In a golden age of black television, Being Mary Jane was in a league of its own
It’s been a great run, Mary Jane.
Earlier this week BET announced that the signature drama series Being Mary Jane would not be renewed for a fifth season. Instead, the show will end next year with a two-hour movie finale (ironically, the same way it began). While the exact reason behind the network’s decision not to renew another season remains unclear, the announcement came as a shock to many fans who, just three weeks ago, tuned in for the season four finale.
Since its premiere in 2013, Being Mary Jane has been a hit among the network’s audience. In its prime, the show was the number one series on BET (although season four ratings were in decline). The show, which follows TV anchor Mary Jane Paul (played by Gabrielle Union) as she navigates her life and career as a successful but single black woman, has been widely hailed by black audiences.
Being Mary Jane’s success was widely attributable to the raw honesty of its main character. In many ways, Mary Jane was exactly who so many black women needed to see on television. While strong female leads like Shonda Rhimes’ Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, as well as Kenya Barris’ Rainbow Johnson, were—and remain—something to celebrate, there was something different about Mary Jane. Professionally and financially successful yet single and childless, her character gave a face to the significant number of black American women impacted by the “economics of marriage.”
Marriage rates among black women in the U.S. are among the lowest, although the exact number remains the subject of debate. (A well-known Yale University study, which cited that 42 per cent of black women were unmarried, was quickly disputed after researchers questioned the accuracy of the data, noting that the percentage included all black women aged 18 and older.) But according to data from Pew Research Center, in 2007 only 33 per cent of U.S.-born black women aged 30 to 44 were married, compared to 67 per cent of white women of the same demographic.
Numbers aside, several studies confirm that a higher education and an established career often impact a woman’s marital prospects. It’s this very entanglement that Being Mary Jane has flawlessly navigated the last four seasons.
For all of her success, Mary Jane was severely flawed. From her decision in season one to remain with a married man (in fairness, she wasn’t aware of his marriage until after the relationship began), to her tumultuous relationship with childhood friend Lisa Hudson (Latarsha Rose), to her many verbal wranglings both on and off the air (the infamous Primetime episode), Mary Jane was complexity at its finest. But for viewers who’ve watched from the show’s beginning until now, Mary Jane’s character evolution was impossible to miss. In Gabrielle Union’s own words, “We watched her struggle with relationships with both men and women, and we watched her finally start to get her sh** together.”
Being Mary Jane‘s cancellation is a blow to an ongoing golden age of black television. In most recent years, we’ve watched as some of the most prominent networks have made room for black casts in their primetime lineups. Audiences alike, who have embraced the strong, female black leads that many of the shows portray, have broadly welcomed this newfound diversity. While Mary Jane will be greatly missed, we can only hope that her character won’t be forgotten in ongoing conversations of black womanhood and its complexities.
But that’s just According to Adrienne.