Tyler Perry is a producer, actor, comedian and writer, whose work millions of people have consumed over his 27-year long career. The works of Tyler Perry permeate the homes and televisions of many black families. Because his works are centered about the livelihood of black people in the United States, it is important to scrutinize the portrayal of black people in his videography and evaluate its overall impact on black communities across the country. While the majority of Tyler Perry’s work exercises the frequent mass stereotyping of black people, which is detrimental to black communities, the responsibility of changing the black narrative within the United States should not fall onto black people, regardless of whether or not they are as socially prominent as Tyler Perry. This does not change the fact that his work is detrimental to black people because it constantly perpetuates damaging black stereotypes, warping the attitudes of the black people who view his work as they see his characters as all black people are able to be. It is also important to ensure that the works of black artists are being viewed through a black lens because the experiences of black people and the emotions connected to them may not fully translate through a white lens.
Perry began his career in entertainment through theater, where he wrote his first playI Know I’ve been Changed. With the support of a faithful black audience, Perry garnered enough money to fund his first major film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Through this movie, the world was introduced to the character of Mabel Simmons, better known through a mainstream lens as Madea. Madea is a tough-loving, elderly black woman who familial background is somewhat a mystery to the audience. Many have drawn striking similarities between the character of Madea and the Sapphire stereotype, an archetype originating from slavery that portrayed black women as strong and and masculine women, devoid of any maternal nurturing or compassion. Madea seems to incite fear anyone she meets, including the men and children in her life. However, it is possible to see compassion in some of her more unconstrained actions. For example, in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, when Helen informs her grandmother, Madea, that her husband kicked her out of her house, Madea takes Helen back to Helen’s house to destroy it, insisting that it will make Helen feel better. Madea did state that her actions were in order to make Helen feel better and to make her husband pay, which comes out of a place of compassion. Nonetheless, Madea’s actions are viewed through a white lens, which posits the ‘angry black woman’ or ‘sapphire’ narrative onto not only the character of Madea, but also strong black women in real life. This detrimental mindset enforces attitudes within black people that all they can be is whatever stereotype they ascribed and nothing more. It eradicates the sense of joy or ambition in the actions of black people. However, there are other characteristics of Madea are almost certainly meant to be a resemblance of the stereotype, which complicates how we view the character through a black lens. This is part of the issue with Perry’s work, because while it is important to look at his work through a black lens, his work is still heavily based on black stereotypes, regardless of the lens.
Another piece by Perry that did not sit well with members of the public is his hit TV series House of Payne, which follows the lives of Curtis and Ella Payne as multiple members of their family filter in and out of their house with different family issues. The area where Perry received a lot of criticism is his portrayal of drugs in the series. Janine Payne, the wife of Curtis and Ella’s nephew, CJ, had issues with drugs from the beginning of the show. Many white viewers felt the jokes on the show in relation to drugs were insensitive and pernicious to the conversation about drugs in the United States. In an interview, Perry emphasized that he knew that the majority of his audience know his thought process behind his jokes, stating that it is common for black people to resort to humor or laughter as a coping mechanism when dealing with heavy topics. Nonetheless, similar to the stereotypes posited onto the character of Madea, the stereotype of black drug addiction became further attributed to black people. It is important to, again, acknowledge that while Perry’s mindset behind the jokes about drugs on the show can be somewhat understood, he is still perpetuating the problematic, stereotypical narrative of a drug-ridden black family.
One issue that, through both a white and black lens, Perry has historically either completely avoided or handled very badly is sexuality. Perry’s primary audience is Black, Christian women so he has mainly avoided sexuality in his previous works. However, in his soap opera The Haves and the Have Nots, Perry introduces the character of Jeffrey, a closeted gay black man from a wealthy family. The characteristic of being a closeted black man is one that can resonate with many viewers. It is how Perry developed this character proves to be an issue. Jeffrey forms an unhealthy obsession with his friend and client, Wyatt. Jeffrey goes as far as to stalk him and perform unwanted physical advances towards Wyatt. Perry made Jeffery’s homosexuality a trait that was responsible for his sadistic actions. Perry chose this harmful narrative to be his first artistic engagement with the black LGBTQ+ community, which is something that is problematic regardless of whether it is from a white or black lens. What is strange is that Perry has fought for LGBTQ+ rights in real life, which raises the question of why he would portray a gay black man in such a prejudicial, stereotypical manner.
It is difficult to take apart the works of Tyler Perry because he has proven to be very influential out of his artistic work, which is why it is important to, for the sake of this analysis, separate the art from the artist. Tyler Perry’s work is mainly based on black stereotypes, which makes it hard for black communities to move away from historically detrimental black narratives. However, while Perry does perpetuate these narratives, it is not his, nor any black person’s responsibility to rewrite those narratives. This does not change the fact that his artistic actions how black people view themselves due to how they are portrayed in the media.
One thought on “Tyler Perry and His Artistic Presence in Black Communities”
Although this is a blog post about Tyler Perry’s work, the in-depth work of his “Madea” character makes the writing unique. I believe that adding this into the blog really allows us readers to have something to grasp when we try to understand what you are elaborating on in the text. The ‘Sapphire’ narrative is what stood out to me the most, I would have never thought of Madea in this manner if it wasn’t for your writing. Tyler Perry’s engagement with sexuality is definitely covered in your blog, and using an example from his work only strengthens your argument. I believe the most important aspect of your blog is that you did not venture away from your thesis. You did not waste sentences with filler words or phrases that do not relate to the topic, you were very succinct. Great work.