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“Check With Yo’ Man First; Check With Yo’ Man”: Tyler Perry Appropriates Drag as a Tool to Re-Circulate Patriarchal Ideology

From: Callaloo
Volume 34, Number 3, Summer 2011
pp. 943-958 | 10.1353/cal.2011.0135

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Just days before Tyler Perry’s release of his 2008 film Meet the Browns, media coverage of his career and his successes inundated the popular American imagination. Of particular interest is the front cover of Atlanta’s Creative Loafing that showcases the large title question of the feature article in bold red letters: “Why Can’t We All Get Tyler Perry?”1 The cover presents a seemingly simplistic (and not very creative) image that is packed with visual and political rhetoric worthy of both pause and deliberation. The cover pictures two audience members in an otherwise empty movie theater who are presumably watching a Perry production: one “beige” male and one African American female, both appearing to be twenty-somethings. The male has his eyes closed with his hand pressed to his wrinkled forehead with frustration and confusion. The African American female, on the other hand, is on the edge of her seat, smiling and laughing while throwing popcorn all around as she basks in the entertainment of Perry’s film. The image clearly situates the African American female as adorer of Perry’s work, whereas the male is obviously tortured. While I recognize the racial politics embedded in the image and welcome such an analysis, I am especially interested in the intersection of race and gender presented by Creative Loafing just days before the release of Perry’s fifth major film. The cover situates African American females as Perry’s target audience and argues that females “get” Perry in ways that males cannot. In fact, the subtitle of the article is “Diary of a Confused Beige Man,” suggesting that those who are either “beige” or male cannot vibe with Perry’s artistic productions. Such visual rhetoric orders African American females to take their places as fanatics of Perry’s work, which motivates several pressing questions about African American females and their connection to Perry’s productions—if such a connection actually exists. Is there an undeniable variable of class that yields disparate African American female responses to Perry’s work? And if it is true that African American females are fanatics of Perry’s work and make up his primary demographic and financial backbone, perhaps we could ask ourselves should they be? Does such a relationship between African American women and Perry serve the interests of African American women? If we are interested in progressive feminist politics and thinking, what do we make of an African American male parading around in drag as a respected female elder to advise African American women about issues that plague their everyday lives? What would such an analysis provide in terms of understanding the role of male participation in feminist thought and politics? Finally, how would exploring the practice of drag and its political potential or its liabilities allow us to assess the prominent African American playwright and filmmaker who cannot seem to take off the dress and who will not stop succeeding?

My chief objectives are to investigate the drama of Perry and to introduce critical discussion of his dramaturgy into the academic landscape. I begin by locating several discourses at work in the drama of quite possibly the most popular, most visible, and most financially successful African American playwright of the twenty-first century, if not of all time. Drawing on gender and queer theory, I offer a theoretical discussion about subversive and non-subversive drag acts, and I question the degree to which Perry appropriates drag in a politically liberating or constraining manner. Moreover, I examine the gender and sexual politics in Madea’s Family Reunion (2002) to interrogate Perry’s apparent feminist advocacy and to illustrate the ways in which I read Perry as offering a theatre of paradox in which a conflicted dialectic between his activist aspirations and oppressive tendencies emerges quite problematically, particularly in regard to questions of safe feminist spaces, motherhood, female self-sufficiency, female self-definition, and domestic violence.

Firing off Madea’s gun, Perry seems to promote a radical feminist agenda in which he presents typical controlling image stereotypes that plague African American women, and he deconstructs, reclaims, and reconstructs the images to offer a different vision. He shifts the relations of power from...