Tyler Perry has rapidly become the most bankable African-American moviemaking brand in Hollywood and an entrepreneurial heavyweight. The seven feature films he has conceived and produced have earned more than $300 million at the box office, with an average opening-weekend gross of $25 million–no small feat for films with predominately black casts. He credits his creative inspiration for these films, in part, to African-American women. So far, so good–that is, until you see the films.
Perry’s films typically follow the same timeworn narrative: a woman experiences abandonment and/or abuse at the hands of a “bad” man; she takes umbrage, lashing out at those closest to her, most notably a “good” man in her life; she experiences a revelatory moment of change; and she ends the film settled down with the good man who promises her a better life.
Though Perry repeatedly references his admiration for and allegiance to African-American women as a foundation of his work, his portrayal of women of color undermines the complexity of their experience through his reductionist approach to his characters and his dependence on disquieting gender politics. Perry may see himself as creating modern-day fairy tales for black women, but what he may not realize is that fairy tales, in general, have never been kind to women.
The crux of Perry’s gender problem lies in his reliance on conservative gender politics that eschew a more progressive, inclusive agenda. Each of his films advances nearly the same message to his audience (which is overwhelmingly African-American, female, devoutly Christian and over 30). Be demure. Be strong but not too strong. Too much ambition is a detriment to your ability to find a partner and spiritual health. Female beauty can be dangerous. Let a man be a “man.” True female fulfillment is found in the role of wife and/or mother. To this effect, the black church plays a central role in Perry’s vision. While the church championed equality during the civil rights movement and was instrumental in fighting for the advancement of African-Americans along the lines of race, it has routinely adopted a more conservative agenda along the lines of gender. In using a traditional religious paradigm as the linchpin for his work and by investing in prevailing gender politics, Perry is proposing an agenda that reinforces rather than revolutionizes the marginalized way that black womanhood has been portrayed in popular culture.
Most of Perry’s films are based on plays that he wrote, produced, directed and starred in early in his career. More or less morality tales, these plays introduced strong female protagonists and a fervent religious message, and oftentimes featured the gun-toting, sassy, buxom mother figure, called Madea, a character played by Perry himself in drag. Perry has joined the growing cohort of contemporary black male comedians who have played big, sassy black women who dole out sage advice–with an undercurrent of violence–at the flip of a coin. And while Madea is arguably Perry’s most popular creation, she too has her critics. “Tyler keeps saying that Madea is based on black women he’s known, and maybe so…. But Madea does have connections to the old mammy type. She’s mammy-like. If a white director put out this product, the black audience would be appalled,” says pre-eminent film scholar Donald Bogle. Black female relationships within Perry’s films are often interrupted by the Madea character, who shows up in order to “teach” these women the proper way to femininity that will ultimately lead to Prince Charming and a happy ending.
To be sure, Perry’s rise is impressive. He rose from homelessness to owning his own studio on the former headquarters of Delta Air Lines. His House of Payne and Meet the Browns enjoy regular programming on TBS. His book Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings sold 400,000 copies in its first year of release. His DVDs have sold over 25 million copies. And he does cast a host of black actresses in leading roles, such as Lynn Whitfield, Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Sanaa Lathan, Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson and Alfre Woodard–women who have been largely overlooked by Hollywood. Yet the roles he provides these celebrated actresses with are hardly ideal.
Perry has been incredibly prolific, producing films at an average of two per year. His next film, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, will be released in early September. As in many of his previous films, women will deal with abuse, abandonment and collapsing family structures, in addition to both physical and sexual violence. But the process by which these women move from tragedy into hope is problematic. Perry is uniquely poised to become the second most influential African-American in media (following Oprah Winfrey, of course) and is quickly on his way to reaching the exclusive billionaires’ club. But shouldn’t he consider creating characters that speak to complexity and not caricature? How can black women achieve equity in media ownership, images and leadership if they’re always portrayed as stereotypes? Mr. Perry, you owe your audience something better.