A few weeks ago, a friend and I were taking a short study break to watch our favorite guilty pleasure TV show. We refuse to reveal its name out of embarrassment, and I will refrain from writing it here, but let me give you a hint: it’s an ABC family drama in which four high school students try to solve a crime of some sort. Moving on.
During a commercial break, the trailer for the latest Tyler Perry movie, Madea’s Big Happy Family, aired and our eyes rolled simultaneously. We, very sleep-deprived, decided that there must be some fantastic surprise in the middle of each movie that movie-goers aren’t telling us about, like it suddenly turns into Harry Potter 8 or Toy Story 4 (which should definitely be created, by the way). But as we know, that is not the case.
Luckily for me, last Tuesday, February 22, sociology professor Cherise Harris gave a lecture called “Capturing Audiences, Cultivating Perceptions: Tyler Perry and the Social Construction of the Black Middle-Class.” The event was part of the ConnWorks/Gender Grubs lecture series, sponsored by the Center for the Comparative Study of Race & Ethnicity and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. It was also a part of Conn’s Black History Month’s activities.
The event was based around two questions: how are middle-class blacks portrayed in Tyler Perry films and what are the social implications of these portrayals? Finally, someone has decided to question the man behind Madea. Surprisingly, very few academic papers have been written on Tyler Perry’s movies, which Harris discovered during her own research.
Harris began the lecture by discussing the media constructions and the portrayal of African-Americans in films since the early 1990s. At that time, most of the images of black Americans were of members of the lower class, such as the characters in Boyz N the Hood, which “glorifies the image of the violent gangster” and according to Harris “creates a sense that black Americans aren’t fit for integration or assimilation,” which is a negative stereotype that the filmmakers are sending to audiences. But come the mid-to-late-90s, middle-class black professionals began to have a growing portrayal in movies, as in the engaging and moving film Soul Food.
But as of the 2000s, Tyler Perry has been dominating the screen with his raunchy comedies about black life. Harris pointed out that as mass media today is dominated by images of whites, most images of blacks on the big screen are coming from Perry (one audience member groaned when Harris mentioned this), and as of January 2011, Perry had grossed around $430 million from his work (I groaned when I heard this). The man basically has a monopoly on film portrayals of middle-class black families.
Perry’s characters embody, for the most part, undesirable qualities and traits, as seen in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Why Did I Get Married? and Madea Goes to Jail. The women, while some are educated, are either “weak and ineffectual” or controlling and a tad crazy. As for the men, Harris calls some of them “emasculated black gentlemen,” as they can be caring and sensitive but they are also controlled by their women. The other men play a different role as “cruel, oversexed and savage” guys obsessed with power and money. All right, so they’re a little dysfunctional, kind of abusive and a bit materialistic. But it’s just a movie, right? Not necessarily.
If viewers are only seeing this derogatory image of black professionals as cheaters and spouse-beaters (physical violence goes both ways in these films), there is a chance that these images are going to stick in their minds when they think of middle-class blacks. Harris explained this idea as “cultivation theory,” which is “the social-psychological approach to the persuasive power of mass media” examining the “long-term effects of media consumption” on members of a society. In other words, if Tyler Perry’s movies account for the majority of images of middle-class blacks that Americans are watching, then they (may) begin to associate these images with real professional blacks in America. And that’s not okay.
These images can “jeopardize real middle-class blacks’ chances by suggesting they are unsuitable for assimilation and integration,” said Harris. The messages that Perry’s movies are sending to both whites and blacks can be detrimental. According to Harris, whites are being told that middle-class blacks aren’t “fit for mainstream society” and blacks may be “internalizing [these] images as accurate representations of black Americans.” Perry does a lot of stereotyping in his films—negative stereotyping that can, though not necessarily will. have damaging effects to our society.
To remedy this situation, Harris said that “greater inclusion of black directors and producers in Hollywood would result in a more diverse portrayal of blacks and we would have more images than we have now.” More images would produce a wider variety of models; with the negative images would come more positive ones. Another thing to keep in mind is that audiences should become more critical viewers. Of course, we go to movies to be entertained, but after watching the film, we should think critically about what we just watched.
Now, before we go too far, let me acknowledge the fact that these comedies are meant to do what all comedies are meant to do, and that is to entertain an audience. I will happily admit that while watching the trailer for the latest film, I laughed out loud when Madea made a little boy pronounce “hello” as “hellur” because it sounded “very proper.” Perry creates these films with the intention of making people laugh (which they do), but he also makes them to relate to black audiences. One reason these movies may be so popular is because people see a bit of truth in them. As Harris put it, “people flock to these films because they are the only images that resonate in some part” with the viewers’ lives.
While some viewers, like me, may be skeptical about the popularity of these films, I’ve come to understand that maybe some people do see grains of truth in them. I mean, I can’t deny that some groups, families and individuals all have dark sides. Look at shows like Pretty Little Liars¸ The Secret Life of the American Teenager and basically any daytime soap opera and tell me that the characters on those shows aren’t crazy and I’ll look at you like you have twelve heads.
At the end of the presentation, as we were all cozily gathered in a room at the gender and women’s studies house, one audience member was arguing that sure, Perry’s casts were portrayed as very dysfunctional, but we’re forgetting one thing: “white people are crazy, too.” She has a point. White, black, it doesn’t matter what race you belong to; everyone has or knows a dysfunctional family. It’s just part of modern life, and it’s the stuff that fuels what we read and watch. Why? Because while it may be over the top, overly-dramatized and just a little bit insane, we see an ounce of truth somewhere in the books we read and the movies and shows we watch. They’re entertaining, but some part of them may also speak to us. And what’s crazy to you may seem pretty normal to me, and vice versa. So maybe I’ll have to go check out the latest film, Madea’s Big Happy Family, and see if the hype continues. •