Performance Politics: The Subversive Pleasure of Perry
by Rashida Z. Shaw, Ph.D. — Wesleyan University
October 24, 2012 – 00:00
With Alex Cross on the horizon, the self-fashioned Tyler Perry continues to morph into new molds that are very different from his theatrical beginnings in the far-off Broadway auditoriums that housed his urban circuit musicals. Yet, despite Perry’s own evolution, the perception of his spectators remains static and the standards of their pleasure continue to be condemned due to their loyal devotion to the Perry brand. Frequently viewed through a one-dimensional lens, these spectators have born the brunt of the Perry phenomenon in ways that, I argue, simplify what are in fact more complex acts of minority spectatorship and minority consumption of performances that concern and/or feature minorities.
The accompanying clip from Perry’s 2009 production The Marriage Counselor demonstrates the ways in which Perry’s “Madea” products aim to strike at the nexus of an assumed African American identity. Problematic? Yes! However, the fact that his narratives privilege content that is directly taken from the black American experience at-large, including, but not limited to music, dance, faith-based practices and ideologies, traditions of African American humor, and an assortment of references to folksy, if not nostalgic “southern” African American roots, which he then places in a “for us, by us, near us, about us” package, in my view tremendously complicates any evaluation of pleasure. As film scholar Jacqueline Bobo reminds us in her study of African American women who revealed their enjoyment of Stephen Spielberg’s film The Color Purple (1985): “Out of habit, as readers of mainstream texts, [African Americans] have learned to ferret out the beneficial and put up blinders against the rest.” (For more see Bobo’s 1999 book Black Women as Cultural Readers.)
Thus, as Perry continues to write the rules to his self-authored playbook on how to make it big, black, and male in American media, shouldn’t we caution against making the assumption that his black spectators are wholly ignorant of the examples, causes, and effects of mass media’s embattled history of presenting negative, racist, and stereotypical images of African Americans? More importantly, is there no room for the subversive even where negative and stereotypical images reside alongside access points of positive identification, nostalgia, and gratifying memory?