Where Black Women Find Empowerment

My absolute favorite character in any of Tyler Perry’s works is Mabel Simmons. She is unashamed and honest—and protects herself with fierceness and intent. Many times when we are given images of powerful Black women by Hollywood we see her succeed in some aspects of her life, but fail drastically in others. This can be seen in some of Perry’s films, even. Joanna Bradmore in Perry’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf is a hugely successful businesswoman whose entire personality is based on that. In keeping with Hollywood depictions of Black women, she lacks basic compassion. She is the ever present cold, unrelenting bitch responsible for what her husband perceives as his emasculation.

That entire movie, in fact, is riddled with Black women whose traumas follow them throughout their lives, manifesting as emotional mountains they must overcome. Though it is a tale of Black women’s will to triumph it is heavy, and it is dark. The same can be said of Helen in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and April in I Can Do Bad All by Myself.  These women’s lives and stories revolve around their traumatic past, largely at the hands of emotionally or physically abusive men. Madea is our much needed relief from the heaviness of these women’s experiences, but even more so she is affirmation that Black women can too be carefree and uninhibited just as much as they can be strong and fortuitous. Perry contributes positively to Black representation by using Madea’s character to challenge stereotypes that are often dangerous to his target audience: Black women—while still shining light on aspects of our oppression.

Tyler Perry is well-known for his outlandish, sometimes-deemed offensive portrayals of Black life. These depictions have led to harsh criticisms from Black people, especially those of us who feel we are far removed from the “dirty laundry” of our communities. Renowned screenwriter Spike Lee, who has studied film and holds the artform near and dear to his heart, has stated that Tyler Perry does nothing more than regurgitate offensive Hollywood images of Black people. When asked about Perry’s work he declared,  “I think there’s a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery” (Ronald L. Jackson II and Jamel Santa Cruze Bell). These criticisms of Tyler Perry’s work are valid and stem from a deeply rooted, yet understandable defensiveness, however, they are not entirely fair to Tyler Perry and his work.

While it is important to note that Perry’s works exist in a time and space where Black representation is minimal and myopic, thus Black filmmakers are often charged with avoiding harmful stereotypes; Perry has stated many times that he is responsible only to his truth. He is not concerned with the technicalities of “good film,” nor does he consider his work as representative of all Black life. The films and depictions of Blackness within them are unique to Perry’s experience. The images he portrays are true to him and to many others as well. They are not mere reimaginings of the same, tired racist character tropes. Madea is not the tired, old Mammy we want her to be. She is my aunt, my friend, and even me at times. Tyler Perry does not directly challenge the Mammy stereotype by discluding the character in her entirety. Instead, he reimagines her and adds new dynamics to her big personality that can make her hugely empowering—not to mention enjoyable for a lot of women.

Kopano and Ball argue in our textbook that Madea’s role in Perry’s films serves to further perpetuate the Mammy stereotype because of their physical and emotional likeness. The Mammy character is depicted on television as the antithesis of American femininity and womanhood (Kopano and Ball). She is easily recognized by her dark skin, pearly-white teeth always pulled back in a smile, conventionally unattractive features, and acquiescence to the needs of others around her, typically white people. Beauty standards in America dictate that a woman of Madea’s stature—six feet tall and well over 180 pounds—could not possibly be perceived as attractive, nonetheless sexual. Racism has fixed itself so deeply into the trenches of our everyday lives, that the color of a woman’s skin very well dictates her value to society and her success within a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. And finally, gender disparities exclude women from our perceptions of strength, bravery, and dependability. To critics of Perry’s work, Madea fits perfectly into all of these stereotypes. Quite the contrary is happening, in fact. I would go as far as to argue that disallowing Madea to be fat, loud, aggressive, and openly sexual all at once—and instead reading her as a Mammy—feeds into the stereotype more than the character does herself.

Frequently we hear Madea make mention of her stripper past and her many husbands, alluding to a sexual liberation and autonomy not frequently seen in portrayals of fat Black women. As mentioned above, one hugely distinguishing feature of the Mammy stereotype is her absence of sexuality. After American slavery was “legally abolished,” this caricature of a real person became how the majority of white American society saw real Black women (a caricature oftentimes adopted in other [sub]cultural spaces). The social implications of taking from an already vulnerable group the choice to do with their bodies whatever they want are real and grave. Removing sexual autonomy from Black women’s hands validates the sexual traumas that so many of us experience.

Taking what we know of the Mammy character and the abuses that “mammy-fied” women suffered under white supremacy, we see that making her sexless did not effectively remove her from harm’s way. It simply justified the atrocities done to her body. It is hard to see unwanted sex as a crime against a person if you do not value her sexual independence. Madea is a polar contrast to that notion.

Reclamation of her sexuality is meaningful for many Black women, and Madea can very reasonably represent that.

Madea tells us about her sex life like she does everything else; loudly and brashly. This brashness is also offensive to many Black people who have typecast Madea not just as the Mammy character, but as a new blend of the Mammy and the Coon (Bogle). Madea has been described as embodying not only the physical and emotional traits of the Mammy, “but also the traits and behaviors of a coon. As Bogle reminds us, the coon existed as an ‘amusement object and Black buffoon.’”

Society is quick to attack Black women especially those who do not subscribe to respectability politics, a concept introduced by feminist scholar Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in 2001 (Righteous Discontent).  Higginbotham explores the ways that Christian Southern Black women rejected racist stereotypes of them by adapting to White female middle-class standards of morality and behavior. This notion of policing language, behavior, and dress has not disappeared with time. It in fact has become a part of the institutional war on Black girls and women. It is the reason why Black girls are punished more harshly; because “stereotypes of Black girls and women as “angry” or aggressive can shape school officials’ views of Black girls in critically harmful ways. As a result, Black girls are more likely than white girls to be punished for behaviors that challenge our society’s dominant stereotypes of what is appropriate ‘feminine’ behavior— such as being candid or assertive and speaking up when something seems unfair or unjust” (3, Onyeka-Crawford, et al). It is why ‘ghetto’ is a word we throw at Black girls when we mean to hurt or demean them—or relegate them to spaces where free range of expression is prohibited.

I struggle to believe that many of the attacks on Madea’s character are not a product of this same thought. Madea is everything society does not want Black women to be: she is aggressive, full-mouthed, and her spirit is never broken. We find power in that kind of unrelegated expression. Nobody tells Madea to be quiet. Nobody speaks over or cuts off Madea when she’s talking. Madea certainly is not one to be pushed around and bullied. On top of all that, Madea is the epitome of self-defense. We know her best for the piece of steel that she carries on her person at all times. Self defense in and of itself—reclamation of power—is an act of resistance for Black women, especially the most marginalized of us.

Part of the work of dismantling patriarchy and sexist oppression is  empowering girls to speak up for themselves, be aggressive especially when their personal space has been breached, and to be unapologetically themselves. We are through with timidness and acquiescence. No matter how we frame Madea, these are qualities to be admired. Perhaps not to the majority of film critics, but definitely to thousands of Black women all across America. In reconsidering Tyler Perry’s role in the overall representation of Black life, we must look critically at which narratives we are privileging. Perry gives us Madea on a paper plate, with a plastic fork and knife; no fanciness, no parts of her dolled up and dressed up to make us or anyone else comfortable.

When we look at Madea, we have a tendency to see  her as a negative exemplar. She is the character with whom we shouldn’t align ourselves, values, or lifestyles. Yes, she is comedic relief, but she’s more the villain in our eyes than a good character. That understanding of Madea is unilateral, for one, and discounts the thousands of people who can and do relate to her as a character. There is something to connect with for many of us … not only in Madea’s brashness and fearlessness—but in the parts of her life (including her past as a sex worker) that larger society deems irrespectable. That something serves as empowerment to women whose voices are frequently silenced and whose bodies and actions are violently policed.

In presenting Madea to us in this way, Perry challenges harmful stereotypes as they pertain to his target audience and even his own experiences. Madea’s declaration of her sexual liberty and “wild” antics are used throughout Perry’s films as plot devices to motivate main characters through tough times, discipline kids, or right some egregious wrong. This is not only reaffirming for the characters, but also for the audience members themselves. To provide this counter-narrative, this alternate means of representing a hugely vulnerable group of people, and simultaneously uplift them is powerful. It stands against the mammy stereotype, and other equally dangerous ones wholeheartedly.

Sources

  1. Higginbotham, Evelyn B. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. Web.
  1. Kopano, Baruti N., and Jared A. Ball. “Tyler Perry and the Mantan Manifesto: Critical Race Theory and the Permanence of Cinematic Anti-Blackness.” Interpreting Tyler Perry: Perspectives on Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: Routledge, 2014. Web.
  1. Onyeka-Crawford, Adaku, Kayla Patrick, and Neena Chaudry. “Let Her Learn: Stopping School Push Out for Girls of Color.” National Women’s Law Center. 2017: 3. Web.

© Ama Akoto (2017)

Published by Sunshine

Sunny Scape is a safe space for Black women and queer folks. I am committed to eradicating intersecting systems of oppression that overwhelmingly affect people like myself, and doing so in a way that centers the most marginalized of us. That means that I am an activist on behalf of Black and brown queer and trans folks, children, sex workers, disabled folks, people of low socioeconomic status, currently and formerly imprisoned people, and countless others who are pushed to the back burners and relegated to second-class citizenship. This blog and everything within it is absolutely inseparable from the liberation efforts of all the aforementioned groups of people.

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