Tyler Perry Plays God With Black Women
Tyler Perry (born Emmitt Perry Jr.) has spoken openly about his upbringing. He was raised in a physically abusive home with his father, but he has maintained that his mother was a bright light in his life. He recalls weekly church services that they attended together as a source of connection for the two. After leaving his abusive childhood home, Perry went to Atlanta to pursue a career as a playwright. After a few failures and a slight success with I Know I’ve Been Changed on the “chitlin’ circuit”, he finally struck gold with 2000’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself. Much of this success is attributed to a new character that Perry introduced into the zeitgeist. Based off of his loving mother, and several other matriarchs in his life, Madea, a gun-toting, part-time Christian, and sexually explicit grandmother (played by Perry himself) helped propel Tyler Perry into a new stratosphere. Madea came to be the connecting character in almost all of his plays to come. The addition of Madea saw Perry bring in more than $100 million in ticket sales at the height of his theater career.
Madea and Tyler Perry were beloved by theatergoers and soon enough they became beloved by moviegoers. Tyler Perry made his directing, producing, and acting debut as Madea in 2005’s Diary of A Mad Black Woman based on his play of the same name. Filmed on a $5.5 million dollar production budget, Diary of A Mad Black Woman earned $21,905,089 in it’s opening weekend, and over $50,000,000 overall. Though it wasn’t exactly a box office hit, Perry proved himself to be a profitable filmmaker. He also opened up the eyes of the film industry to a demographic long ignored: middle-aged black women. Black women came out in droves to see Perry’s films, more specifically, Christian black women. They were influenced to flock to theaters because of the black female protagonist (notably dark-skinned), but when they were in the audience they were in store for less of a story of a black woman’s independence and more about her punishment and subsequent repentance.
All of Tyler Perry’s work hinges on Christian moralism. In his plays and films alike most of the conflicts are resolved through a combination of prayer, an impromptu church attendance, or some sort of gospel solo. While the solutions usually come from a patriarchal God, so do many of the problems, and Perry follows an Old Testament formula of punishment for sin.
In many of Perry’s films the action centers a black woman who is either in need of being “brought down a peg” or who is soon due for a great tumble. Perry seems to have a great distaste for women who have forgotten their roots or forsaken their families in lieu of a financially, romantically, or sexually fulfilling life. In Tyler Perry’s first film Diary of A Mad Black Woman and in his second film Madea’s Family Reunion, both leading ladies are in relationships with wealthy men. They are believed to be “uppity” by their families because they indulge in the luxuries of being upper class. In the films, Perry is meticulously plotting the ways in which he hopes to humble them. He does so by putting both ingénues in brutally abusive relationships with their husbands. Perry is telling the audience that female haughtiness comes at a price, and if those women want truly happy lives they will settle for simpler lives. Here Perry invokes Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”
Even when Perry has a black womanist blueprint to follow, he manages to change the plans to fit his own vision. In his reimagining of Ntozoke Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When The Rainbow Is Enuf, Perry’s For Colored Girls is still set on punishing powerful women. Shange’s original choreo-poem is about seven women overcoming obstacles to live joyful lives. They each have their fair share of oppressions involving racism, sexual assault, and abuse, but they also deal with issues more common to women everywhere. They love someone they can’t have, someone doesn’t love them enough, or someone loves them too much. They are women, fully. They also create joyous moments. They revel in their sexual pleasures and in their sisterhood with one another. It’s all in the title. Those women considered suicide, but it’s important to remember that the rainbow is enough.
That information isn’t in the title of Perry’s film. It’s not in his film at all. Perry takes what has been held up as a beacon of complex black femininity and molded it to his own liking. He mangles the language and even adds characters that did not exist, most notably Jo, played by Janet Jackson. Jo’s character is a cold high-powered businesswoman who has little time for her husband. She suspects that he is unfaithful to her, but she finds out that not only is he cheating, he is also a closeted gay man. Right after this revelation, Jo discovers that she is HIV positive, which the audience is made to believe she contracted through her husband, because two men cannot engage in sex without spreading HIV. In the creation of this wholly unessential character, Perry yet again punishes a woman for daring to put her career before her marriage. He also demonizes queer black men, who seem to be all but invisible in his work when they aren’t being used as a tool to destroy a black female character.
The most evident form of biblical punishment in a Tyler Perry film comes from Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor. In Temptation, Judith is unhappy with the lack of attention she is receiving from her husband and strikes up an affair with a more exciting, rich man. The wealthy man turns out to be physically abusive (a pattern for Perry) and wants to control Judith. Before Judith’s husband finds out, her mother already knows about her affair due to some magical, spiritual closeness to God. Judith’s mother literally tries to save her from the grips of her abusive boyfriend by forming a prayer circle around her daughter. Judith dismisses all warning signs, leaving her husband for her boyfriend. Before she can even enjoy being in a new relationship, she is beaten nearly to death, and she has contracted HIV (another pattern for Perry). By the time the film has ended, Judith has lost both her husband and her boyfriend, she has contracted HIV, and she is now a regular member of the church. Perry’s punishment for Judith wanting to experience an equal relationship was not only his usual use of violence against women, but also the added kicker of an incurable disease, a scarlet letter if you will. Perry is sure to add that Judith’s faithful husband did not contract the disease and lives a happy life with a new woman, because women who have been marked for making immoral decisions do not deserve forgiveness.
Perry has received a bevy of backlash for his treatment of black women in his films. He’s been accused of misgynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey, a queer black feminist scholar. Misgynoir is the misogyny directed toward black women where race and gender both play roles in bias. He has also been accused of perpetuating stereotypes throughout his filmography, with most fingers pointing to his treatment of women. In crunkfeminstcollective.com’s Tyler Perry Hates Black Women: 5 Thoughts on The Haves and Have Nots, the last thought on the list is “Tyler Perry is dangerous.” The collective goes on to say, “When his heavy-handedness is still not enough to chastise and discipline us for being independent, driven, and sex-positive, he will resort to straight up distortions of history, and assume that his working class audience will miss the sleight-of-hand.”
One of Perry’s most scathing critics is Spike Lee. He has referred to Tyler Perry’s films as, “coonery and buffoonery” continuing with, “We got a black president, are we going back to Mantan Moreland and Sleep and Eat?” Spike Lee has dedicated his career to creating images that combat the controlling images of films from the past, but is it really his place to critique Tyler Perry? In Jimi Izrael’s NPR article, Tyler Perry Vs. Spike Lee: A Debate Over Class And 'Coonery', he poses that Lee’s issues with Perry’s work is less about the kind of films he makes and more about, “class and the popular black aesthetic.” He goes on to write, “Perry's movies don't pretend to be high-art or heavily message-oriented. The irony may be that Perry and Lee tell basically the same stories, about the importance of spirituality, black pride and self-reliance. The key distinction is that Perry's films speak to a different audience than do Lee's, and less artfully so.”
While the critics of Tyler Perry’s films and his treatment of Black women in them, most definitely have a leg to stand on, it’s important to consider Izrael’s point about class and aesthetic. Lee certainly has had his fair share of issues with his portrayals of black women, but he doesn’t receive the same type of criticism that Perry does. Because Spike Lee has a film education from a world-class institution and fills his films with black theory, obscure musical references, and fancy directorial tricks, he is not subject to much of the backlash that Perry is. Spike Lee also rarely ever shows people near or under the poverty line. Many of his characters are college educated or at the very least, securely middle class. While some of them boast about living in the projects, money doesn’t seem to be a priority for many of his characters.
Black male critics and black female critics seem to have two separate issues with Perry’s films and television shows. Black women are hoping for more complex and diverse depictions of black women in his work that doesn’t hinge solely on black female characters being saved either by a Christian man or God himself. Black male critics are hoping that Perry gets out of the dress because he is weakening the depiction of black men (they long for a hyper-masculine image), and stops “cooning” for white audiences. What makes the critique complicated is that Perry doesn’t seem to be doing anything for white audiences, at least not in his early work. After he gained notoriety and saw more profits, he began to include white audiences, but his early films catered to black people, and black, southern, lower class people specifically. Are black male critics upset at Perry for only showing lower class black folks, or are they upset at Perry for pandering to lower class black folks?
Tyler Perry may be the most financially successful black filmmaker the world has ever seen, but he still has so much to learn about the way he portrays his most loyal viewers: black women. In Hilton Als’ New Yorker piece, Mama’s Gun, Als writes, “…Perry’s work does fill a need, building on the comfortable predictability of such black sitcoms as “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son,” and adding a dose of Christian reassurance.” While Perry may lean on the comedic predictability of sitcoms that were beloved (and heavily critiqued) in the past, he also leans on the profitable act of degrading black women for a storyline.