makes it easier for viewers to place themselves in her position.

And, maybe I’m just thinking too much about this, and should probably just stop watching the show.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a contributing editor for EBONY.com. He resides in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes.

  • http://www.BlackLatinaFabulous.com/ Maris

    I’m going to approach this as delicately as I can on a public forum.
    Gabrielle is a survivor of a pretty horrific assault, and she herself has said to move past it she had to close certain parts of herself off, and become a different person. This is indicatively reflected in her acting range, and she is aware of it. She mentioned during the junket for that TP movie or whatever that she has never done “vulnerability” well, so she tries to shy away from those characters. There are places actors can go much to their torment (see, Angelina Jolie who is surprised herself that she is still alive) that some actors simply refuse to venture because it is too much of a sacrifice.
    That being said while I never fault a person for doing what they have to do to survive and keep living…I just don’t like her. Never have, probably never will. It is what it is.

    • cynicaloptmst81

      Agreed! What’s crazier is that I actually love the idea/premise for the show better than Scandal! Just wish we could swap her out… *shrugs*

      • The Champ

        that would be awesome if shows could trade people like sports teams do

        • http://stanoffewwords.wordpress.com/ Tristan

          That would he great, especially saving good actors from bad shows

        • Sigma_Since 93

          Or soap operas

      • http://www.BlackLatinaFabulous.com/ Maris

        Honestly I want to replace them all with Gina Torres…BUT I’m admittedly biased.

        • ratchet d-Ibaka

          Gina is BAAAAAAAAAAAD! I soooo second that. nFell in love with her due to SUITS (tears!)

          • http://www.BlackLatinaFabulous.com/ Maris

            Every time I look at her all I can think is “Lawrence Fishburne won SO hard, man”.

        • http://trulytafakari.com/ dtafakari

          I’ve been afraid of Gina Torres since the “Angel” series. OMG, she was terrifying. lol.

        • afronica

          Can we talk Firefly? That’s a baddd woman.

        • miss t-lee

          Love Gina Torres.

    • The Champ

      this is my first hearing about that. was this during her career or before it?

      • Ms Butterfly

        Before it; she was a teenager and was assaulted at gun point when she was working at a foot locker.

        • Msdebbs

          I thought it was at payless?

          • Ms Butterfly

            Oh it might have been…I just vaguely remember it was a shoe store.

          • Sigma_Since 93

            It was a payless

      • http://www.BlackLatinaFabulous.com/ Maris

        Before, but her method for moving past is basically blocking it out completely. She doesn’t speak on it often, does no advocacy whatsoever, and is comfortable with being perceived as a hard-nosed b*ch. Like I said, I don’t judge her….but I don’t like her, either. And she is totally ok with being polarizing.

        • http://www.twitter.com/IluminatiNYC Todd

          I am complete accordance with that. Just because someone does something you wouldn’t do doesn’t mean you can’t have compassion for them.

      • http://adventurousdaydreamer.wordpress.com/ TerreaLatise
    • Ms Butterfly

      I agree with this.Those walls are a survival mechanism and I can’t blame her for that. She is one of those people you WANT to root for, but she’s just such a catty mean girl, and one who makes poor choices at that, it’s hard to fully be on her team. She comes across as shady and cutthroat.

      • http://adventurousdaydreamer.wordpress.com/ TerreaLatise

        She’s been working on this character flaw. She gave a beautiful speech on her “mean girl” persona and I think she deserves a chance to grow and be forgiven of her past. Here’s the link:

        http://www.oprah.com/own-oprahs-next-chapter/The-Gabrielle-Union-Speech-That-Inspired-Oprah

        Honestly, I liked her more after watching it. I think in that moment was very vulnerable so I know is can be. She owned her truth. For some reason though, I just don’t like the BMJ.

        • Andrea

          Wow that was a great speech!

          • http://adventurousdaydreamer.wordpress.com/ TerreaLatise

            Isn’t it! She bared her soul.

        • Mr. SD

          That was definitely worth watching. I have a whole new respect for her.

        • http://www.BlackLatinaFabulous.com/ Maris

          I wanted to….but what has she done since to rectify her image? I’m not being facetious here.

          • 321mena123

            Rectify her image? I’m lost.

            • http://www.BlackLatinaFabulous.com/ Maris

              Usually a speech like that is followed by a mea culpa pr blitz. You know, challenging indie role, a couple of photographed lunches with other black actresses, a few tweets congratulating her peers on accomplishments, an instagram featuring her baby Blue..wait.

              • http://www.twitter.com/IluminatiNYC Todd

                I see the shade is epic in this one…

              • 321mena123

                Usually someone rectifies their image after they have done something wrong so my question is what did she do that she needed to rectify her image?

          • http://adventurousdaydreamer.wordpress.com/ TerreaLatise

            Idk, I guess I would have to do more research but I think she’s made a good start in the right direction.

        • Angel Baby

          Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • http://www.twitter.com/IluminatiNYC Todd

      I’ve heard the story you mentioned alluded to from a variety of sources, but never read the details. I’m operating on the assumption that 5 minutes on Google will tell me all that I need to know. Still, I have to wonder about someone choosing a career that both has a real potential to put you face to face with your deepest trauma while not doing the hard work yourself. She has every right to make a living, of course, but I am wondering how putting herself in such a position is helpful for her personally and professionally. *shrugs* To each their own, I suppose.

      • afronica

        Exactly. If Maris’s theory is correct (and I think it just may be), then how would you choose to be an actress? Acting is all about tapping into emotions and then displaying them for the world to see. How can you choose acting but be unwilling to be vulnerable?

        I understand her need for self care. But maybe she should have gone the spokesmodel, talkshow, entertainment journalism route instead. Then that arching thing she does with her eyebrow could have been put to better use. Of course, this is just commentary from the peanut gallery. She’s a beautiful woman carrying the lead on a tv show lots of people are talking about. More power to her.

    • JayIzUrGod

      Ok that makes sense. But….she’s still an actress. Acting of any kind needs to show range. Her personal trauma could fuel her transition to showing other sides of her, if she chose to let it happen. But if she keeps it tightly hidden away, she’ll never grow the way she’s meant to. Take acting out of the picture for the second…how content would anyone be to reserve themselves for the rest of their lives just due to a horrific incident in their life? At some point, you HAVE TO MOVE ON. Otherwise you shortchange yourself from appreciating life. I’m glad she’s done so well for herself despite her limitations but she’s been acting for so long that I’m tired of her being “that Black actress” when I feel like she has the potential to have outdone herself so long ago.

      • Ricky doing things

        I know you earnestly do not mean to come off glib, but you’re coming off as glib right now. It’s not an easy task at all.

        • JayIzUrGod

          I sincerely get someone is going to take what I wrote the wrong way. But I’m not even going to try to defend it, that’s exactly what I was thinking for good, bad, or worse.

        • aico

          For sure, it’s not. It could take a lifetime. But it still needs to be done for her personhood.

    • aico

      Thanks for this. I didn’t know that she shied away from vulnerable characters as a result of her past. She either needs to work through her trauma (with professional help, of course), or stop acting. That’s not an excuse for mediocrity.
      On the other hand, if she has no aspirations to advance in her career, then I guess she can continue to do what she’s doing. I personally don’t see the point of that, but that’s me.

  • http://www.thefilthytruth.com Ashleigh

    This was the most intelligent unintentional read ever. I love it.

    • The Champ

      Just calling it like I see it and sh*t

  • http://www.about.me/chrisgholston Ickey Shufflin’

    “A $500 North Face with no lining”…that was clever. Can I use that?

    • The Champ

      just give me the royalities

  • Val

    Have you seen Gabby in a film called Neo Ned, Champ? She’s surprisingly good.

    As for the Kerry/ Gabby comparison; really? Kerry Washington can’t act either. She just has a face that draws you in. Otherwise she’s always the same no matter the character she’s playing.

    • The Champ

      Does Gabby have the same agent as Alicia Keys or something?

      • Val

        Huh?

        • The Champ

          I know you’re an alicia keys fan. and, since you’re defending gabby, decided to joke about it.

          (damn, explaining jokes really does take all the humor out of them. i’m never doing that again)

          • Val

            Oh. But, I wasn’t defending Gabby. She really can’t act. Everyone has a good day though and her good day was Neo Ned.

            • LehcarB

              Interestingly enough I only remember Neo Ned for Jeremy Renner. The man can play “douchey white trash” like no other.

              • http://uphereoncloud9.com/ Wu Young

                and that’s why he was perfect for Hawkeye in the Marvel movies.

    • Joanna

      I would disagree about Kerry. I’d say she was pretty different playing in Save the Last Dance.

      • Val

        How was she different in that?

        • Joanna

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3_bLCIsLf4

          That seems WORLDS away from her work on Scandal or Django. Regardless of the roles she chooses for herself, I’d say she’s quite talented and multi-dimensional.

      • helga_g

        in Our Song too.I think Kerry is just on the other end of the spectrum, she tends to go for very vulnerable characters and they all have some similarities. I don’t agree but I think I get what Val is saying.

        • Val

          I kind of get what you’re saying too. Basically they’re both one trick ponies. Each just has a different trick.

      • ratchet d-Ibaka

        Kerry stays being mono dimensional. She is like a tomato (bleh), no layers at all. Just cut and eat. At least an onion is layered and makes you cry.

    • Msdebbs

      I think Kerry can act….well better than Gabby

      • Val

        Better than Gabby isn’t saying much. Lol

        • kidvideo

          *rimshot*

    • http://vagabondaesthetics.tumblr.com/ Ricky

      Kerry Washington has big expressive and pouty lips that can quiver though.

      • Val

        Without those lips Kerry wouldn’t have a career.

    • http://stanoffewwords.wordpress.com/ Tristan

      Mr & Mrs smith, think I love my wife, scandal….not vouching for her actual acting but those were rather different characters

      • http://vagabondaesthetics.tumblr.com/ Ricky

        I Think I Love My Wife = Kerry Washington’s physical prime

        Even though I’d never cheat on Gina for Kerry.

        • JayIzUrGod

          She made my knees weak in that movie.
          This thing that exists now that calls itself Kerry Washington is a poor imitation with bobble head capabilities. I am not impressed.

        • http://uphereoncloud9.com/ Wu Young

          I Think I Love My Wife = Kerry Washington’s physical prime <—-These are facts.

        • Hollywood Cole

          I have to disagree, Last King of Scotland. No contest.

          • John Shannon

            I forgot about that movie………… Damn, Forrest Whitaker was a Lucky Man (So was Ray Allen and Brad Pitt with Rosario Dawson in He Got Game and Alexander, respectively)

        • veryaveragebrotha

          man….that performance is a contender for all time assists to my right hand.

        • John Shannon

          Sorry, I would…………….. Unless both of them would be down for Ménage Time

    • http://PoliteConversation.com/ PavarottiShakur

      I was waiting for somebody to say this. Neo Ned is awesome. She shows range.

    • http://PoliteConversation.com/ PavarottiShakur

      Gabby is awesome in Neo Ned. I’ve also seen Kerry Washington in a number of mid tier productions and she is a great actress. It’s not just looks.

    • TheOtherJerome

      I’m sorry, Kerry’s an excellent actress. The difference between the characters in “I Think I Love My Wife” and “The Last King of Scotland” shows tons of range to me.

      • Val

        Ultimately this is all very subjective. So, while you may think she’s an excellent actress I think she’s serviceable. It’s never been her acting that gets me to tune in to her films, it’s her looks.

    • aico

      Kerry can certainly act. Did you see She Hate Me?

      • Val

        Yep, I saw it. It was actually one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Lol No one could save that film. But, she was beautiful in it.

  • http://adventurousdaydreamer.wordpress.com/ TerreaLatise

    That’s what I did, I stopped watching. Idk either but I liked her better in the movie version verses the TV drama. #ijs

    • The Champ

      we all are mary jane

      • http://adventurousdaydreamer.wordpress.com/ TerreaLatise

        c’est la vie.

  • Tx10inch

    Sup wit tha early post Champ? Made me check the time like “Damn, it’s midnight?!?” Oh, cosign the entire post…Gabby “Break a” Union is, well….Gabby Union in everything she plays. She’s not a horrible actress, just forgettable.

    • The Champ

      i wanted to try “something new.” and since dating a white woman would be too drastic now, I decided on this instead

      • Tx10inch

        Yeah…too late for tha white woman. Closest thing you can do now is play in the Pittsburgh snow.

      • http://www.twitter.com/IluminatiNYC Todd

        Part of me wants you to date a White woman…just for the Twitter meltdown and concerned thinkpieces on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. People are still wilding out over the April Fools’ post. You can only imagine what would happen if you really did start hopping down the bunny trail. :)

  • Tx10inch

    Know what bothers me most?!? Who are deez misguided dumb azz females at the end of the show screamin “I am Mary Jane” Maybe I’m outta touch, but when did confused, successful sidepiece become a goal in life?

    • Msdebbs

      I dont know about screaming I’m Mary Jane maybe its “I’ve done stupid things and been in relationships with bad men like Mary Jane”

      • The Champ

        “I’ve done stupid things and been in relationships with bad men like Mary Jane”

        and maybe they just like her hair

    • afronica

      It may be squicky, but it’s a brilliant social media/audience bonding idea. You have to give BET that. Those women have bought in.

    • Val

      This reminds me of Scandal fans who proclaim themselves “gladiators”.

    • Shelly

      OMFG, THANK YOU!!! I thought that I was the only one disgusted by this.
      Really, is this what young women are aspiring to be? It says so much and
      significantly contributes to the many reasons black women are not
      really respected.

    • John Shannon

      Wait, can you be a Strong, Independent Nubian Queen AND “be Mary Jane” at the same time???
      Because Brothas can’t be Strong, Noble and Ambitious African Kings AND be Stevie J/Peter Guns on the same coin……………

  • Shy Fran

    I actually relate more to the way Gabrielle Union shows her vulnerability on the show.

    I’m a female but people typically think that I come of as a “stereotypical” male that is emotionless. GU tears or sadness is never an overload of emotion with heaving or wailing. It is more subtle…like she doesn’t want to cry but she knows she has to let it out. It’s like a silent pain that manifests in her mind rather than outwardly in tears or quivered lips. That’s me for the most part so I totally relate to the way she shows emotion on the show. .

    • The Champ

      well, i’m glad she has a fan

  • Ms Butterfly

    I have trouble connecting with Olivia Pope when it comes to her and Fitz’s relationship. Maybe I just have never experienced the kind of love that makes me want to ruin my life and career over, but it seems like one of them should just decide to do better and move on.

    • The Champ

      you’ve obviously never been with a white man before, then. once you go white, you won’t be right!

      • John Shannon

        I like that, VERY Catchy. While I’m not on Twitter that should be a hash tag

  • Msdebbs

    “maybe Mara Brock Akil was also aware, and chose her specifically because the lack of connectivity and/or personality makes it easier for viewers to place themselves in her position.”

    Bingo! She’s very one dimensional no matter what character she plays. I like the show tho..Omari Hardwick is so FOINE!

    • Muze

      He makes the show worth watching. everything is muted in my head until he or Robinne Lee speak.

    • The Champ

      a friend of mine actually said he’s too unrealistically buff and tatted up. like they took an nfl player, put a suit on him, and want us to believe he’s an accountant.

      • Msdebbs

        He actually had a short career in the NFL with San Diego chargers….

      • Ricky hits the gym 0 to 0 days

        Accountants can’t hit the gym 3-5 days a week?

      • afronica

        Yeah, I want to believe that fantasy, but I’ve never seen an accountant like him.

    • 321mena123

      I saw his picture and though “meh.”