Tyler Perry. Just saying his name elicits many different responses, depending on whom you ask. You may receive responses such as, "He's a modern-day Stepin Fetchit"; "He's a brilliant artist"; "His movies are filled with coonish characters"; or, "He always tells the same preachy story."
There are few individuals in black history who provoke opinions as varied as Mr. Perry does with the movies he produces. You either hate his movies or you can't wait for the next one. You either hate what he represents in his films or you applaud his cinematic and marketing genius.
In my opinion, there could be (and possibly is somewhere) an entire college course dedicated to Tyler Perry and how the movies he makes can create divided feelings regarding how blacks are seen and represented in movies. Yet another could explore the character of Madea, which raises so many other questions regarding what the character represents and how that fits into conversations on homosexuality, transgender identity, and the black church.
No matter what color you are, it is always inspiring to see a rags-to-riches story. Tyler Perry came from a home where, as a child, he was beaten by his father and sexually abused by others. He attempted suicide but eventually graduated from high school with a GED. I have to give him props for his success story. Today he's a multimillionaire, and given that he's one of the few African Americans who not only has a studio but employs many blacks, it's hard to criticize him.
From the start Mr. Perry cultivated an audience with his plays, which always had a religious aspect wrapped in humor. These plays continue to be well-received, especially on what is called the "Chitlin' Circuit." Gaining in popularity, he soon adapted many of his works to film and television with his main protagonist, Madea, leading the way.
Don't get me wrong: Madea is a funny character. But the character contains an interesting paradox, stemming from the fact that she is played by a man (Tyler Perry portrays Madea in drag). The paradox lies in the fact that the character is accepted by the faith community. To many Madea is a non-threatening character who may remind them of their grandmother or some other loud-talking member of their household. Madea represents the take-no-mess-and-tell-it-like-it-is person. But why do faith communities accept Madea when they are aware that she is played by a man in drag? Would the same churchgoing audiences accept a man attending their church services in drag? If they open their arms to a man who wears lipstick and has a padded chest, taking it a step further, would or could that love extend to someone who still has manly features but identifies as a woman? If not, is that because they are actually laughing at us and not with us?
It's no secret that in the black church there is a great divide over LGBT issues. Although Madea is not transgender, there are aspects of the character that raise questions about acceptance of black transgender women. Many gay men can blend in without being marked as gay, but for many women who are transgender, it is more difficult to blend in and avoid ignorance or rejection from faith communities. Whether transgender or gay, to be accepted in the church one has to "butch" oneself up, but even then one wouldn't be fully accepted but relegated to the fringe instead. Or one could just join the choir, where there's a sort of unofficial "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
When regarded as a black man stripped of his masculinity, Madea is nonthreatening, and people accept her for her entertainment value. The same goes for gay black men in today's media; if you look at movies and television, you would think that all gay black men wear dresses, carry purses, and/or walk around in high heels. I recognize that there are members of our community who fit this role, so what I'm saying is not a judgment on them, but I wonder why that's the only image of black gay males that we see in the media. From The Real Housewives of Atlanta to RuPaul's Drag Race, it would seem that stereotypically gay black men are the norm and masculine gay men are the exception. Could it be that the only way to get past the thought of a man in a dress is to emasculate him and render him nonthreatening?
To be fair, Tyler is not the first to entertain an audience in drag. There have been countless before him, like Flip Wilson, Eddie Murphy, and Martin Lawrence. And he's not coming out as gay by performing as Madea, and perhaps this further contributes to Madea's broad appeal.
With another Madea movie set to be released, members of faith communities have another opportunity to reflect on how they treat people in their own communities who happen to have been born male but identify as women, and on how they can embrace and accept those same people as they have Mr. Perry. Yet the truth is that as long as we black gay men and transgender women are making you laugh and shuckin' and jivin', we will always be one thing to faith communities and media audiences: safe.