June 23, 2008
Why I’m over Tyler Perry
Moya Bailey is a doctoral student in the Department of Women’s Studies.
I’ve been working in the area of stereotypes and media representations since I was little. In third grade I brought the book “Cornrows” to school to educate my classmates about my hairstyles (and forestall future unsolicited hair touching and questions). In high school I wrote a term paper on the rash of school shootings and the media’s inattention to race, class and gender, as they informed the tragedies.
My first year of college, I was part of a national youth anti-censorship group where I spoke out about the need for free speech and the right to critique problematic renderings of marginalized populations including people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.
I continued to develop my analysis around race, representation and media throughout my college years both in my scholarship and activism. I was writing about the ways black women were depicted on the nation’s large and small screens while simultaneously experiencing the real world consequences of those images in how I was perceived and subsequently treated in my day-to-day life.
As president of the feminist group on my campus, I and other group members brought the issue to the nation’s attention by requesting a sitdown with rapper Nelly about misogyny in his lyrics and videos when he was scheduled to come to campus to promote a bone marrow drive. His refusal, and the subsequent media coverage, launched
my unofficial career as a media critic.
I’ve remained interested in how black women are represented in the media, particularly by those who claim to provide “positive” and “alternative” images. I was asked by the National Urban League to weigh in on the current state of the representation of black women in the media and felt compelled to probe this notion of “good” representations.
What follows are my reflections on one pusher of the “positive.” Writer/producer/director/actor Tyler Perry has branded himself as the arbiter of quality representations of black folks, black women in particular, and I wished to trouble this assertion.
As black actors wield more power in Hollywood, they have chosen to create and participate in projects that challenge longstanding stereotypical portrayals of black men. Films like “Antwone Fisher,” “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Daddy’s Little Girls” are produced, written and/or directed by black actors as explicit correctives of black male representations on the silver screen.
Ironically, their ability to challenge problematic globe-circling images is largely predicated on the previous successful personification of “negative” depictions of black masculinity by themselves and their peers. Will Smith’s TV success as an uncultured inner city youth on the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and Denzel Washington’s Oscar winning portrayal of a corrupt cop in “Training Day” helped vault them to the star status that positioned them to pursue their own interests.
Alternately, Tyler Perry’s ascendancy through the revived “chitlin’ circuit” of black church stage plays demanded the attention of movie studios and paved the way for his entree into film.
Tyler Perry’s fourth feature length film “Why Did I Get Married?” reflects his self-proclaimed agency to create the pictures he wants and rewrite popular understandings of black masculinity. However, in the process of creating these alternative “positive” representations of black male characters, stereotypes about black women are reified and reinscribed.
Additionally, positive black masculinity in these films is equated with the black male character’s ability to achieve the heteronormative, patriarchal, capitalistic “American Dream.” It is the acquisition of this assimilationist fantasy that provides the Hollywood ending.
This goal is reached through the often-violent reassertion of hierarchal gender roles. Black women are physically put back in their place or pushed out of the way by the black men in these narratives.
The film follows four couples into the mountains for their annual marriage retreat. As the promotional advertisements for the film suggest, it is the women who are the source of the marital problems. Each female character is identified within the trailers as having an extravagant quality that needs to be excised.
As one ad explains: “Diane is overworked; Sheila is overweight; Angela is over the top; Patricia is overly perfect.” Viewers are primed to expect the female leads to overcome their initial disparaging characterizations.
I’m interested in the advertisement’s use of “over” as a preposition that constructs black femininity as excessive. Patricia Hill Collins’ work on “controlling images” of black men and women speaks to this tendency to represent blacks as too much or more than the white norm or ideal.
Historically ascribed the undesirable attributes of being too sexual, too domineering, too demanding, black women continue to challenge these hegemonic misrepresentations. Surprisingly, we see a rearticulation of some of these traits in the female protagonists in this film.
Though consciously disrupting representations of black men as absentee fathers, lazy, uneducated or hypersexual, longstanding stereotypes of black women remain unperturbed. This fight to recast black masculinity is both figurative and literal as it depends on the active reaffirmation of traditional gender roles. In other words, the black women must be divorced from their “over”-ness which requires black men to “man-up” and assume their rightful place in the family.
The couples’ dynamics imply an interdependency between binary gender role expressions, where proper “positive” black masculinity can only be obtained through a subordinate femininity. Acts of filmic violence are not coded as such but if enacted in the real world could warrant police action.
Violence against black women is made normal, comic, and necessary for the attainment of a positive black masculinity, making intraracial violence against black women off-screen tolerable.
In “Why Did I Get Married?,” black women are subject to violence designed to remind them of their place in relation to black men. We must examine the potential problems of films that tout themselves as being “positive” or providers of “good” images by continually asking, good for whom and to what end?
As professor Bell Hooks offers in “Black Looks,” we should be “asking ourselves questions about what type of images subvert, pose critical alternatives, and transform our world views and move us away from dualistic thinking about good and bad?”