by: Michelle Jackson
There are more than a few ways to approach the problem that is Tyler Perry. There’s the fact that he’s a terrible, hackneyed writer pumping out virtually the same stories in television and movie form, sometimes multiple times per year. There’s the fact that he revels in some of the broadest of broad African-American comedy tropes and reduces the black experience to half church sermon, half minstrel show. But intertwined with all that is the troubling treatment that both women and the LGBT community receive in his works.
Whoopi Goldberg has related her experience of being a child and seeing black actress Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek television series on the bridge of the Enterprise. Excitedly she ran to her mother shouting “Momma! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!”[ Despite the dubious success of last years, “The Help” most of us want to see is more positive female characters on screen and we want to see them doing more than just cleaning up after white people. And then there are others, who when spoonfed some of the most offensive portrayals of black women on screen, shout for more.
In spite of the endorsement of the Queen of Talk herself, Ms. Oprah Winfrey, as well as the support of many other outstanding black actresses who have appeared in his work, Tyler Perry has a problem with women, black women to be specific. And because of that, women should have a problem with him.
Let’s start with his most popular character, that of Madea, the gun toting, rude, angry, obese, thieving, sexless, uneducated, mammified creation played by Perry himself. This creation in and of itself is nothing new. Women in general have been the victims of men controlling their image as well as the definition for what it means to be woman for centuries. Black women are no different, and we are typically given three categories in which to fall: the sassy money-hungry, barely dressed sexually promiscuous slut, the sassy middle aged woman with a dozen kids, no job and a beligerant attitude, or the matriarchal Mammy, sometimes pious and put upon, sometimes no-nonsense and brash, always sassy.
The issue is not so much that black women have these constraints in which to work, but rather that these constraints are being pushed from within the race. According to Perry, “Madea is what I use to pay homage to many strong African-American women.” Here is where the disconnect happens, because what Perry brings us is not a championing of womanhood, but rather an assault upon it.
Perry only knows how to write two types of women, the victim or the uppity shrew, and in a lot of cases, the victim is a victim because she was an uppity shrew. She is educated and very successful in her chosen line of work, upper middle class or higher. The women typically have lighter skin and are married to or involved in a relationship with a man with darker skin.
Oh yes, Perry also has color issues. The woman is typically a workaholic, more involved in her career than in catering to her man. Because of this, the neglected, abusive, dark skinned man goes out and does the inevitable in a Perry movie: he has an affair with a white woman. The white women are of course their own stereotype, either empty headed and clueless, or brazenly aggressive. The only brushstroke Perry knows is a broad one.
Continuing on, our devastated heroine either leaves her job or is fired (her boss will of course be someone unsympathetic and white), and returns to her roots. Enter the handsome, also light skinned, counterpart, perhaps rough around the edges handyman/gardener/plumber/mechanic hero of the tale. He’s a less educated, less successful, salt of the Earth, Jesus praising savior who arrives just when our heroine needs him the most. His job is to prove to that the heroine that she should never have aimed so high either career-wise or mate-wise. She abandoned her womanhood by seeking approval in the masculine world of business, she neglected her husband, which is why he strayed, and she forsook God which is why she got what she deserved. The only solution is a complete abandoning of self, over all settling for less and allowing herself to be rescued.
And let’s not forget the domestic abuse where the poor beleagured man, having taken all that he possibly can, hauls off and hits the woman (The Family That Preys). There’s the choking scene in Why Did I Get Married? (she goes back to him). There’s the woman getting dragged from her own home in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. There’s the 1-800-Choke-Dat-Hoe joke in Madea’s Big Happy Family. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it does illustrate that as a writer, Tyler Perry seems to have a thing about seeing women getting hit.
Yet somehow all of this is either ignored or forgiven by his largely black, female, churchgoing audience. Instead, their most recent vocal bone-to-pick with Perry was the fact that Kim Kardashian will be appearing in his upcoming feature, The Marriage Counselor. Their biggest objection is that fact that Kardashian is not black, and, second to that, the fact she didn’t have the moral character to appear in a film about being forgiven for having falliable moral character. That is what they saw as a betrayal–not their own consistent depiction by Perry as mammy’s, victims, and hoes.
In many ways, Perry is a product of the cottage industry that rose up against what was seen by some as the anti-male or man-bashing nature of films like The Color Purple (which Perry has ironically said is one of his favorite films) or Waiting To Exhale. Of course, none of these films were actually about trashing men; they are about telling the tale of women through their struggles and their strengths. What we have here is Perry’s genre turned on its ear. Perry purports to putting a message of female empowerment on screen, but all of it is tempered by a masculine hand. We are given stories, where from start to finish, the woman can only react to the behavior of a man in her life. Freedom from one man can only be found by yolking yourself to another man.
Drag is an artform and transvestitism is a way of life. And Monty Python proved that a man in a dress can be hilarious. So let’s be clear: my problem has nothing to do with a man donning a frock. But what Perry is doing is neither genderfuck nor art, because you never forget this is a large man in a dress, crudely aping women while simultaneously sermonizing to them. This is just more cloaked misogyny. This is damaging patriarchy in a dress.
But it’s not just women that Tyler Perry isn’t fond of, he’s got a real problem with the gays as well. In nearly every incarnation Perry has produced, he finds it nearly impossible to keep a lid on his homophobia. There are the constant references in the TBS hit show House of Payne, where Walter, the flamboyant anger management coach is cast in the mold of Richard Simmons. Another episode saw one of the male teenagers of the show “caught” with a tutu, which caused untold amounts of gay panic for the other characters. Never one to be limited to the small screen, there’s the pink-clad gay couple in Why Did I Get Married?, so flaming the celluloid nearly melts. The sequel Why Did I Get Married, Too? has Janet Jackson’s character, who, in an attempt to shame her husband, hires a queeny go-go boy to pop out of a cake in front of his friends and co-workers to the tune of “It’s Raining Men.” There’s the evil, lascivious butch Big Sal in Madea Goes To Jail who is in constant aggressive pursuit of the former Rudy Huxtable, Keisha Knight Pulliam, and is referred to more than once by Madea as “young man.”
Then there’s the Down Low devil in Perry’s anemic rewriting of For Colored Girls, representative of the dangerous lurking deceitful gay man who, through his carelessness and callousness, infects Janet Jackson’s character with HIV. If you’re looking for any sort of examination of why the DL phenomenon exists or any examination of LGBT issues in Perry’s work, look elsewhere. Perry’s most recent offering in his latest film Good Deeds features a–you guessed it–queened out, pink-clad Jamie Kennedy as a fashion designer.
LGBT characters in Perry’s movies are even less fleshed out than his other creations. They are caricatures played for laughs, less than men or women, and always either motivated by evil or lust. They are to be feared, reviled and guffawed at.
Homophobia is nothing new in the black church, and Black Evangelicals are a powerful group, so powerful even Obama had to court them to get elected. Their own personally and biblically reinforced messages subjugating women while defining manhood as having no relation to homosexuality rings true to many a follower. Perry, himself, is in league with at least two of the most prominent anti-gay black pastors of today: Paul Morton and TD Jakes. When they speak, a large section of black people tends to listen and voice their approval with their wallets via tithes or ticket sales.
Is Perry just giving the audience what they want, reinforcing ugly stereotypes for laughs and profit? I used to believe that, that perhaps he was strictly a businessman putting himself and others in blackface because it pays the bills. He never bothers to screen his movies for critics and never even attempts to work on his craft. As the highest paid man in Hollywood, he doesn’t have to, and he’s savvy enough to know it. But I’ve since changed my opinion; I think he actually believes this stuff. The story writer Craig Stewart tells about Perry declining to back his gay positive play A Day In The Life because he ‘doesn’t think it’s right to be gay,’ supporting the idea of Perry as a genuine, dyed in the wool, black conservative evangelical.
I’m not going to pretend as though I could out Tyler Perry; It’s been done before by Michael Musto and scores of internet bloggers before me. He’s a terrible writer, a ham-fisted director and an even worse actor, but perhaps his least believable performance is the one he does in real life. Much like in his latest film Good Deeds, Perry is about as convincingly straight as Paul Lynde at a Pride Parade. This is not a random dig, but an observation on the virulence of the anti-gay material he incorporates into his productions. If we generously say that any of Perry’s movies or TV shows have a real, thought out plot, we must also concede the gay themes are irrelevant to their progress. They are wedged and hammered into the storyline, and the result are films and shows so laden with self-hate they’re impossible to ignore. The discerning viewer is forced to admit that Perry is trying in vain to work out his own issues on screen with the anachronistic inclusions.
Perry benefits from cloying gratitude of the black/female community, i.e. we are so incredibly grateful and overjoyed that someone is hiring black actors and someone is putting black people to work that we are willing to accept the racist minstrel show, the misogyny and the homophobia. The black community has become more closed off, not less, patronizing our own films, our own media, our own stories. Hollywood isn’t perfect in any sense in its portrayal of women or gays, but great leaps and bounds have been made. Fully formed gay characters and women who work and excel and function without melodrama and who actually continue to exist when men or straight characters leave the room are depicted. But the world Perry fashions and that which his audience wants to see remains shockingly archaic.
Perry represents the worst of a male-dominated society, the worst of black entertainment, and the worst of the shackles of the black church. He is an affront to everyone black, white etc. ad infinitum who values freedom, expression, enlightenment and equality. Freedom will only come when attitudes change, and we stop financing someone who only revels in demeaning women, exploiting gays, all while marginalizing and advancing black pathology. Equality will only come when we stop laughing and speak out.
Michelle Jackson is a graduate student with a major in English and a minor in race baiting. She is a vlogger, blogger and constant thesis writer, obsessed with negritude, feminism, queer issues, cultural dissection, television ads, toddler-themed reality television, literary criticism of books she’ll never read and pie. Follow her at: https://twitter.com/#!/GallowsHumor7 Watch her vlog at: http://www.youtube.com/user/MsPumpkinPeach