This post is dedicated to the four-year-old girl I met on the bus home from class earlier this week. We talked about Dora the Explorer, her older sister’s boyfriend, her alter ego Juanita, and sang “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.” She also named the women on the cover of Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women as Cultural Readers. A reproduction of Varnette Honeywood’s Snuff Dippers, the women depicted are now named Sophia and Danielle, respectively. This girl is the fucking future.
When I lived in Austin, I watched several Tyler Perry movies with my friend Erik. Perry is an industry unto himself, so to avoid watching his films seemed short-sighted to us. The politics of avoidance shaped and raced reception practices around his films. Perry’s consumer base are people of color, particularly within African American communities. Erik wanted to have some understanding of these movies because many of his co-workers are fans of Perry’s films. Thus, he wanted to be able to discuss them if they ever came up in conversation at work. I believe he saw Perry’s entire filmography, including filmed performances of the stage plays, which include intermissions, flubbed lines, improvisations, musical numbers, and discussions from Perry about moral lessons and thematic elements.
As a media studies scholar, I’m troubled by the racial politics of distinction and selection when choosing not to see a Tyler Perry movie. Pretty much all of the white people of my acquaintance, both within and outside of the academy, refuse to see Tyler Perry movies primarily because of the charges of sexism, homophobia, and misogyny led against his work. I can certainly understand the rationale behind the boycott, especially from within communities of color. At least one of my girlfriends refuses to see any of his films, in part because she is bothered by her parents’ fandom. Womanist Musings’ Renee Martin argues “Perry has said on many occasions that Madea is his version of a tribute to Black women, and I for one would much prefer he erase us.” Public figures like Todd Boyd seek to turn it such resistance into a social moment.
Likewise, I certainly understand the tacit privilege and threat of appropriation that occurs when white filmgoers take up a Tyler Perry film. While some white critics are engaging with Perry’s work in thoughtful ways, as Matt Zoller Seitz does in an essay that compares Perry’s work to Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography, these contributions should be problematized rather than taken as given. I’m also not discrediting claims against homophobia, sexism, and misogyny, as they are foregrounded and embedded within many of Perry’s films. Successful women are constantly vilified or pathologized in ways that play directly into black patriarchy. The threat of male emasculation looms so large it begs psychoanalytic intervention. Finally, the ways in which violence against women is played as high melodrama and violence against children is figured as slapstick is troubling, though perhaps speak to larger cultural histories of discipline and racial difference. Nor do I want to suggest that Tyler Perry’s films speak to or stand in for universal black experience, as no such thing exists.
But in my field, there is no justification for seeing a shitpile like Transformers because it is a successful film franchise (and thus a potential conference paper or book chapter) but avoiding a financially lucrative yet potentially problematic set of film titles and franchises from a controversial black male director. Even when Perry’s work is discussed in these contexts, the conversations can be disappointing. The logic behind such selectivity reminds me of an anecdote Kristen Warner shares at the beginning of her Flow column on black women and affect on reality TV. At a conference panel she attended, a presenter spoke on the Real Housewives franchise, but made clear that she didn’t watch the Atlanta season. Warner continues, “While others laughed, I was inwardly infuriated because, honestly, in a franchise based on ridiculous women behaving badly, how can one distinguish which cast is the worst?” Exactly. The troublesome rhetoric of positive representations and resultant policing and exclusionary strategies are at work here.
Though my screenings with Erik were casual, we knew as white twenty-somethings that there might be something potentially anthropological about what we were doing. Though we did see Why Did I Get Married Too in theaters, we decided against seeing it opening weekend, as it coincided with the Texas Relays. Instead, we saw it a few weeks later at my neighborhood movie theater. We also saw Why Did I Get Married, Daddy’s Little Girls, Medea Goes to Jail, Madea’s Family Reunion, and I Can Do Bad All By Myself.
Of Perry’s films, I like I Can Do Bad All By Myself the best. For one, it’s got Byron (Frederick Siglar), a charming kid who delivers some of the best reaction shots I’ve seen in recent memory. For another, it boasts cameos from Mary J. Blige and Gladys Knight, two black female artists whose music has been transformative for many black women. More importantly, Taraji P. Henson is excellent as April, a night club singer and alcoholic who is charged with and later embraces caring for her nephew Byron and his siblings Jennifer (Hope Olaidè Wilson) and Manny (Kwesi Boakye) after their family falls apart. Given the recent exclusion of the Academy Award-nominated actress from a TV Guide cover story for Person of Interest, such demonstrations of her formidable talent serve as necessary reminders. Of Perry’s work, it might also be the most female-positive and least pathological.
A couple of years ago, I attended a conference panel presentation that featured a prominent communication scholar who presented on Perry’s films. Apart from failing to demonstrate basic knowledge of Perry’s filmography or any interest in acquiring it, what disappointed me most about the scholar’s presentation was that she refused to dialogue with any discourses around fan and reception practices that might challenge her extremely negative reading of his work. While reading Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women As Cultural Readers for class this week, I wondered how black women would discuss texts like the Medea series, The Help, or Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. Thankfully, such discourses are constantly evolving online.
What strikes me most about Bobo’s book is the role translation plays in black women’s reception practices. In a chapter focusing on black women’s discourses surrounding Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, the director recalls resistance toward having the film subtitled. She discusses her initial inability to engage with Miller’s Crossing because it took her a bit to adjust to the characters’ thick accents, then adds “You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We’ve had no other choice.” This makes me reflect on teaching, both as a college instructor and as music history workshop facilitator for Girls Rock Camp. With GRC, I seek to challenge the organization’s riot grrrl origins, how genres are privileged, how fan cultures around musical genres are raced, and acknowledge the reality that riot grrrl might not mean much to black female campers’ reception practices or lived experiences. I’m completely fine with this. As a feminist, I strive toward building a curriculum of inclusion where black girls can participate and influence. Translation will always be a part of this process, though hopefully we can think of it as an invitation rather than a challenge.