Olivia. Mary Jane. Annalise. Cookie. Like it or not Black women have taken over television. After literally decades of Black women only allowed to be mammies and maids on television and film things started to look up with the career of the legendary Diahann Carroll landing the first non-stereotypical role for a Black woman on television. Fast forward about 44 years, and the debut of Kerry Washington on “Scandal” marks only the third time a Black woman has led a show on primetime network television. Now, three years into the success of “Scandal” it seems we can’t get away from these dynamic and powerful Black female characters on television. Now, predictably there have been many articles written by people who hate all the shows about how terrible they are, but for many who watch them there is still a divide between who watches what show and why.
Now while I love all four of these shows as well as the other shows where Black women may not lead the show but still play vital roles (Sorry Tracee, Regina, Angela, and Jada), for time constraints and to keep from killing my fingers, I want to focus on the two oldest of these shows, “Scandal” and “Being Mary Jane”, and why we praise one and forget the other. Both shows were created and ran by Black women (Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil, respectively) and give insights to the complex life of a professional Black woman trying to balance her job, her love life, family life and of course her personal happiness. Despite this similarity, Olivia Pope and Mary Jane Paul are two very different women. “Scandal” is often over the top and Olivia Pope is nearly all powerful while “Being Mary Jane” is much more grounded. Mary Jane’s checkbook gives her more logical superpowers than Olivia’s seemingly endless bag of tricks, but both women are certainly powerful in their respective worlds. Not to mention, whether it’s Liv’s fast talking and hard walking or MJ’s death glares and biting sarcasm both women demand a level of respect and awe from the moment they enter a room. What, then, is so different about them? Why do we root for Liv and ignore MJ?
Let's take a look at how they are presented. While “Scandal” enjoys success on network TV (ABC to be exact), “Being Mary Jane” thrives on BET. Now I already know what you’re thinking. “Oh that’s why I don’t hear about it” and "Oh that's why its 'garbage'." Once you get away from the anti-Blackness and respectability politics that make most people dislike BET and all of its programming, you’ll realize that BET is the best place for a show like “Being Mary Jane”. You see, Olivia is literally a black spot in a sea of white faces. She has almost no interaction with Black people outside of her parents, which is a point that many have brought up (It is also interesting to mention that “Girlfriends”, which the author laments the loss of, is another show by Mara Brock Akil). Mary Jane is the exact opposite. Not only do we see a much healthier pair of parents, we also see MJ’s black siblings, black (and Latina) friends, and black lovers. Mary Jane is not forced to be the sole black soul in her life, but allowed to navigate a world full of black people and still able to stand out and on her own. Mary Jane is what most of us want(ed) Olivia to be: a successful black woman in the spotlight who never forgot her roots.
Another thing that separates "Scandal" and "Being Mary Jane" is the subject matter they address. Mary Jane constantly deals with issues that make her relatable to the show’s audience, especially black women. The show has hit on suicide rates among black professionals, human trafficking, and of course the infamous “Ugly Black Woman” story. “Being Mary Jane” forces its audience to address real world and many times real time issues with every episode, whereas “Scandal” skates by on its second to second drama. Of course, we did have that “very special episode” where Olivia dealt with a case eerily similar to the real world Mike Brown murder, but what Liv dealt with in that episode MJ deals with when she rolls out of bed in the morning. Being on BET allows Mary Jane to be “realer”, more “gritty” and more connected to a community I’m pretty sure ABC barely knows exists.
There is something to be said about seeing a nearly all powerful Black and female political fixer on network television, though. It definitely appeals to people’s desire to see black people infiltrate white spaces, something “Being Mary Jane” addresses themselves with the idea of news reporter Mary Jane moving to primetime. However the fact that Mary Jane regularly puts her job and reputation at risk to address issues that are important to her community should never be ignored. Liv's visibility on network TV and MJ addressing issues in the black community are BOTH needed to continue the work that it has taken decades to start. Both women are working towards the same goals in different ways, and neither should be ignored, even if one appears on a channel that many of us have written off.
It is interesting to note that the other two shows, “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Empire” can pretty easily replace “Scandal” and “Being Mary Jane” respectively in this discussion. While Annalise is obviously the most intelligent black woman both in the predominately white institution she works and the courtroom, Cookie, like MJ, is the most capable black woman surrounded by a black family that deals with very “black” issues. All of these shows should be celebrated for bringing black women and black people in general to the forefront; even the women behind the cameras are getting plenty of love. All this proves that whether you value the unapologetic blackness of “Being Mary Jane” and “Empire” or the infiltration and major representation aspects of “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder”, these shows headed by are ones to watch. So don't worry, whether you spend your Tuesdays putting up inspirational sticky notes or your Thursdays listening for the camera clicks, the mere support of BOTH of these shows ensures that the work of those that came before them is not in vain, and we are that much closer to getting those varied representations of us on TV.