Saturday, August 6, 2011

Madea Is Her own Baby's Daddy: Thoughts on Tyler Perry's latest

So, here's an unexpected confession: I didn't find Tyler Perry's latest (Madea's Big Happy Family) that bad at all. Up to this point, I had avoided all the Madea movies, thinking that his work with stronger actors would be better. Not so: his misuse of Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard (in the incoherent Family that Preys) and his utter failure to translate Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls were tear-out-my-hair infuriating.

The most recent Madea film (my first) was actually pretty pleasant.† I smiled often. I laughed a few times and seldom grimaced. I could see that some aspects of his film-making are improving. He seems to do a better job of mixing the genres that influenced him: the gospel stage-plays were present in his ad-libbing and prominent musical numbers; Eddie Murphy's Klumps clearly inspired Perry to attempt multiple characters, each requiring mounds of makeup and prosthetics; and the talk-show influence actually surfaced in the person of none other than Maury Povich. To top it off, Madea also briefly mentioned that Oprah doesn't want her to text and drive--a brief nod to Perry's real-life friend.

While typing that last sentence, I nearly wrote "him" for Madea. This impulse has nothing to do with wanting to make fun of transvestism by playing with pronouns. I want to account for the array of things that are out-of-place about this character. In a certain sense, Madea is well-acted. Perry is very credible in the role. I never get the sense that he is out of character, losing his accent or posture. Interestingly, he is equally consistent as an elderly male (Uncle Joe, if I recall). His only unconvincing performances are actually when he plays a fairly young, heterosexual male: in films like The Family that Preys... or when speaking as a young heterosexual male (i.e., himself) in interviews.

This film ends ** SPOILER ALERT ** with a trip to Maury Povich. Madea and Mr. Brown are there to find out the paternity of Madea's light-skinned adult child (whose name I forget). From what I could gather, Madea had only recently told her  daughter that Brown was the father. But, in this film, a trip to the hospital (first) and a full-on DNA test (on Povich) prove that this is not the case. I am sure the series will resolve it another way, but I would like to contend that Madea is her own baby's daddy.

I'm asking you to think of Madea as the "phallic mother." If I remember my Freud, the father of psychoanalysis said that the infant thinks of the mother as an all-sufficient figure. She provides both the nursing breast and physical protection (because she is so much larger than the baby). In that sense, she fulfills social duties that Freud's  Victorian contemporaries divided between men and women. As the story progresses, children age and discover that this phallic mother is umm--missing something. She has been castrated. To explain with a less hyperbolic metaphor, one could say that society typically does not authorize the mother to display aggression and lay down the law in the way that a father figure can. This proper white Victorian woman doesn't have balls. But Tyler Perry's Madea does.

Madea is part of a long line of black female characters who take on both roles. In the infamous Moynihan Report, this strong black matriarch was considered The Problem with black American family structure. But in the Perry films, she seems to be the solution--or, at least, an instrument for rescuing the only version of stable families the films can imagine: two-parent, nuclear families, with a strong man at the helm and a submissive woman under him. But why is the instrument of correction--the one who is supposed to stabilize black families by creating respectful children, responsible fathers, and dutiful wives--why is this figure so gender (and age) inappropriate? And how can such a supposedly mis-gendered person bring about gender normalcy?

It is interesting that Madea should appear at this moment in African-American life. There is, we are continually told, a crisis of gender in African-American communities. Perry's movies speak to them and attempt to resolve them: why else would he have an entire series of films entitled Why Did I Get Married?

Madea recapitulates the figure Bernie Mac longed to have resurrected in The Original Kings of Comedy. Lamenting what he termed "pussy-ass parents" of both sexes, he called for the return of Big Mama. "That motherfucker," he insisted, was the best disciplinarian. Big Mama and Madea use methods that fit the idea of the phallic mother. Unlike the weak, castrated mother of the gender-appropriate middle-class, she has both nurturing tendencies and a capacity to protect the child from threats--including the child's own stupidity and sinfulness.

Given the emphasis on the crisis of black males and the insistence that black boys have to have fathers present to discipline them (a manufactured crisis that our nation's first black President also plays into), it is interesting that we can't imagine a male who is up to the task. The popularity of Mac and Perry can be taken as an indication that they speak to a fantasy their black audience members share. True, Bernie Mac takes on this disciplining role himself in Kings and its spin-off The Bernie Mac Show. But he does not seem so much a real man as a man who has incorporated the spirit of Big Mama.

Big Mama and Madea figures are big talkers. They set you straight with words that are as forceful as the blows they strike. And what is a stand-up comedian but a big talker? There was never any speculation (that I recall) about Mac dallying in homosex, but I would say that he still causes a gender problem within the framework of black popular culture that he calls on and extends. Quite simply: he talks too much, and men aren't supposed to talk. Men are just supposed to Beat. Up. Pussies. You know, take weak men out and then take women to bed. The trick is that all this aggression is not an end in itself. It is supposed to prevent public embarrassment. So, if you can't defend yourself verbally as well, you can be shamed by someone "weaker" than you.  The model, then, is "feminine" words, backed up by "masculine" fists. The model itself is hopelessly gender-entangled.

This gendering of talk and fear of public shaming cause a constant shuttling back and forth between speech and physical violence. In some cases, this makes for some anxious circular reasoning.†† So, the point is that talking is a necessary aspect of asserting dominant male status, but talking also undermines it by substituting patter for punches. After all, if you so bad, why you just talking about whooping ass instead of doing it?

It seems to me that the phallic mother figure (any version of Big Mama from Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac or Tyler Perry) is a way out of this contradiction. In the person of a masculinized black woman, these male comedians can indulge their best skills (talking) without having to back them up with fists. Who would hit a woman? An old woman at that? These wo/men get to talk, to say outrageous things that would get a young man knocked out--and they even get to engage in some violence themselves, swinging purses, throwing shoes, driving cars through restaurant windows, firing a gun (in the air), slapping. Now, this should have never become a problem, because talk and trouncing should have never been opposed to each other and then mapped onto opposing genders. But here we are!

With her combination of age, vitality, sexual knowledge, biblical literacy, and disciplining violence, the Big Mama figure is supposed to be able to set everyone back in their proper gender, professional, and religious role. That's the happy ending the films strive for. But, along the way, they open up problems too complicated for them to solve so neatly. From what I've heard, in Perry's films, black fathers are most often either abusive or powerless. Black mothers, meanwhile, are either vicious shrews or women who pray when they should be beating ass. Rather than re-establishing the complementary sexes in a functional marriage, a Madea movie makes this impossible--perhaps against Tyler Perry's better judgment.

In the newest film, Big Happy Family, the working-class husband gains control of his domineering wife by ventriloquizing words fed to him by Madea. She mouths from the next room: Put your foot down. Be a man! Inexplicably tamed by this fresh-out-the-box male bravado, his wife suddenly agrees that she will stop being mean to him. This is a remarkably fast turnaround, given the wife's habit of tearing him down and given the husband's unconvincing play-acting at "real" manhood. Does Perry actually expect his audiences to believe that manhood is nothing more than an act? Is he, perhaps, very subtly suggesting just that, by making Madea more of a so-called man than any of the actual men in the films?

Another example: The middle-class husband is even more ineffective than the other one--though he is certainly more active. Like the archetype of the abused wife, he threatens to leave his vicious spouse and take their child away from her. None of his actions--however much bass he puts in his voice--ever shake his wife. It's only Madea's revelation that the wife was molested by an uncle that interrupts the evil wife's unrelenting nastiness. Suddenly--and strangely--she asks to be held by her husband: a strange response for someone whose nastiness toward him would seem to stem from the fact that all men remind her of this abusive uncle. Again, although the film suggests that men need to be in control of their shrewish wives, it's actually Madea who lays the wife low.
What model male-headed household needs a spinster Aunt to inaugurate and back the rule of Daddy? For all the energy Perry's films expend trying to fix these families in heteronormative frames, they never succeed. Madea always remains King... and Queen of the family. 
The films' idea of men and women as complementary opposites is further complicated by Perry's public statements. His characters always seem like pieces of Perry's own public persona: Loretta Devine (whom I've never seen turn in a bad performance) seems Perry's ego ideal, with her devout optimism. The molested daughter (who has risen from poverty to wealth) mimics Perry's own story of molestation and economic success. But then, her, gorgeous son (the product of the rape), is a facet of Perry's persona, too: he never had the protective mother that he wanted. And, of course, in this media-saturated age, Perry can't not idealize this actor and wish he resembled him.†††

So this leaves me to wonder: why are Perry's movies so popular? Based on the three that I've seen (and what I've heard about the others), it seems as if he plays out his own psychodrama in every film: there is an abusive bad man whom most of the religious women are too pious to combat. This bad man hurts women and children. And the films produce what Perry never got in real life--a good man to save mother and child from the bad one--not to mention a woman (Madea) who is strong and wild enough to face him. Best of all, she is always available for that confrontation. Come to think of it, even Precious (which he did not write or direct but backed financially) has this motif. So, why do viewers like returning, ritualistically, to the confined space of this filmmaker's history of abuse and familial dysfunction? Why do these films resonate?

From fan commentary, it would seem Perry's popularity is proof that he has his finger on the pulse on the reality of black life. But I would make a slight amendment: I think he has captured a fantasy  of both the problem in black families and neighborhoods and its solution. Perry sells the promise that the tensions between church and street--and that between impossible masculinity and phallic motherhood--can be resolved with a swing of Madea's purse and a few choice "pre-scriptures"--Perry's term for Madea's mix of "Scripture" and "prescriptions."

The brilliant, hilarious compound-word "prescripture" suggests that Madea offers "both/and" when, in fact, what she offers is "neither/nor." She is neither masculine nor feminine, neither chaste nor sexually active, neither churchgoing nor aetheist. Time, I suppose, will tell if we are able to imagine a "both/and" where talk and action are not opposed and stupidly assigned to one sex or the other. I wonder, then, why Perry's movies--since they have a "both/and" represented in the gender-blended person of Madea--insist so strongly on pure, opposite genders that the films themselves show don't work.
I guess seeing pure gender fail has just made it seem more desirable for some. Too bad it's a fantasy and we've got real problems in our relationships.



† Perry and his cinematographer still have not figured out how to use the camera during dialogue. They tend to focus only on the person speaking (as if it were a stage monologue). Or they focus on someone who is listening but not reacting. Sometimes, a viewer would like to see the whole scene, to see the bodies in relationship to each other instead of moving from tight shot to tight shot. Is this about Perry's famous budget-cutting mechanisms? They can stop those now. As Dave Chappelle would say: he's RiiiiIIICHhh!"

†† To go back to Kings of Comedy, think of Steve Harvey's confrontation with "Boogie" -- the audience member who ignores Harvey's request to remain in his seat, exits  in the middle of the show, but has to come back because he left his coat. Harvey embarrasses him in a number of ways: he calls him uneducated ("nothing about you says computer or school"). He holds onto (even wears) Boogie's coat. He accuses him of being in the drug game. All this talking puts Harvey in a weird position, gender-wise, though. He admits, "I should leave you alone. You could probably whoop my ass." But then he quickly adds: "You can forget about these suits and [my show on] the WB. I ain't just gon let you whoop me. I'm from the projects! You fuck with me, I'll get projeck-ish!"

††† This is not a swipe at Perry. It's been argued that the rise of the male fashion/cosmetics industry has increased male self-consciousness about appearance across the board--regardless of class or sexuality. The goal has been to make men as convinced that buying these drawers, that shirt, this hair product, or that gym membership will finally make us look like stars and, therefore, worthy of being seen in public. See the perceptive Mark Simpson (who provided the original and best definition of the meterosexual).

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