Gabrielle Union on why women can stop chasing after balance: It's "fictitious BS that doesn't exist"

The actress goes all in on the whispered conversations about life's hardships we should be having out in the open

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 23, 2021 5:01PM (EDT)

Gabrielle Union attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
Gabrielle Union attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

Have you seen that perfectly chiseled couple on social media, with their big veneer smiles and perfectly cuffed jeans enjoying perfectly plated food and perfectly poured craft cocktails on a perfect summer day? Then you zoom in only to see that they look even more perfect than you first thought, with hundreds — maybe thousands — of comments that all read #goals or #RelationshipGoals? Yeah, I see those annoying people too. 

"Relationship goals" is a term that should annoy us all. It means that a couple has completed everything needed to project that idea of having a perfect relationship, as if such a thing exists. And when I say everything I mean that they checked all of the appropriate Instagram boxes, from beautiful vacations and matching sneakers to perfect date nights —all perfectly documented under the most perfect lighting. And let's not forget the festive Thanksgiving and Christmas posts, complemented by a snappy Drake lyric for the caption next to whatever the couple's corny hashtag is that season.

These couples have mastered promoting the impossible loop of never-ending happiness. "Goals" people can be fun to look at online at times, but everyone in a real relationship knows that's not real. All romantic relationships are expected to have great moments, but even the most successful couples have bad moments, too. Gabrielle Union, who has been called "goals" for years, joked about this with me during our conversation on "Salon Talks" about her new book, "You Got Anything Stronger?" In her hilarious way, Union writes about the serious problem with being considered perfect.

"You Got Anything Stronger?" is the follow up to Union's 2017 New York Times bestselling essay collection, "We're Going to Need More Wine." Many know Union as a celebrated actress with dozens of titles under her belt, including "Being Mary Jane," "Bad Boys II" and "Deliver Us from Eva," but her prose, analysis and the sharp cultural critiques match the star power she has earned on screen. Union's essays will make you laugh, cry and feel OK if your relationship hasn't reached the alleged status of "goals." Union gets so real about her marriage to Dwyane Wade — down to feeling like a failure and declaring "f**k balance" when it comes to roles. "It's the bullsh*t that they shove on women, that they never ask men for," she said during our conversation. And the amazing thing is, Union also describes how she works hard on their relationship every single day.

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Gabrielle Union here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about why Union is so candid about her "ugly" fertility journey, what her stepdaughter Zaya has taught her, the challenges she faces as a Black women in Hollywood, and how becoming a mother has forever changed her. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How have you been managing family and work life and all of these things, in this brand new era of COVID, this new thing we've going through?

We have an incredibly large village, and without the village, we couldn't do anything. I wouldn't be half the mother that I am, I wouldn't be half the friend, the wife. We rely heavily on a number of people to keep us afloat and allow us to do all of the things that we're out here doing, with our different jobs and businesses, and endorsements, and all that stuff. It's the village mentality.

Let's get into this book, "You Got Anything Stronger?" If I had a glass, I would be sitting here pouring with you right now. I truly feel like the writing is brilliant. I don't throw that word around. It's warm. It's funny. It's extremely personal. I was excited for it because after reading your first book, of just the stories and the little screws, and the yogurt, and the cranberry juice. I was like, yo, I have to start off just by asking was there any backlash from that first book, and things that you considered when walking into the journey of creating the next?

No, not backlash in the sense that I faced any sort of weird consequences in that way. It was more of like, I have to think about what stories that involve more than just me; other people's perspectives, and think about boundaries and fairness. So, I thought about that going into this book. I have to always make clear when I'm joking. I joke all the time and people are like, "Oh my gosh, she's serious. She did XYZ." And especially when I'm on a press tour, talking about certain things, I'm going to be joking. Seeing where blogs might take a chapter, or you know that there's going to be people who are just searching for a mistake, or for something for clickbait; but they're going to turn it into something that it's not. If you read the book, it's clear that that's not what it is.

Just kind of going into it, knowing that your words will be misconstrued, there will be attempts to turn people against you on some BS, but as long as you tell your truth, and you stand in it, you have the courage of conviction, you let the chips fall where they may. The truth is the truth, and how you receive it is on you.

Do you ever think about doing stand-up?

I got that last night. No, that is a skill, and a whole other occupation that I am not talented at, nor do I wish to invest the time to be talented in.

You telling the strip club story, the Magic City story on stage … I don't know; that's a skill. And I do feel like you maintain the same level of humor in this book that you did in your first book. I think there's an amazing balance between tragedy, and then having the ability to grow and laugh about it and talk about it. For our viewers and readers who haven't yet had a chance to read any of your writing, can you just take them through some of the things that you cover in "You Got Anything Stronger?"

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The first chapter I wanted to pack the biggest punch. I wanted you to start this book on, "Oh. OK. OK. OK. She's going there." It's the longest chapter in the book and about my surrogacy journey and my fertility journey, and how that has had an impact on my marriage, and on my psyche, and on my soul. Usually when you hear celebrities talk about their birth story or their surrogacy journey, it's like, "Me and my husband desperately wanted a baby; found out we couldn't have it. An angel on earth came, that was gracious enough to birth our baby. And now everything's great." Right? "Yeah. Now we have our angel." And that's it. And that's not it, at all.

Those stories, and those truncated truths, make people feel a lot more comfortable about receiving your news. But the reality is that's not the full story; it's not even close to the full story. I felt that I needed to be radically transparent about my journey, so people don't feel like they're losing it or less than, or bad, because they might've had a different journey than the ones that they're reading about in the magazines. I wanted to be real and honest, that it was complicated, it was messy, it was ugly, it was heartbreaking. It took a toll on every aspect of my life; every area of my life was touched by this journey. And it wasn't all moonlight and roses. In fact, there's still challenges.

I still wonder if she would have loved me more if I was able to give birth to her. I wonder, "Would my husband love me more, if I was able to give birth?" All of these things; you're never going to really have an answer. No one's going to be like, "It's true. Listen. There's a cap to my love. Because we used a surrogate, I can only love you about this much." You're never really going to know. But I want it to be honest about those feelings because they're messier than the usual birth stories; but we don't tend to share those.

When people talk about "celebrity memoir," this is not "celebrity memoir." This is heavy. This is real. Even when you talk about that experience, I think it was really brave of you to use the word failure. Even though these are the things that we can't control: You can't control your emotions, and how you feel about certain situations. One of the things that came to my mind is, when my wife was pregnant — you write about it, how pregnant people can do no wrong. People will be like, "Oh, she gets a pass." And I think your language being so strong, and you being so rigorously honest in a way that is heavy, I think you're going to help a whole lot of people who are going through the same situation. Did you think about that when you were writing?

That was all I thought about. I know my truth, but for a lot of people... It's whispered. It's, "Did you ever feel like this? Well, what about this? Am I a bad person for feeling this way?" But these are whispered, secret conversations that we never have publicly. And because we don't have them publicly, there's a lot of other people wondering the same thing. By giving it voice, by giving it a much bigger platform, it frees us up to build community and share resources and information, and help us save ourselves. All I thought about was how to help other people with my pain, basically.

You talk about your own relationship, and the kind of strain that that causes. I think a lot of people, when you're looking at Instagram, or when you're looking at people displaying their relationships, they act like the perfect relationship is that you meet, and you get to the destination, and it's there. They don't really understand that perfect relationships are something that you work on every day. Some days are beautiful and some days are ugly. It's not a constant. It's something that continues to evolve throughout the years, as we take on different jobs, and throughout our careers. These things constantly have to be worked on. I think you did a great job talking about that. It kind of punched me in the chest, when you said, "The me of today would not have stayed with him. But would I be who I am now, without the pain?" I don't even go to church like that, but that's church.

And it's true. And it's true. And it's not the "goals," all that stuff that people put on us. You know what I mean?

The goals, right. Yeah.

We always say, "We are perfectly imperfect." There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. It could be perfect in moments; not perfect, but real, amazing moments. But when the goal is perfection, you'll always feel like a failure. But if the goal is, "Today, I choose you. I'm in this fight with you. I'm in these trenches with you, and I am loving you. And the things that I don't love about myself, that I'm projecting onto you, I am committing to work on, and vice versa. We have to figure out how to make all of these moving parts that are messy and complicated, but true, work."

And there's a commitment every day. And there's a lot of joy, and a lot of love, and a lot of adventures and antics, and this and that. But there's a lot of mess in there too. And to be fair, you kind of got to talk about the mess because you can't just always present this idea of perfection. It doesn't actually exist.

It's popular right now. My publisher's on my back right now because she's like, "You need to have more joy. Where's the joy? You get dark. And then when you go light, you kind of go darker again." And I'm like, "Yo. I earned these scars." How come we always have to act like we're living in this constant state of joy, when we all have pain? And that's something that connects us all.

Yeah, that's unfair. I hope your editor is listening now because the reality of being Black in America is a roller coaster. You could be at the pinnacle of success. You can't imagine the kind of joy you are feeling; and something happens, and it shatters it. And now you're not even at normal; you are below, you're on the ground. You are trying to pull yourself up off the ground.

To not talk about that reality is to A) lie and B) you do a such a disservice to yourself and everyone else who is on the roller coaster. It's like, "Well, how the hell is he just so freaking joyous all the f**king time? How? Give me the secret sauce." And you're like, "Oh, that's actually not true. It's an editor's note." Like, "What the f**k is so joyous? We're all struggling. We're all drowning. What is going on?" So, I always challenge us to stay on the side of truth and radical transparency, and whatever that means. And that's where the nuggets come. That's where the evolution comes. That's where the change comes, just being true to your journey.

Zaya is becoming an icon in her own right. I really, really, really admire the way that you write about how your family had dealt with the attacks, and the narrow-minded points of view, and people who don't really understand. I think it's so beautiful that you almost don't want to give it praise because it should be normal. This is how we should put it for our people; we should show love. We should fight people who try to come against us as a family, and as a unit. What do you think it's going to take for society to get to a place where we understand that the world is different now and we need to embrace everybody, and show love, and not be judgmental and not be narrow-minded, and not try to attack other families?

They say "hurt people hurt people." I don't know what kind of collective, global healing needs to happen because we're not that ignorant. You know what I'm saying? We're not toddlers. You reach a certain age, and you have access to information. If you opt to stay ignorant, that is a choice. I don't know how to help someone who chooses to be ignorant. And there's a lot of people who choose to be like, "Two plus two is three. I don't care what you say." I don't know what to do with that.

For those people who are like, "I'm struggling with accepting and loving someone that is different than me." OK. I can work with that, because you're being honest. OK. "What about that difference is causing you fear and anxiety, and having you lash out in this way? Can you go a little deeper?" Especially when it comes to communities of color, we have been conditioned for the last 400 years that you have to constantly be shape-shifting and minimizing, and centering white comfort, white gaze, and white validation, to make sure our children are safe, and that they're not separated from us; that they're not sold away, that they are happy, and have opportunities, and are protected and are valued.

The reality is, they had value and they were worthy from birth; and we don't have to keep shape-shifting. We become the same oppressors that we're trying to escape; and home should be the sanctuary. So we get to the root of what causes so many of us to reject our own, for a sense of self-preservation that is a residue from slavery. The world is going to be the world.


But in your home, you know better; and you can provide the sanctuary for your children and for your loved ones in your own home. There is a refuge against whatever else is out there. But we got to get to the root of what is causing this reaction. What is that? "Baby, no one's coming to hurt you. You know what I mean? No, one's coming to hurt you. No one's coming to harm you; and your reaction doesn't match. And it's illogical, and it's... Let's go a little deeper. Let's ask some follow-up questions, and let's figure out a plan of action to get you on the right side of yourself."

You and Dwyane are definitely leading the way. You guys are setting an amazing example for us to all move forward, and it's extremely valuable. And I want to say on a personal tip, your chapter, "F**k Balance," is going to make me a better husband. I do feel like if I wash the dishes before I put them in the dishwasher, if they make it into the dishwasher, sometimes I'm like, "Yo, where's my Nobel Peace Prize?" But I do feel like we can all step it up; we can all step it up.


Do you feel like you've redefined what that balance is, in your own life?

Well, yeah, because it doesn't exist. I don't even search for it. I search now for grace. I have to be comfortable receiving it, which wasn't comfortable. It felt like some weird kind of charity. And I have to be comfortable with giving it. When you acknowledge a loss, it's not loss. Nothing's being taken from you in offering grace. It's just grace. It's free, and it's the best gift you can give yourself, and the best gift you can give other people. When you're trying to find that elusive balance, and you're like, "I just can't seem to find it." It kind of doesn't exist. And it's the bullsh*t that they shove on women, that they never ask men for. And it's supposed to keep us so off-kilter, that we're always chasing after some fictitious bullsh*t that doesn't exist, to make us feel bad about our jobs, or our passions, or our bodies or our output in our households.

We're just people; we're not superheroes. And the fact that men get let off the hook, you know what I mean, is bullsh*t. And that's really when people tell on themselves. My husband had full custody of his kid, as a single NBA player. He had a number of businesses; not one question about, "How do you balance it all, Dwyane?" Because they assume that when that check cleared, that's enough balance for everybody. And I have a check that clears, too. How come that's not enough balance for me? How come you got to ask, "What recipes are you..." "No recipes, motherf**ker. I don't cook like that." I'm like, "What? How come you're not asking Dwyane about his meatloaf recipe?"

I couldn't let you leave without talking about being a Black woman in Hollywood, and how have you learned how to navigate, and asking you if it got better since you first started out in the industry?

I can't say better. It's just morphs into different challenges. So maybe better, in the sense that there are more jobs, because of streaming and all the new cable channels, and they have to have programming to fill all those channels and stuff. But if you talked about pay, you talked about respect, you talk about opportunities to really build a meaningful career. Do you love the work? What is your experience like on set? What is your experience like in pre-production, and how hard is it to sell projects? Who's really at the top of the food chain in every micro-industry within the Hollywood organism? Not really; no. But then you have moments like the other night at the Met Ball; and all the young girls, all the young Black women and girls who were in attendance; and you could kind of see people feeling like they didn't... Like maybe this wasn't the right room for them.

And I grabbed them. I'm like, "Don't you shrink in this, b*tch. We are the culture. Culture does not exist without us. This doesn't exist without us. You take up all the space in this room, and you are your full-ass self. Don't put on that weird voice for these people. They need us more than we need them. Enjoy this. Take up space. Meet whoever you want to meet, but don't feel like they've bestowed something on you. You were a queen when you walked in this, b*tch; and you'll be a queen when you walk out of here. Enjoy it. This is your sh*t, too."

And that's that OG role, we slide into easily, because we had Regina King and Tisha Campbell, Tichina Arnold, Jenifer Lewis — all these amazing actresses who've been in the business for so long — who are not interested nor invested in watching us fail. We were able to bloom. We're doing the same for the next generation.

Please tell everyone where they can get your amazing book.

Please shop local. Yes, there's all the usual spots: Target, Barnes and Noble, Amazon; but our local bookstores need us more than ever. So, if you are lucky enough to have a local bookstore in your community, please shop local, and request the book if they don't have it from your local bookstore.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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