Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Queer Auntie for the Straight Black Family: A quick follow-up on Tyler Perry

For AJC and DLM

It has often been said that Tyler Perry's films are homophobic. But what if that's not the case?

Could it be that Tyler Perry is trying to find the oddly gendered person a stable and necessary place in the "family" that is the black race? We know that some families beat, disown, or try to correct gender-inappropriate family members. Could Perry really be saying that his wild, transvestite character Madea--warts and all--is actually the most important aspect of her extended family, even if she does not have a hetero/nuclear family of her own? Could this actually be a blow in favor of new family formations, instead of the insipid, worn-out, impossible gender oppositions his films claim to sell?

Certainly this is the effect of the films. Whether Perry knows that this is what he has done, I'm not sure. And, even if he does, the cost is high: Madea gets to stay in the family, it seems, because of her perpetual offer of service to help them meet their hetero dreams. It's not clear what she gets out of it... any more than I could ever figure out what the guys on _Queer Eye_ got out of being straight guys' fairy godmothers... or what Lisa Turtle (yes, I went there!) got out of being everyone's matchmaking confidante on _Saved by the Bell_ .(For those of you who are too young to get the reference, take lonely Mercedes from _Glee_, subtract her singing voice and about 80 lbs, and you've got Lisa).

Apparently, it easier to imagine all these black feminine figures as lacking desire -- the more so that they can help you get what you want. Or, put another way, their only desire is that you get what you desire. It's a beautiful fantasy for the one getting. But it seems a bad trade for the person giving: you won't banish or annihilate me as long as I promise to spend all my time helping you get what you want. Umm, ok. I guess that's the assimilation two-step. Glad to know who's leading that dance.


  1. Is this something semi-new Perry is bringing to male drag? The maternal/sisterly figure is not new ('Some Like It Hot,' 'Ms. Doubtfire', 'Big Momma') but that fact that Madea is a constant is likely new, no?

    Still it's amazing how on the whole archetypes don't change: black women as best black friend or strong ghetto mother.

    Also I think Mercedes has some interesting plots ahead...

  2. Well, AJC, you know I have to take it back to Shakespeare!

    In at least two plays (Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice) the transvestite characters do not "change back" at the end of the play. In Twelfth Night, the Duke actually asks his female love interest (who is of course, a boy, dressed as a girl who disguises herself as her twin brother) to stay in her boy's clothes, since that was how he fell in love with her. In Merchant, Portia threatens to sleep with her male alter ego if her husband ever leaves her home alone again. So, their transvestism is never undone in order for the play to have a happy ending.

    But Madea is not a love interest like these boy actors. So I guess she also serves a similar function to the Shakespearean fool. Like the fool, she isn't really part of the marriage economy and she gets away with saying unpleasant things to powerful people because she is so witty and observant. The fool is a "constant," in that he crops up in so many plays. However, in a specific play, the fool often walks away once everything has been set right.

    So I guess Madea is a strange mash-up... Of course, I'm not saying Perry is doing Shakespeare. I'm just talking about the functions of the transvestite and the fool that Madea seems to draw from.

  3. I would never accuse you of comparing Perry to Shakespeare!

    The love interest aspect is an important part of the story -- that's what I was talking about with Mercedes, who's getting a boyfriend next season: Of course, it took three seasons. Plus ca change...

  4. I guess it's funny that McGruder went straight to this aspect in his send-up. Remember "Ma Dukes Gets a Man", starring Granddad as the love interest? I admit I haven't seen all the Perry movies, but I don't know that we've seen Madea kiss a man... which suggests to me that that classic Boondocks episode was a hilarious parody of Perry himself but completely misunderstood the Madea movies (or understood them solely as the occasion for panic about gay male predators).

    I hate to admit that I'll be interested in Mercedes' boyfriend. I'll have to check the article to see what excuse, if any, they give for taking so long to notice.

  5. I know I'm late to the game on this, but I think the Madea --> queer member of the black family space is an argument that should be taken further. Though there is clearly a drag / fool legacy at work here, I think the way AintStudyingYou has put it makes for a compelling and actually productive perspective on what Perry/Madea is doing in the present day. I like it that its hard to deny in reality but still goes against all the conventions apparently supported and reinforced by the perry-model of entertainment. More people should add this kind of argument to their arsenal...