Performance Politics: The Subversive Pleasure of Perry

Curator's Note

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?

Comments

Racquel Gates's picture

Audiences

You raise some fantastic questions throughout this post, but especially at the end. I agree that the condemnation of Perry’s fans suggests a much larger, and more troubling, perception of African American audiences as unsophisticated. Given that mainstream Hollywood tends to focus on black audiences and black stories only out of necessity, it seems obvious that someone like Perry - who privileges black experience in his films - would win a loyal following. Given the kind of labor that African American audiences regularly engage in (negotiating issues of representation, personal experience, etc.), why are they presumed to be passive consumers as opposed to active spectators?

Evan Saathoff's picture

Audience

I derive my perception of Tyler Perry’s audience as unsophisticated viewers willing to accept his films without condition or quality concerns from from his films’ standing as Christian entertainment rather than anything involving race.

Kristen Warner's picture

Productive Foolywang

Rashida, Thanks so much for writing this post. I find there are many of us “Blackademics”who struggle with the pleasures Tyler Perry’s text give us while acknowledging and holding him accountable for the gross types of Black representations he reinforces and maintains. The thing is, I think you’re right that we must think of new ways to deal with representation beyond positive and negative. We will constantly lose all the richness of pleasure, negotiation, and identification if we stop and start at “postive/negative” binaries. We simply do not have the luxury of choice with regard to films that feature Black folk and no amount of viewership or pleading or shaming seems to change that thus we must work with what we are given. That Bobo quote is real talk and forces us to think beyond these parameters and actually deal figure out what’s productive about the foolywang. As a sophisticated audience member, for example, I could say that at the very moment I wince at something said in Madea’s Big Happy Family, I chuckle the next moment because it’s something I know. And both reactions are telling.

Timeka N. Williams's picture

Right On

This post is right on target. Not only does Tyler Perry’s audience take themselves seriously, but so does he. For example, when Perry reached out to fans following mistreatment during a promotional interview for “Why Did I Get Married?” the explosion of e-mail responses from fans was so great that they eventually caused the server at the Sacramento news station to crash. That’s digital Black power—not passive consumption.

Rashida Z. Shaw, Ph.D.'s picture

Consider the Complexity

I thank all of you for your comments and extending the conversation. It is clear that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in order to disentangle the nuances of Perry spectatorship, within and across the mediums of theater, film, and television. While Perry’s products do bring along their controversies, his marked success, gained primarily through the support of thousands of non-homogeneous (and paying) black spectators, proves that this is a ripe time to explore the often overlooked and narrowly perceived realm of black viewing pleasure. The conversation continues…

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