Tyler Perry with cast members from “For Colored Girls.” Photo/CC BY
If you are an avid movie-goer, you probably already know that Black people are rarely cast in roles that are worthwhile. With the recent exceptions of Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, or Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane, Black characters are still sorely missing from mainstream film and television. When some Black characters ARE cast, like Amandla Stenberg as Rue in the Hunger Games, or Quevenzhané Wallis as the new “Annie” character, unsurprising racist backlash ensues.
One figure who is usually brought up in discussions surrounding Black women’s representations in Hollywood is Tyler Perry. Why? Perhaps it’s because Tyler Perry is one of the few writers/directors who actually casts a plethora of Black women in his projects. Some of you may have already seen, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” that featured a strong performance by Kimberly Elise or “Madea’s Family Reunion” where Maya Angelou even had an appearance. While it’s easy to celebrate much of Perry’s work [considering there are not many other venues that actually cast this many Black women…except maybe some BET music videos where they need Black women to shake their asses], he still has many strong critics.
Recently, the popular magazine, Ebony.com released an opinion piece from Michael Arceneaux titled, “Dear Tyler Perry.” In the piece, Arceneaux states:
If there is one pattern to be found in your works, it’s the obvious disdain for “uppity,” educated women. That, more than anything else, is why I personally can now only take your works in doses… Also, I know romantic comedies are all tied to a “happy ending,” but for someone whose entire fortune is based on the monetary support of Black women, you’d think you’d be a bit kinder to the single ones. Yes, it’s always nice to have someone, but why is a woman’s happiness always predicated on her landing a man—particularly a blue collar one?
Personally, I have my own reservations with Tyler Perry’s work, especially because he assumes that he can understand the intimate psyche of a woman which always comes across as a misguided attempt to “cure” us of our seemingly depressed states. I recently saw the film, “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor” which follows the journey of a married Christian woman who has a dream of becoming a marriage counselor. She has only been with one man her whole life [her husband] and eventually runs into an attractive billionaire named Harley at her place of work. After he aggressively pursues her, she ends up sleeping with him; however, Perry punishes her by making her a victim of Harley’s bad temper and gives her HIV. Say what? Yeah.
If you’re a huge fan of Perry, I am not asking for you to change your views, or to stop watching his films [because I know that I probably won’t stop either], but just keep some of this information in mind.
When Perry writes FOR women, *some* of the main themes that come across are:
1) If you’re single, you might as well die because you’ll never be happy alone.
2) If you’re unhappy in your current marriage [because we live in a patriarchy that makes women’s lives more difficult], you shouldn’t leave because you’ll get HIV somehow OR you’ll meet a man who will beat you.
3) If you’re poor and struggling, just marry a rich man…preferably Tyler Perry [even though he won’t marry you because he overtly says that he never wants to get married—ironic??]
4) If you’re light-skinned, you’re a better person.
5) Successful Black women will inevitably lose their men because women emasculate men by being successful.
I will only be focusing on the fifth theme using ONE film franchise, “Why Did I Get Married?” Think of Patricia [played by Janet Jackson] who is a successful author and professor. She ends up asking her husband for a divorce [because she is UNHAPPY], and ends up freaking out…oh yeah…she also kind of accidentally kills her husband. Perry totally skips over the emasculation bit and just kills him. During the scene where he dies, Perry makes sure that Jackson is wearing the pants…literally.
Janet Jackson as Patricia. Photo/CC BY
Angela, who is the loud, sapphire-like woman who emasculates her man Marcus just by opening her mouth almost loses him because she is so “mean.” She consistently brings up the fact that she owns her own salon and employs him, essentially stating that he would be nothing without her. Although Marcus regularly cheats on Angela with his ex, we are meant to sympathize with him because his woman is just so damn loud! He almost leaves Angela several times and she decides to “win” her man back by cooking him a meal. [Always works ladies…or not]
Terry and Diane are the last couple in this film who demonstrate how a successful woman seemingly threatens a man. In the first installment of the “Why did I get Married” franchise, Diane is so busy with her job [considering she’s a lawyer and overtly says that she’s defending a 16 year old who is on trial for capital murder], but her husband Terry [played by Tyler Perry] is upset that she won’t spend time with him. He even turns her cell phone off while she is sleeping.
During the climax of the film, Diane is at work and is reminded that it’s her husband’s birthday, which she completely forgot. [During this scene she has pants on too!] She arrives home late and is greeted with Terry eating birthday cake with another woman with giant boobs who works with him. Diane and Terry have a loud fight about her busy schedule, as well as her refusal to have another child which is something that Terry has been wanting throughout the whole film. She even brings up the fact that he’s jealous that she’s been made partner at her job and that perhaps he’s been acting upset because of his ego. He throws his ring at her and moves out.
Perry strategically places Diane in a black pant suit to demonstrate how women’s equality READ MOREthreatens the black household which is just plain ol’ racialized sexism.
Inevitably Terry moves back in, and we find out in the second movie that Diane succumbs to having a child with him despite the fact that she really doesn’t want to. She even calls her child, “his son.”
In reality, in most of Tyler Perry’s films, women end up in this position somehow:
Yeah…this is from the film “For Colored Girls.” Great choreopoem, nightmarish film. Photo/CC BY
I am not saying that Tyler Perry is necessarily the problem. In reality, Hollywood is. If Hollywood granted more Black filmmakers visibility, then I don’t think we would all be so upset with Perry’s films. It’s easy to pick on him because his plots are so overtly problematic [despite how entertaining they are!], but in reality, the problem rests in the racist politics of Hollywood that only allow for one Black filmmaker to get visibility at a time. What are your thoughts? What are some other themes you see?