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”)