I don’t often watch television, but when I do, Being Mary Jane (BMJ) is always on my must watch list. I am finally catching season three of BMJ (thanks, Netflix!) and could not help but share my utter amazement at the show’s ability to capture so many facets of POC womanhood. BMJ is not only funny and entertaining, but also continuously captures some of the most complex and challenging aspects of POC woman identity.
What I have appreciated the most with season three of BMJ is the show’s focus and attention to mental health. Because of that, I want to talk about three very important themes that came to mind as I enjoyed BMJ (without any :::SPOILER ALERTS::: for those of you who are not caught up yet!).
Theme #1: "Strong Black Woman"
The image of the Strong Black Woman is one that has continued to evolve throughout generations of Black womanhood. It is one that has developed from experiences of oppression and obstacles, particularly of the simultaneous subjection to experiences of both sexism and racism. From that, Black woman have come to take pride in rising above obstacles, overcoming challenges, and always making lemonade out of the lemons that were served.
There is a lot of pride that comes with the ability to remain strong during Black womanhood. Additionally, this collective source of strength and pride has shown to push Black woman to many heights, including to be known as America’s most educated group. With that, the image of the Strong Black Woman also has the potential to bring isolation, confusion, loneliness, and depression. One of the most threatening dangers of being the Strong Black Woman is the misconception that Black woman are always strong, and should be capable of handling any and all struggles and obstacles. This can lead to a belief that the need for help or support is akin to weakness or personal failure. The need for assistance and support becomes overlooked and it is assumed that everything is fine, when this may not be the reality.
The Myth of the Strong Black Woman directly opposes #blackgirlmagic. While the Strong Black Woman’s strength lies in the ability to show no vulnerability in the face of challenge and obstacles, the strength and power of #blackgirlmagic lies in the ability to accept vulnerability. The need for assistance and support becomes an inevitable aspect of Black girlhood and womanhood. With #blackgirlmagic, it is okay to need help, to experience moments of vulnerability and to express your needs and desires to others. It is expected because Black girls and women are human. We are multifaceted, and all of our complex characteristics are what makes us absolutely amazing.
Theme #2: "You can't have it all."
Throughout the show, we see several of the woman struggle to balance aspects career, relationships, family, and motherhood. At one point in season three, Kara breaks down as she cries “you can’t have it all.” This stood out to me, as it was very reminiscent of quotes I had heard previously from both Shonda Rhimes and Michelle Obama.
“Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means that I am failing in another area of my life; If I am killing it on a ‘Scandal’ script for work, I’m probably missing bath and storytime at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I am probably blowing off a script I was supposed to rewrite. Powerful famous women don’t say out loud that they have help at home, that they have nannies, housekeepers, chefs, assistants, stylists — whatever it is they have to keep their worlds spinning, because they are ashamed; Or maybe a more precise way to say it is that these women have been shamed.” -Shonda Rhimes; Year of Yes.
“I am always irritated by the “you can have it all” statement. And I grew irritated with that phrase and that expectation the older I got, as you’re trying to have it all. And you’re beating yourself up, and feeling less than because you aren’t having it all. Because it’s a ridiculous aspiration; So what I’ve told many young people is that you can have it all, but oftentimes it’s hard to get it all at the same time.” –Michelle Obama; United State of Women Summit, June 2016
With the rise of academic and career advancement for many women, in addition to the pressures of romantic partnership and motherhood, there is a lot to manage. I have (both personally and professional) spent time with many women who strive to achieve optimal success in every aspect of their life. These same women have experienced great despair when they have not been able to “successfully” attain all that they desire.
This expectations feels very similar to the previously discussed assumption that woman should be able to balance every aspect of their life, with little to no difficulty, when the reality is that this is an incredible feat.
So, how can women learn to balance aspects of our lives without pressure to aim for perfection in the process? How can we offer support to women in our lives who are struggling to balance aspects of their own lives?
For this answer, I will default to my very wise FLOTUS:
“So it’s hard to have it all. But that’s where you go back to knowing who you are, and knowing that you’re really living through phases. And if you’re compromising through one phase of your journey, you’re not giving it all up, you’re compromising for that phase. There’s another phase that’s coming up where you might be able to have more of what you thought you wanted. You get to know yourself a little bit more.
So, no, I don’t want young women out there to have the expectation that if they’re not having it all that somehow they’re failing. Life is hard. But life is long if you maintain your health, which is one of the reasons why we talk about health, talk about taking care of yourself. Because you want to get to the next phases in life where you can do more of what you want to do at any given time.” – Michelle Obama.
Theme #3: Self-Care
Self-care is something I have had to learn and continue to practice on a daily basis. For many reasons, the act of self-care does not often come naturally for POC girls and women. In fact, the act of self-care often elicits feelings of guilt and shame, and is frequently interpreted as being “selfish.” POC women are socialized to care for the needs and desires of others first, which means that we commonly neglect our self-care or we develop inadequate means of self-care.
Throughout the series, we see inadequate means of coping with the daily stress of life, i.e. excessive drinking, misuse of prescription and illicit drugs, overworking and burn-out, emotional withdrawn, and social isolation. While it is common and tempting to place your own needs aside, this is dangerous and could be deadly. Furthermore, inadequate self-care is often linked to more severe mental and physical health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, hypertension, heart disease, etc.
As our FLOTUS, Michelle Obama, has said, we must maintain our health in order to live a long and happy life. Furthermore, it is impossible for us to care for the needs of others when we ourselves are depleted. The prioritization of self-care must be deliberate. The practice of self-care is invaluable to your overall health and well-being. With that being said, please take a moment to think about how well you are taking care of yourself, and consider implementing some of the following into your daily self-care routine:
Don't forget to let me know what you think of Being Mary Jane!
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.