Let me start by stating the obvious: I am not African American. But, if I was, and all I was left with was Tyler Perry’s sexist and stereotypical movies as the main representative of my entire culture, I’d be pissed.
In one of my English courses that focuses on gender roles in pop culture, my students are asked to write a gender analysis of a popular film or TV show of their choosing. Over the past few semesters, many of my students have written about Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married and its sequel Why Did I Get Married Too?. So, upon this unspoken recommendation, I thought I would check out WDIGM?.
On the one hand, it is refreshing to see a movie that focuses solely on African American men and women and not the typical reductionist ways that they are often portrayed in mainstream media. The characters in WDIGM? are college-educated, middle to upper-middle class professionals with interesting and complex lives. Additionally, the characters tackle many of the most common issues associated with married life, such as busy schedules, communication, and fidelity. On the other hand, I couldn’t stomach more than 40 minutes of the movie, not only because of its awkward premise and stilted acting, but also because of the downright degrading stereotypes, particularly of African American women.
I understand that African Americans are completely underrepresented and misrepresented in the mainstream media, and, therefore, it is easy to cling to someone like Tyler Perry, who pretty much runs the table on writing and directing plays, movies, and TV shows for and about the African American community. The problem is that Perry seems to think that simply making his female characters lawyers, doctors, and entrepreneurs overrides the blatant sexist stereotypes that pervade his work.
In WDIGM?, Tyler Perry rebukes his female characters for being successful, independent, and strong by portraying them as angry, demeaning women who constantly emasculate their men and, in his opinion, drive those men to infidelity. The women in the movie are either workaholics who ruin their family lives because of their jobs, crazy psychos who scream about everything and nothing, or are religious “mammy” types who are basically naive doormats. There seems to be no “right” black woman as far as Perry is concerned.
In one scene, Angela, has simply had enough of her friend Mike degrading his wife by flaunting around his new mistress. She flips out on him in front of all of the other couples, which prompts the other male characters to look to Marcus, Angela’s husband, to “control his woman.” Of course, Angela is the problem here, not Mike who had been insulting his wife since the beginning of the movie. Obviously it is wrong for a woman to come to the aid of her girlfriend and publicly admonish a man for bringing his side dish to a couples’ weekend and telling fat jokes about his wife in front of everybody. Even though I thought Angela was hilarious and by far the best character in the movie, she is made out to be the typical “angry black woman,” and this leads the audience to sympathize (maybe only slightly) with her cheating husband who is not only cheating but is carrying an STD (ok, so is Angela, but who’s counting?).
Even more insulting is what Perry does with the characters Patricia and Gavin and the tragic loss of their child, which, of course, is Patricia’s fault. Because of Patricia’s preoccupation with work, she forgets to properly strap her son into the car seat, which ultimately leads to his death when they get into an accident. What a warning for women if I ever saw one! Don’t get too involved with work; it just might KILL YOUR FAMILY!!! Of course, we’d never see a man’s preoccupation with work or with his mistress or with his golf game ever interfering with his abilities to be a father. No, no, no – that would never happen.
Tyler Perry even invokes the fairytale victim in WDIGM?. Sheila, who suffers quietly and politely through one trial and tribulation after another and who puts up with all of her first husband’s insults and infidelities, finally gets the nice guy at the end. Just as in all classic fairytales, if the victim suffers in silence, she will eventually be rewarded with the man of her dreams.
These female characters are meant to be warnings and models for African American women. Successful black women intimidate their spouses, cause their husbands to be unfaithful, and may even ruin any chance of starting or maintaining a family. Strong and opinionated black women are crazy, and even if they’re right about whatever it is they’re yelling about, we can’t take them seriously because their sassy attitude and irrationality always cloud the issue. But there is hope, of course: the meek and mild black woman will always be rewarded in the end.
Sadly, Tyler Perry isn’t the only one who’s spreading these warnings out to African American women everywhere. Even the mainstream news is reporting on the divisiveness being caused by black women’s successes. Recent reports are finding that black women are now graduating from college and gaining employment in the workforce at greater rates than black men. However, high-achieving black women are getting married at lower rates than their white counterparts. While the studies don’t say it specifically, the implication of the research is clear: black women who are successful don’t have a decent pool of comparable black men to choose from, so they either need to lower their standards or get used to being single and childless.
Black women just can’t catch a break. For decades, they have been the subject of intense public scorn, as the media and right wing politicians painted them as welfare queens and “baby mamas.” Now that they have made significant strides in education and the workforce – yes, even outshining their male counterparts at times – does society give them the positive attention they rightly deserve? Nope. Instead, it insists they’ve gone too far, leaving their men in the dust and, thereby, severing any chances that they have for marriage or motherhood (if that’s what they want, of course).
While I applaud Tyler Perry for breaking certain stereotypes in his movies, I condemn him for perpetuating new ones. (and, if the studies are true and black women are making more money than their male counterparts, Perry is doing himself a disservice by alienating his main patrons). Instead of punishing the women in his community for being successful, he should be making art that accurately represents them and, more importantly, celebrates their achievements.