This is not another article about how Tyler Perry is ruining black America with his minstrelsy, sexism, or thoughtless religiosity. There are enough articles like that. I have written several myself. On the contrary, this post is about how I made my peace with the Bard of Black America and found better targets for my righteous indignation.
Perry and I have long-running beef. One-sided, of course. I am well aware that the accomplished TV, film and stage impresario, who is worth an estimated $350 million, is not studying me. It’s like the Biggie/Tupac beef if, instead of one of the best and most successful rappers of all time, Pac was a blogger.
Though Perry doesn’t know or care, I have been disturbed at his elevation by the mainstream as some storyteller of the black experience. And, if I am honest, I am none too pleased about his popularity within the black community either. It’s not that I don’t admire the brother’s hustle. I wish I had that kind of work ethic and mojo. But I am no fan of the Perry ethos. I think he makes black women’s lives harder, in particular, by reinforcing sexism and the centuries-old stereotypes the plague us. I wish a brother like Perry, with so much money and support behind him, could present a better case for black womanhood than the big, ball-busting granny and the embittered, work-obsessed, money-hungry bourgie chick who doesn’t know how to appreciate a good, blue collar man. Actually, his portrayal of blackness as a whole, to me, amounts to a combination of dysfunction, shucking and jiving and saccharine set to gospel music.
My views on Perry haven’t changed. He is never going to be my favorite director. But I realize the energy I have put into railing against his efforts is misdirected. And I realize that I am indulging in a form of respectability politics that is more hurtful than helpful.
My eyes were opened while writing an article, “No Disrespect: Black Women and the Burden of Respectability,” for Bitch magazine. Inspired by negative reaction to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of maids in The Help, I wrote about how the personal and professional choices of black women in the public eye are routinely judged through the perilously unflattering lens of the majority culture — Eurocentric, patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative and middle class — and found wanting. Davis and Spencer (and Halle Berry and Erykah Badu and Beyonce) are not allowed to be simply women or performers, but, by dint of their blackness, are asked to serve as ambassadors whose every decision reinforces the respectability of black folks to white America. That means Davis and Spencer are criticized for playing domestic workers. Halle Berry is criticized for having graphic sex with a white man in Monster’s Ball. And Erykah Badu is judged for having children out of wedlock as Beyonce is praised for using her uterus “the right way.” That is how respectability politics work. And, in my article, I judge that extra burden as unfair and damaging.
Respectability politics serve to curtail the individual liberties of people who have spent centuries fighting to be free. For black female actors and other artists, this may mean making choices based not on what’s best for their careers and personal lives, but instead, on what serves to convince the majority culture that people like them deserve respect.
Policing the behavior of black women is not the answer. If it is wrong for a contemporary black actress to portray a maid, what message are we sending to black women who do domestic work? If it is wrong to be shown having sex with white men, what does that say about black women in interracial relationships with white men? If Erykah Badu is a whore for having children out of wedlock, what does that say about all black single mothers? Indeed, since more than half of births to all women under 30 occur outside of marriage (regardless of race), what does it say about women as a whole?
I have, hypocritically, directed the same unfair expectations I abhor toward Tyler Perry and his career. I have expected him to be my ambassador, communicating my secular, feminist, middle class, progressive values to the masses. But he is not me. However disappointing I find his schtick, it is his. Perry has done the work and paid the price. And there is no doubt he believes he is doing what is best, not only for himself, but as a member of the black community. And there is this: For as much as I don’t identify with Perry’s output, there are plenty of black folks who see their lives reflected in his storytelling. As Perry said on 60 Minutes, in response to Spike Lee’s criticism:
“I would love to read that [criticism] to my fan base. … That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It’s attitudes like that, that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us.” …”all these characters are bait – disarming, charming, make-you-laugh bait. I can slap Madea on something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family, any of those.”
But the most important thing is this conclusion from the Bitch article:
The goal of respectability politics may be noble, but the execution is flawed, damaging, and ineffective. By indulging in respectability politics, we acquiesce to the racially biased idea that the actions of individual black people are representative of the whole. We add to the pre-existing burdens of racism and sexism. And we fail to solve our problem, because we move the responsibility for eradicating race and gender biases from the powerful institutions and systems that perpetuate them to those oppressed by them. It is easier to try to control the oppressed than challenge the oppressor, but it is rarely a humane or useful approach.
Perry may be powerful, but he is still a black man within a Hollywood power structure that is overwhelmingly white. The problem is not Perry, though he makes a convenient target. The problem is an entertainment industrial complex that feels more comfortable pushing Big Momma’s House – Part Eleventybillion than Pariah. The problem is there can be many important white, male directors, but the industry only makes room for one black director du jour per generation. The problem is Hollywood will not cast black women as romantic leads, superheroes, or simply multi-dimensional characters. And fandom tends to hate black, female characters, however, they are drawn. The problem is that in Hollywood, all women are marginalized and women of color doubly so, and most people of color are stereotyped and exoticized. Whatever you thought of Red Tails, it is significant that even a man as mighty as George Lucas couldn’t get funding to tell the story, however imperfectly, of World War II heroes who happen to be black.
In other words, there are a whole lot of systematic problems bigger than Tyler Perry. If Madea and the Browns existed alongside diverse portrayals of people of color … then, fair enough. The problem isn’t the existence of Angela, a Sapphire-type character in Perry’s Why Did I Get Married and For Better or Worse. The problem is that there are few counterpoints to Angela. And that isn’t Tyler Perry’s fault.
I can dislike Tyler Perry’s shows and movies. (Except Daddy’s Little Girls, cause … Idris Elba). I can continue to find them overly broad. I can even critique his lack of gender politic. But I can’t get mad at a brother for not creating characters and stories just for me any more than I can get mad at Judd Apatow. Well, I can get mad (I get mad at some of Apatow’s dudely output, too.); it’s just that I have to reserve at least as much energy for a fucked up system that abets and amplifies any damage done by Perry.