Rooting for Olivia and Mary Jane Doesn’t Mean You Co-Sign Adultery

Ask Demetria: The black women of Scandal and Being Mary Jane are defined not by their affairs but by their other empowering characteristics.

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AskDemetria-Scandal-Mary-Jane
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal; Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul in Being Mary Jane

ABC; BET

“Do you think shows like Scandal and Being Mary Jane are condoning adultery or man-sharing to black women? It’s strange that the only two noticeable scripted shows about black women show them as ‘the other woman.’ I see so many women rooting for them. Is adultery ‘in style’ now?” —Anonymous

There have always been, and always will be, adulterous relationships—on TV and in real life. Adultery has also always been a staple of any dramatic series because of the messiness that is a natural byproduct of toying with emotions and betraying bonds. There is no recent study that points to a rise in adultery in the real world, especially not as attributed to these two TV shows. 

That said, I’ve never understood the long-standing “Scandal condones adultery” argument, and I don’t understand the more recent assertion that Being Mary Jane does, too. I watch (and live-tweet) both shows, and I’ve never seen more miserable women. If anything, Being Mary Jane and Scandal show the downside of being the other woman.  

Scandal’s Olivia Pope is emotionally tortured by her involvement with a powerful and married man. She gets stolen moments with him and some backroom romps. She’s constantly having to keep up appearances by downplaying or hiding her relationship, and as much as her lover insists that she’s his No. 1, Olivia “plays her position” as second fiddle whenever his wife is around.

Olivia is a powerful presence in every other occasion, but she is ashamed and embarrassed in the presence of her lover’s wife. She also operates almost entirely on her lover’s schedule and whims. Sometimes he’s into her; sometimes he’s discarding her. At the start of the third season, the affair was made public, and she nearly lost her business when all of her clients bailed and most of her money was spent. Nothing about her adultery seems glamorous.

In the case of Mary Jane, the ramifications of adultery look even worse. She’s confronted by her lover’s wife at her job and asked humiliating questions about her sexual practices with the wife’s husband. While she experiences emotional highs when she’s with him, when she’s without him—which is most of the time—she’s self-loathing.

In the most recent episode of the show, her brother, who knows of her affair, goads their long-married mother into discussing adultery. Mary Jane squirms as her mother unknowingly describes her daughter as vile and incapable of “cultivating a man.” As the episode closes, Mary Jane is home alone and manically texting her lover, who doesn’t answer because he’s having sex with his wife. The next morning, he still hasn’t bothered to respond.

What’s so glamorous about that?

I’m not sure that the majority of viewers are rooting for the characters to succeed in their adulterous relationships, either. Maybe in the beginning of Scandal, there were people rooting for Olivia and her lover to be together, especially when it became clear how much he loathed his wife. However, the reaction I saw last season was annoyance that Olivia couldn’t go and stay gone for good. In Being Mary Jane I see a similar response in that viewers want him to stay with his wife, if for no other reasons than they’re rooting for a black marriage and Mary Jane is so miserable in her situation.  

Rooting for or even liking the main characters isn’t synonymous with condoning all of their decisions. As working black women with strong work ethics and charming personalities, they are relatable or aspirational. They also have beautiful homes, fancy wardrobes and accessories, enviable figures and strong friendships. When viewers declare Olivia or Mary Jane their “spirit animal,” that’s probably what they are cheering for rather than condoning adultery.

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