On my never-ending search for new television shows, I recently stumbled upon an unexpected favorite: a drama series called Being Mary Jane. Starring Gabrielle Union, the show focuses on the life of an African American news anchor named Mary Jane, her Latina partner in crime Kara, and Mary Jane’s friends and family. The series follows Mary Jane’s pursuit of love and professional success while observing several sub plots of secondary characters throughout. I’ve made my way through about a season of the show per week, and am coming toward the end of available episodes to binge watch. As I finish up season four of Being Mary Jane, I am beginning to realize why I enjoy watching so much. The show mirrors perspectives that I have observed in real life, but unfortunately seldom encounter in the media.
Being Mary Jane provides its audience with a realistic storyline that explores the psychology of the professional black woman, touching on topics that widely affect black women outside of the tv screen. While many shows featuring black women cast them as a monolith, Being Mary Jane showcases their complexity, exploring topics of sisterhood, mental health, body image, racism, and more. It forces the viewer to acknowledge this complexity and encourages its black female viewers to chime in, contributing to their own solidarity and empowerment. On a macro level, the series combats a myriad of stereotypes that are cast upon black women in America, allowing the world to instead see the multifaceted nature of our women.
Mara Brock Akil, the show’s creator, has crafted media like this in the past with the intention of shifting the cultural paradigm for black women in America. In previous work like Moesha and Girlfriends, Akil has displayed a commitment to uplifting women of color through the dynamic narratives she creates for her characters. Her longtime efforts have clearly paid off, with black women from all over the country flooding social media to discuss Being Mary Jane’s fourth season. During the second premiere of the season, Being Mary Jane was the top trending topic in the country on Twitter, with black women coming together to live-tweet their responses to the show. Similar to the larger series, their tweets conveyed a myriad of backgrounds and perspectives, bolstering the validity of one of the show’s main premises: that black womanhood is diverse and nuanced. This Twitter moment also showcased Being Mary Jane’s ability to create empowering pseudo-communities between individuals with shared traits, interests, and experiences.
The cultural influence and complexity of black womanhood has proven itself time and time again, as more black-woman-oriented media has emerged and captivated us. Just this past year a huge milestone was reached when Issa Rae snagged a deal with HBO and premiered Insecure: a show produced by and starring herself, a 31-year-old Senegalese-American woman. The show derived originally from Rae’s award-winning web series, Awkward Black Girl. Issa Rae’s success and Insecure’s popularity (it has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes), portrayed a distinct, pivotal moment for black women in media. While for many years, black women circumvented barriers and compromised ideals to make their way onto big screens, Rae found her success by challenging institutional norms. Using YouTube, she built a loyal following from the ground-up that championed the portrayal of black womanhood in a non-dramatic, human way (a privilege of depiction that white Americans had already enjoyed).
Insecure now has a cult-like following, with women coming together in digital and physical spaces to discuss the wide range of themes the show covers. Between trending topics on social media, impassioned think pieces, and season premiere watch parties, an entirely new community geared toward facilitating productive conversations on womanhood and intersectionality has formed within the black community. These conversations ultimately transcend the black community and perpetuate new, positive understandings of black womanhood on a larger scale. With successes like the aforementioned shows, and additional feats in the same ballpark (hit movie Girls Trip, Sza’s debut album Ctrl, etc.), it would be surprising if additional media unfolding the true narratives of black women isn’t produced in the near future.
I have learned a lot from these shows and they have been a pleasure to watch, but I know that they were not made particularly for me. In 2017’s media landscape, it is difficult to find any show that seems to be clearly intended for thoughtful African American men. During a time when the diversity of black women is being displayed at increasing rates in the media, black men maintain the detrimental character roles that have contributed to our longtime demise. We continue to depict criminals, derelicts, philanders, and absent fathers, while our non-black counterparts experience the privilege of malleability in mass media. Even the few shows that attempt to showcase the diversity of black men in media fail us, embracing many of our problematic stereotypes instead of dispelling them, and in turn taking several decisive steps backward in our fight for social ascension.
Power, a popular thriller series executive produced by rapper 50 Cent, is a prime example of this failure. The show is the second-most popular series on premium cable, thanks largely to the black community. It depicts the life of a drug dealer turned legitimate business owner, who is trying to balance his two lives while supporting his family. The star character, James St. Patrick, continually works toward freedom from his criminal ties, vowing to not let his past define him. While the guise of a man fighting to be a good father, husband, and businessman entices the viewer (and many characters in the show) to root for him, the truth is that St. Patrick’s vices are at the core of his identity as the lead character. St. Patrick’s inability to “get it right,” and constant recidivism into the criminal life reflects an unwavering narrative weaved around black men in the media. His portrayal in the show renders his positive qualities mere afterthoughts, overshadowed by his inevitable inclinations toward violence, deceit, and rage.
A few other shows have emerged depicting black men in unique, relatable ways, but the number is meager and the showings are less prevalent. The Get Down, a show about a band of kids from the Bronx getting together to pursue their hip hop dreams, was recently canceled by Netflix when Baz Luhrmann, a disengaged white man, stepped down as showrunner. Atlanta, a show starring and executive produced by Donald Glover, portrays a young man aspiring to manage music artists in the city of Atlanta (beginning with his troubled rapper cousin). The series has shown strong signs of displaying black men in a nuanced manner, but still has lots of work ahead. While this is potentially a strong upside for black men, a second season of the show will not premiere for quite some time. With The Get Down being canceled and Atlanta on a moratorium, the “best” black male representation we have in the media is actually quite troublesome.
The lack of unique black male narratives in the media is actively stunting our ability to craft powerful individualities as black men. A New York Times piece recently described the social and political power that white, upper-class Americans have built via the establishment of cultural capital and norms. Conversely, a similar black male disempowerment has been achieved via pigeonholing our perceived culture in mass media. Without cultural control and malleability of identity, black men have a lower likelihood of ascending to higher social strata on a macro scale in America. The media maintains that we do not have control of our own culture, and that is a grotesque injustice -- one that will only be solved at the hands of black men.
Insecure and Being Mary Jane are not widely successful because they introduce a novel perspective -- they are successful because they bring an unabashed voice to longstanding, perpetually oppressed black feminist perspectives. Moreover, their creators have used these shows to exponentially grow the platform from which this historically downtrodden voice speaks. Black women have begun to empathize with the efforts of black female creators and are rallying behind them. They have essentially taken control of their narratives in mass media.
In order for black men to experience similar prosperity, we must write, produce, and star in media that depict our own dynamic narratives. Our challenge entails exploring our nuanced identities, developing shared ideals, and finding true camaraderie in the black male experience. Upon coming together on these topics, we must infiltrate mass media as our woman counterparts have done, and disseminate our stories on the big screen. Only then will we break the chains that mass media has locked tightly around us, labeling us a monolith and administering our subordinate place in society.
It is without question that black women have made strides in conveying the complex stories of black men in the media. There is also no doubt that they will stand with us in our efforts. The truth at the very core of this predicament, though, is that only black men can succeed at adequately and seamlessly telling our story to the world. It is time that we do exactly that.