Something about this season of Being Mary Jane is different. I’ve been hoping for it to pick up like past seasons, when complex subjects that black women deal with every day were subtly woven through the storyline. Mary Jane was always over-the-top extra, making her hard to like. But every time you screwed your nose up at her, you had to look inside yourself because Being Mary Jane made you realize that your judgments of M.J. were reflections of where you needed to do better, too.
There were deep conservations to be had with your girls as you sucked the air between your teeth and laughed it off. But this season, now four episodes in, there’s an air bubble stuck between the storyline and the characters that’s keeping this season from congealing as in the past.
In episode 4, “Getting Schooled,” we were served a whole lot of awkward sex scenes as Kara tried to teach a new dog new tricks, something plenty of our mothers warned us was a waste of time. It makes sense, since Kara wasted no time bedding Orlando, or at least the scene cuts wasted no time in jumping from a short scene in the editing room, where Orlando makes an overt pass at Kara, to Kara exasperatedly smacking her head in the midst of not-so-great sex.
Taking advice from Mary Jane, who barely has her own relationship/sex life together, Kara embarks on teaching Orlando the art of foreplay. His celebrity has kept women from ever telling him that he’s wack in the sack. Now, at 34 years old, after taking a direct blow to his ego from Kara, Orlando is getting lessons on how to use his tongue with a peach. That might be worthy of a YouTube tutorial à la the grapefruit trick Auntie Alice gave us so many years ago.
After some real earnest and laughable effort from Orlando, he finds the right rhythm with Kara, then overeagerly sprains his neck while facedown. It was hilarious to see Orlando come up for air barely able to get out that he can’t move his neck. This takes him out of the game for a few weeks, and Kara, who has a phobia of dating her own Hispanic people, might be in trouble as Orlando seeks to spend time with her building a relationship and not just bumping pelvic bones.
Ronda’s sly attempt at checkmating Mary Jane by using Justin as a pawn has taken an interesting turn, with M.J. maneuvering not to lose to Ronda. Is it a promotion or a demotion when Garrett moves Mary Jane over to web correspondent with her archnemesis Justin as her producer? This could pan out as the win over Ronda that Mary Jane needs—even more so, a win over Justin as he continues to obstruct, like a good Republican, everything Mary Jane attempts to do.
Each attempt by Mary Jane and Kara to show their teeth at Justin leads with him giving them a chilly read and ends with both of them looking pressed to outwardly one-up him. Justin gets out an ice-dagger line about Kara being unable to ever commit like he does because she’s a single mother, and Kara’s response is heavy-handed with the clichés and rather ineffective.
Kara’s character arc in past seasons has shown her prowess exactly where Justin is attempting to attack: her ability to navigate a male-dominated playing field and a willingness to commit to her craft even at the expense of her family. Sparring with Justin through words is unnecessary because Kara has already shown that she knows how to play the boy’s game strategically.
This episode broached a really necessary topic: the boundaries we explicitly place on black men’s sexuality. Mary Jane, against all the noes that Garrett and Justin throw at her, pursues the story of a young man, Calhoun, who was publicly knocked upside his head and dragged away by his father for wearing a kiltlike skirt. So much potential in this storyline, at a time when the film Moonlight, about the volatile exploration into manhood for a black queer boy, is sweeping up critical acclaim in the mainstream; when rapper Young Thug is donning a dress on his album cover; and an openly queer black woman, Young M.A., is landing rap singles on the Billboard charts. Instead we get a touch-and-go plot of Mary Jane standing up for Calhoun at an editorial meeting and then jokingly falling back on her own narrow viewpoints about male sexuality with her boyfriend Lee, half chastising him for how he crosses his legs.
Ronda and Justin both try to force Mary Jane’s hand into a pot of respectability politics seasoned with homophobia because they only want to put out “positive images” of black masculinity. “You want to be different, you have to take a few knocks,” says Justin as he casually dismisses the violence Calhoun faces simply for wearing a skirt.
Mary Jane manages to nab Calhoun for the interview she promised Garrett she could get, after first interviewing the rapper-designer who made the skirt and then staking out Calhoun’s home until she catches him outside. Calhoun’s father storms out of the house to find out what’s going on as M.J. presses Calhoun for an interview. Have we heard Calhoun’s dad speech before? The “I’m just relying on restrictive masculine social norms to protect my son from being weird; this is my house” speech?
Maybe because there are plenty of fathers and mothers who believe that restricting creativity and dress based on gender norms will keep their child from “the gay.” Even though, as Calhoun correctly points out to Mary Jane, what you wear doesn’t make you gay, any more than it makes you straight. Still, Calhoun defies his father in a scene that reads more like a parody of Fences than an honest interaction. Fortunately, there were no lingering snot bubbles, and the dad passively retreats to his home.
In the end, Mary Jane does a very touching interview with Calhoun, who is rocking his skirt and Fetty Wap-esque fake locs. It’s a sweet spot that shows confidence in the face of bullying and the importance of those who stand up for others. A truly positive image of black masculinity, indeed.