Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Tyler Perry is often accused of “selling out.” What does it mean to “sell out” in modern America, and how do language, race, and class intersect in the answer to this question? I don't have any answers, but a number of observations, based primarily on Perry's own code-switching and the racial comedy of Key and Peele.

“Back around the 1970s,” Perry writes in the Foreword to Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, “the Madeas in our neighborhoods began to disappear and they have left an unmistakable void” (vii). Perry, while talking about Madea in the third person, also suggests that she is an extension of Perry's own thoughts, thoughts that in the 21st century, a man is no longer supposed to say. “Sometimes I'll have something I really want to say and then I'll just hear it coming out of Madea's mouth, in her own words” (ix). Ultimately, Perry believes that Madea is a moralizing figure, as he makes clear in his Epilogue that Madea's humor is meant to lead us to become even better human beings (254). Tyler Perry's use of Madea as a moral figure enables him to completely enter into the character (by cross-dressing) without offending. When Madea says politically incorrect statements, it's clear that Perry isn't mocking the “Madeas” of his youth who spoke like this, but attempting to emulate them. In this regard, Perry's moralizing humor is not too different than many of the other forms of satire and social commentary that we have read in this seminar.

In playing the character of Madea, Perry blurs the lines between fact and fiction, yet always leaving his audience in on the joke. Not only in this book but on-screen, Perry seamlessly transitions between himself and the character of Madea. I think that Perry is doing more than simply “acting,” however. He's code-switching. As this interview between Perry, Oprah, and Madea shows, Perry code-switches between the persona (and speech patterns) of an educated black male in 21st-century America and an old-fashioned “Madea” from his youth.

Madea's spoken language, clear from the interview above with Oprah, is not precisely American Standard English. However, despite this book's simpler language, “Madea” is grammatically correct when she writes. (In Perry's audio recording of this book, a sample of which can be heard on Amazon, the voice of Madea often modifies the proper grammar of the writing and adds more slang.) As she makes clear, Madea approves of “acting white” as long as it is defined as “speaking the king's English, getting a good job, and being able to afford what you want and have the American dream” (92). This seems to be Perry's philosophy, too. In his own life, Perry speaks “the king's English” (like Oprah), as do many of the characters in his films. Perry has been accused by many in the black community of “selling out” by profiting from the promotion black stereotypes, but others in the black community undoubtedly would accuse Perry of selling out by “acting white,” by speaking American Standard English and making more money than anyone in Hollywood.

The intersection of race, code-switching, and humor has been explored in recent years by comedians Key and Peele, who capitalize on their life experience as bi-racial men to write humor that questions stereotypes but is willing to laugh at seemingly insensitive topics. In an increasingly diverse country, the nuances of code-switching will become increasingly more complicated. NPR has even created a blog named “Code Switch” that explores the “frontiers of race, culture, and ethnicity.” In one sense, code-switching is essentially about knowing one's audience. Does one use a formal or informal pattern of speech at work, at school, on the street, or with relatives? Code-switching also raises questions about preserving cultural heritage, a topic which we've explored in this seminar through readings on indigenous peoples. If Perry is attempting to preserve black heritage through the character of Madea, one has to wonder why Perry speaks in standard English in other areas of his life. At the same time, Perry's audience is apparently the working-class black church community; and with this audience in mind, Perry tries to balance the values of education and wealth with the value of growing up in a primarily black community. I can't speak as a member of the black community in the United States in 2014 (nor can any individual black man or woman), but it seems to me that Perry's humor epitomizes some of the conflicts faced by a black man or woman today. Should every young black person aspire to be Barack Obama, or is the President a sell-out to white culture, to white values, and to “the man?” In this sketch, which pokes fun at Obama's code-switching, Key and Peele raise this question, mining the situation for its humor but not providing an answer. I think that their overall message suggests President Obama is acting white, but is most comfortable being black, that is, using the speech patterns and dialect of his black supporters. A more cynical take on the sketch is that the President does whatever it takes to get votes, the same way Perry does anything to make more money.

Interestingly, I think that code-switching raises questions of superiority and justice. As a white man who grew up in a white suburb, I never had to learn how to code-switch, and when I enter places or groups whose primary dialect is different than my own, I expect them to code-switch so that I can understand them. When I've spent time at a local prison just outside of Baltimore, I know that the prisoners code-switch so that we “outsiders” can understand them. Two weeks ago I served as an example in the brief lesson on education given by an older prisoner to two young men (younger than me). “Brother Curtis,” as they call him, told the two younger men that they should imitate my educational aspirations and the way that I carry myself. His advice was nearly indistinguishable from Madea's (and probably Perry's too). And, if these young men want to be released on parole, complete their high school degrees (and hopefully move on to college), and find a good job when they are released, I'll admit that they will best succeed by following Curtis' advice. They need to speak more like me. They need to “act white.” It's not because they aren't intelligent when they speak in ebonics. It's not that intelligent thoughts can't be conveyed in other English dialects. It's that the educated and powerful, both yesterday and today, have spoken the “standard” dialect, and so it becomes the dialect that is passed on and continues to be use in the workforce and in the classroom. In order to advance in America, you need to speak and act a certain way.

Perry doesn't write in dialect like Zora Neale Hurston. Madea uses standard grammar. But Perry does have Madea speak in a way that is not exactly “acting white.” Although I can't explain precisely why Madea can be simultaneously hilarious and infuriating, perhaps it comes from Madea's packaging of “white” values in “black” language. Many people in the African-American community don't seem to mind, and even promote, this approach. But others (like Spike Lee) have criticized Perry. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Spike Lee offers comments on his 1989 film “Do The Right Thing,” a “high-brow” movie about tensions between Italian-Americans and African-Americas in a black neighborhood in Brooklyn, Bed-Stuy. Lee doesn't mention Perry. But he is asked about changes in Bed-Stuy over the last quarter-century, to which Lee responds that gentrification continues to occur, and it isn't only affecting people of color, but anyone who can't afford to live in their own neighborhood. Over the last twenty-five years, “white” values have shifted from valuing suburbs to valuing cities (this comes after the mid-century period when most wealthy Americans moved away from cities to the suburbs). Questions of race are invariably tied up with questions of wealth and class.

I don't know how to bring all of these observations together. I imagine that centuries from now sociologists and philologists will have an easier time explaining the cultural forces at play in 21st-century America. We currently live in the midst of these debates, but I'm only on the margins of the code-switching controversy. In Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, “Madea,” in the introduction, tells her audience: “If you are not a black person and you don't understand something, read that part to a friend who's black and ask for an explanation. If you don't have any black friends, make one on the bus. If they see you reading this book with my face on the cover, they will want to stop and talk to you” (xiv). Two observations: firstly, where I'm from, white people don't take the bus. It's “sketchy.” Secondly, I find it interesting that Madea doesn't predict is how my new black friend on the bus will speak to me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Madea and Masks

            From the outset of his book, Tyler Perry emphasizes that he and Madea are two different people. Madea, herself even makes this clear in her introduction, saying that she “received no help at all from Mr. Tyler Perry in writing this book. He had absolutely nothing to do with it. These are not his opinions” (XIV). Before readers even begin reading the actual text to follow, this idea is drilled into their mind that the opinions and statements to follow come from Madea, not Tyler Perry at all… even if his name is the one on the cover in big blue letters.
            This separation between the two individuals is made even clearer through the way in which they refer to each other. In the introduction, Madea writes about knowing Perry and his family when he was a child. Perry talks about Madea, too, as knowing her dearly, although, as he explains in the foreword, they hold “extremely different” ideas on life (IX). It is evident that Perry is the one writing and that Madea is a character he developed, but with all of this emphasis on the separate opinions and stances of the two, it seems that he may have created Madea as a mask he can where in order to speak the truth without confidence.
            I am not saying that there is anything wrong with this mask, because we all do it. Madea writes later that “Everybody’s got denial going on. Nobody wants to hear the truth, especially when you’re in your own world” (67). This seems to me to be a likely reason why Perry says all the things he does through the mask of Madea. She can get away with her blunt observations and opinions, because of her character, whereas Perry, himself, may not. So by hammering so hard on the idea that he and Madea are separate entities, Tyler Perry creates a sort of insurance on himself and his writing so as not to face all of the wrath of those in denial, not wanting to hear such brutal honesty.
            Humor itself becomes a kind of mask in a lot of instances where criticism is prevalent. By covering up the honesty of our statements with the mask of a joke, we remove ourselves from any possible negative reaction because “it was just a joke” or we “were only kidding.” We create these insurances and safety nets for ourselves constantly and not always consciously, taking the responsibility we might have for our actions or statements, and diffusing it by covering up with an alternate point of view or persona.
            I have seen this happen a lot recently at my service-learning site. In the theatre class I work with, the teacher often has issues with getting the students to come outside of their shells when acting in front of the class and when they feel most uncomfortable, they tend to make jokes about their situation or laugh. As adolescent individuals, these high school students are highly self-conscious and do not want to be responsible for their actions, especially if those actions may be criticized or come off as ridiculous (which often times theatre does).
            The class has been working with masks for the past couple weeks and have really come into their own as they use them. It is easy to tell by watching and talking to them that the mask, which was first foreign and weird, has become a safety net for them to act behind. This way, they don’t need to be recognized as themselves and any sense of self-consciousness is lost. All of the students are quite evidently more comfortable acting in front of their classmates with these masks on. So today when they were cast in small scenes that they’ll be working on for the next month or so, the first comment I heard was “Can I wear a mask?” to which I asked why and the girl responded, “Well that way people don’t have to know it’s me and I can just act.”

            People don’t like to be held responsible for themselves, especially in instances when they may be criticized in one way or another (and even more so if this criticism may come from their peers). In her chapter on hip-hop, Madea asserts, “If you’re a musician, you have a certain amount of power as an artist and you have to be responsible for what you’re putting out there” (97-98). I would say that this can be expanded to any artist or really anyone who creates for a public audience. Tyler Perry seems to be acutely aware of this fact and this could likely be why “Madea” is the one who puts all this information out there and not him. I’m not trying to criticize him for doing this at all, because I, and I’m sure almost anyone, can understand the immense weight that this responsibility can create and any way to diffuse it is more than welcome from an artist’s perspective.

Questionable Jokes

Tyler Perry’s humor in Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings is bold, to say the least. No topic is off limits once Perry takes on the persona of Madea, covering subjects ranging from adultery to child abuse and depression. Every issue is addressed with the intent to convey what is “honest and true,” with little regard for “political correctness” (8). The result is a caricature of black femininity that places an emphasis on irreverence and violence, delivered by a heterosexual male. This is the first disruption we’ve seen to the David-Goliath joke structure this semester, and it begs the question: Does putting on a dress allow Perry the liberty to throw stones at women?

Perry goes through great lengths to separate himself as speaker from the character of Madea in the mind of the reader. He writes not only a foreword to explain her character, referring to her repeatedly as “my friend,” but proceeds to have Madea introduce herself by saying: “I want to clear up one very important matter … Tyler Perry has nothing to do with Madea. We are two very separated individuals” (14). Once this distance has been established, Perry holds nothing back, freely giving sex and dating advice as if an invisibility cloak now masks the fact that he is a man. He hits readers with “the truth,” such as: “If you want the dog to keep getting the Frisbee, don’t throw it too much … Close your legs” (29). Madea’s flirting advice includes instructions to not wear too much perfume and to make sure one’s skirt is short but not a “ho-skirt” (33, 31).  

While is true that Madea also touts a certain brand of sexual empowerment for women, Perry does more to reinforce harmful gender norms than he does anything positive. Perry has repeatedly stated the comedic genius of Madea, commenting: “I can slap Madea on something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family, any of those” (60 Minutes). However, it my personal opinion that jokes about sagging breasts on aging women are simply never funny when delivered by a man, even one who has stuffed his chest to fill out a dress. Perry possesses a tremendous amount of wealth and power and his joking on women of low-socioeconomic standing is more cruel than it is humorous.

The archetype of the Angry Black Woman continues to be portrayed in countless television programs and throughout the media. One can think back to a young Chris Rock’s no-nonsense mother on Everybody Hates Chris, or to countless representations of violent African-American women on reality television programs, including but not limited to Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love and Hip-Hop, and Bad Girls Club. This is a trope essentially defined by Perry’s characterization of Madea in Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings. Perry defines Madea not as a lone, outrageous character but as a representation of a woman “on every corner in every neighborhood” during his youth (7). Thus, while he may describe Madea with affection, the entire book is a selfish effort, serving only to improve Perry’s personal wealth and fame while perpetuating norms harmful to black women and society as a whole. 

Who Has the Authority?

Catlin Castan
Who Has the Authority?
            In the “Epilogue” of Tyler Perry’s Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, he reveals: “Laughter is the anesthetic I use to get to everything else”(253). Consistent with my working (semester-long) theory that defines humor as a temporary guise, or universal buffer that helps to dilute the harshness of reality, Perry implements the character of Madea—a humor buffer that comes in the shape of a large outrageous black woman.
            In both the “Foreword” and “Epilogue” sections of the book, Tyler Perry (the author) speaks to us directly about the characterization and function of Madea within his text. As early as page number one, Perry describes Madea as a maternal concept—a grandmother-figure that everybody wants to have, even despite social differences. He, then, explains that his Madea—the one we meet in his book—is allowed to say whatever she wants to whoever she wants because the foundation of her character is built upon the values of honesty and trust—not on what is politically correct or socially normative. Here, we notice that similar to the satire we have read, Madea’s criticism excludes no one—including herself—she has no problem talking about her full-figured body, ex-career as a stripper, or (at times) psychotic behavior but she also has no problem calling you out on your personals flaws. Frequently throughout the book, Madea even explicitly states: “This may hurt your feelings, but I’m going to be really honest”(30). This reflexive, all-encompassing use of humor allows Madea to articulate her advice in a productive and constructive manner, and not at the expense of others. However, Perry also states, “I hope you can separate her great wisdom from some of the totally ridiculous things she sometimes has to say”(xi). In this moment, Perry is saying that although Madea has a loud mouth and a bold attitude, that if we “read between the words” we might uncover extremely valuable human insights.
            Perry encourages us to engage in Madea’s humor, but—at the same time—warns us that our engagement in Madea’s laughter also prompts a certain kind of moral responsibility on our part. On page 226, the voice of Madea and of Perry’s seemingly begin to blur as “Madea” explains:
             “I’m a person who likes to take action . . . Don’t waste my time if you ain’t         going to do it. So if you take the advice and you put it into action, then you are    somebody I want to talk to. That’s how I’m going to challenge you . . . The           minute you get the information on what you need to do, you’re responsible      for it”
In this excerpt, Perry directly challenges us to take action and to put his advice into use. In other words, Perry has written this book as a piece of advice—a source of motivation for his readers—with the hope that upon reading his book, his readers will be inspired to become “even better human beings”(254).
            While I definitely enjoyed reading Perry’s book, I had a hard time reconciling the narrative gaps between author, character, and subject matter. Specifically, I wondered if it was fair, or perhaps even truly accurate, for a middle aged black man to dictate the voice of a old black women—I wondered if Perry had the authorial authority to write from a perspective so foreign from his own. Yes, they share the same racial identity, but there are also several other important identifying factors, such as: age and gender. Similar to the multitude of criticisms that surround white authors who attempt to write black narratives, this same structure of injustice or unfairness occurs amongst the minority group of women. This notion of authority strongly resonated with my service learning experience at Tunbridge. At least once a week Mrs. Metzger and Ms. Lee—both white females--designate a time where they talk to the kids about race and social differences. In addition, each month the principal, Ms. Adams, a white female, visits our pre-K classroom to help reinforce these lessons and teach the kids about Black history and how to reconcile racial differences. However, all 21 students, except for one, are black. Here, an issue of authority comes into play. While Mrs. Metzger, Ms. Lee, and Ms. Adams all approach these lessons with kindness and love, I will admit that it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

            Growing up in a predominately white town, when teachers discussed black history in school, authority was never an issue because both the instructor and audience were the same race: white. Interestingly, though, when the instructor remains white, but the audience shifts to being black, like in my pre-K classroom, I feel a sense of discomfort. Perhaps this is because it seems to be unnatural and implicitly insensitive to discuss the social implications or struggles of a race or minority group that you do not belong to—that you have no authentic experience of being a part of.

Lastly, somewhat unrelated to my last point, but how can we truly accept the advice of Madea knowing that she is a fictive presence—a mere character within a book? Perry admittedly writes in his foreword “she can get away with stating some opinions I’d be afraid to say”(ix). How are we able to walk away from reading this book feeling hopeful knowing that the only type of person who can achieve this type of social work, who is allowed to have an opinion, is a “Madea”—a man-made concept within a book. Is Perry, then, suggesting that the "Madea" figure in our society is an endangered species that we need to cultivate and protect? Or is he saying that the Madea figure is already extinct?

Who is the Clown?

            At the risk of revealing my true nature as an undeniable millennial, I’d like to start my post with a quote from The Fault in Our Stars author John Green: “You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.”  I think that Tyler Perry, or “Madea” Mabel Simmons for that matter, would whole-heartedly endorse this decision.
            What I found most interesting about Perry’s Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings was the premise and structure of the book itself; here’s an almost poetic depiction of a man expressing some sort of Freudian sexual and/or development repression by cross-dressing and assuming the role of benevolent, if not sassy community grandmother.  Sure, the claim could be made that he does this purely for the sake of his humor, but with a franchise as sprawling as Madea’s, I have my own personal reservations that there is not some larger force at work.  Perry self-proclaims that he manipulates the Madea persona because she “has an opportunity to say everything that [he] can’t say,” yet he also makes the unequivocal claim that he and Madea do not share opinions on many aspects of life [vii-xi].
            I’m often skeptical of this sort of bilateral approach to any expression of opinion: if it isn’t truly only meant in jest, then where do the character’s words and viewpoints end and the author’s begin?  This brings to mind an especially confusing conversation I once had with my friend concerning ‘The Colbert Report.’  My friend, a relatively staunch republican, was telling about how she couldn’t stand to watch ‘The Daily Show’ because of Jon Stewart’s very apparent liberal bias, but she loved Stephen Colbert and ‘The Colbert Report.’  I was perplexed.  I had always had the understanding that the Stephen Colbert who appeared each weeknight on ‘The Colbert Report’ was a brilliantly crafted and impeccably delivered parody of a conservative, right wing evangelist.  Yet here was my friend, an intelligent and perceptive person, who so obviously believed this character to be the real, unadulterated Stephen Colbert.  I, of course, immediately questioned how she could have made such a grievous oversight and dismissed her statement completely.  But, it did make me wonder about my own understanding of who the ‘real’ Stephen Colbert is and how it came to be so certain to me.  Can you really deduce what is integral to the core of a person when that person is always pretending to be someone other than himself?

            I realized that I had thought of these characters of Madea and Stephen Colbert as examples of the modern Westernization of Victor Turner’s anthropological CLOWN, a mechanism that allows the actor to express their somewhat controversial thoughts and opinions on specific topics in a way that absolves them of guilt or responsibility.  This, I think, is too simplistic of a notion on my part, as it is obvious that both Tyler Perry and Stephen Colbert are not just using the character of their clowns to thinly veil their own individual agendas—they often call into question their bias (or what the audience assumed to be their bias) as well.  It is hard to say who a clown is, and it would seem that many times the clown may not be fully aware themselves either.  Perry, in his epilogue says that, “Laughter is the anesthetic I use to get to everything else” [253].  So in a world of uncertainty and coincidence, we may need the uncertainty and ambiguity of the clown as an anesthetic for the inexplicable.

Humor, Dissatisfaction, and Change

            After reading Madea, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between humor, discomfort, and change.  In the chapter labeled “Regrets”, Perry writes “that’s how life is.  You get to a place where you’re comfortable—and suddenly all these things start happening to make you feel uncomfortable…what this discomfort is really designed to do is get you to move into a better place—your destiny, the next place you’re supposed to be” (63 Perry).  We have discussed how humor makes us uncomfortable and it can propel us to change (in a non-preachy sort of way), but seeing humor causing discomfort that leads to our destiny is something new. 

            Last night, I was at a planning meeting for RoadTrip—this retreat for sophomores about vocation and figuring out your life—which I am helping out with.  Anyway, we were talking about “what brings you joy” as being one of the key questions that can help when deciding what you want to do in the future, what is your vocation.  We watched a video about Fr. Himes, a Catholic priest who teaches at Boston College, and in the video he said that joy is not the same thing as happiness or satisfaction.  If anything, being satisfied is the opposite of joy because satisfaction and contentment can allow for complacency.  He pulls in St. Augustine who said “a human being is one who is restless until it rests in God.”  Therefore, dissatisfaction is vital to leading us to our vocations (like Madea’s discomfort leading to destiny) because it move us forward, it make us want to change.  Dissatisfaction and discomfort galvanize a change in us and Fr. Himes argues that this change is what makes us fully human—we can expand our relationships and live more deeply and more richly. As Madea puts it, we are moving to a better place—our destiny. 

            The reason I’m focusing on humor, discomfort, and change is because it appears so much in Madea.  In the chapter “Wake up!  Young people, wake up!” Perry writes “what I’ve found about it is that there are some folks you can talk to until you’re blue in the face—they’re never going to get it and they’re never going to change.  But every once in a while, you’ll run into someone who is eager to listen, eager to learn, and willing to try new things.  If you see somebody with that spark in the eyes who wants to be something more than where he or she comes from, it’s up to us to cultivate that and reach out and help” (94 Perry).  Later, he writes “so my thing is, whatever you don’t like, change it, but change it from the inside first” (117 Perry).  Finally, he writes “some folks don’t want to be better, but all they want to do is stay at the same spot all their lives” (226 Perry).  Because reading this book and my meeting last night with the Fr. Himes video happened in a similar time frame, it is evident that change is associated with bettering oneself, furthering oneself, and perhaps it makes us more human.  However, Fr. Himes and Perry both make clear that change is necessary for everyone.  Perry does not write that mean people should change or people with unhealthy living habits should be healthier.  This urgency for change applies to everyone equally which does make it seem like change and dissatisfaction are fundamentals of the human condition because if we all remained stagnant and never changed, we would be robots or animals. 

The whole point of the book is to give advice and to advise readers to be open to change, be yourself, laugh, and live life to the fullest without bitterness.  If Perry merely wrote a book about life advice without Madea and without humor, we probably would not read it because it would be uninteresting.  Yet again, humor in this book acts as an incentive for change and Perry tells us why we all should change—to reach our destinies, the places where we are supposed to be.

Therefore, humor is an end within itself—the end point is to laugh which we certainly do with this book; however, humor is also a means to an end—the end being to change for the better after reading the book.  This book is different than Tales of the Tikongs or “Betel Nuts and Airplanes” and some of our other works which look at social justice and changing society.  Perry does not address an injustice or societal issue—he is addressing you, the reader, specifically for you to change.  We are being called to not be bitter, to practice abstinence, to stop cursing so much in hip hop songs, etc.  In that way, I would argue that humor is a fundamental to the human condition.  If change and progress are requisites for being “fully human” as Himes and Perry argue, humor as a vehicle for change and progress is just as essential.  If our other authors think that society has to change, that change must start with the individual, in this case.  And if we truly want to change, we first have to see how ridiculous and humorous the reality is.    

Perry's Troublesome View on Gender Dynamics

In Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, Tyler Perry deals out advice on life and love using the voice of his character Madea. Some of Perry’s comments on gender roles are extremely troubling and end up doing an injustice to both men and women. And as one of the most popular contemporary black filmmakers, Perry has a platform to influence a great deal of many people in a positive way, but frankly, he is doing much more harm than good with this book.

For example, in “Ugly Sexocology,” (s)he talks about being constantly pursued by “ugly men” and not giving in until one night when she becomes lonely and intoxicated enough to deal with one. She notes that she would never go anywhere in public with him because she did not want to appear “desperate as hell.” The moral of this anecdote is, of course, that ugly men deserve a chance too, but only because their so-called ugliness has conditioned them to spoil women and become skilled in the bedroom. This benefits neither men nor women because it portrays all women as superficial and all men as desperate for sex.
    In “Hold the Frisbee,” Perry talks about how women must withhold sex in order to keep men interested. In a direct quote from Madea, Perry writes that “having sex with a lot of people...makes you a ho. And I ain’t never met a man who said, ‘I’m looking for a nice ho to settle down with.’” This double standard on the number of sexual encounters experienced by men versus women reflects an outdated view that men who are known for having multiple partners should be praised or respected, while while women under the same circumstances should be shamed and are considered less valuable. The entire concept of women withholding sex as a means to achieve “diamonds and furs and Cadillacs” again portrays women as materialistic beings and men as insatiable animals–literally, as the dog in her frisbee metaphor represents the man–who will do anything to achieve another sexual conquest.
It almost seems as if by speaking through Madea, Perry gives himself permission to dole out these tidbits of sexist “advice.” If this book were not written in character, I believe that there would be little sympathy for Perry after the women reading this book that their virginity is “worth a hell of a price” as if they were an item up for auction. But because Madea falls into the “sassy black woman” trope, she is somehow granted an ability to speak without a verbal filter. This allows Perry to spew misogynist ideals under the guise of humor.

An Appropriate Voice for Black America?

                In reading Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, I had some difficulty in distinguishing between the character of Madea and the author of Tyler Perry. And I think that the distinction should be made clear: as the highest paid man in the entertainment industry (as of 2011) and a highly influential voice in popular media, Tyler Perry’s views and opinions have a significant impact on the lives of others, particularly in the black community. Because of this, a lot of weight is placed on Perry to define and represent the image of black America. With that in mind, I don’t think we can call Don’t Make a Black Woman an absolute satire and can even claim that Perry more or less agrees with Madea. The humor is not in what she says (as it often is in satire) but in the way in which she says it. Madea warns her readers at the beginning that she’s “going to keep it real.” I think Bridget is right in saying that the humor derives from the shock value: some readers might think it’s funny to hear an older black woman talking about sex and hip hop. The actual content of what she says is another matter, and I think it’s in this respect that Perry actually agrees with Madea. He might figuratively blush upon hearing his character say some of these things his character says, but he would probably agree with her opinions and beliefs.
            Considering Perry’s position, his alignment with Madea is troubling. Instead of providing a fresh voice for the black community, Perry recycles the same tired tropes about men and women of color. While Madea criticizes rap artists for using profanity and degrading slurs, she readily tells a young girl that she’s a “ho” because she has sex “with a lot of people,” and says that she will “marry a man for benefits in a minute.” As black women are doubly marginalized in America, it seems foolish to reinforce these destructive stereotypes: that women are just looking for money, that women are “sluts” if they enjoy sex, etc. Her solutions to social issues in the black community are too facile. I support her efforts to encourage young people to pursue their passions, but is it really just an issue of “waking up”? Shouldn’t Perry be advocating real political change, rather than trotting out this old idea that black youth are lazy and unmotivated?
            It might seem useless to make an issue out of such an insignificant and light-hearted book, but when one of the most prominent black voices in the entertainment industry uses his position to push out familiar platitudes instead of real criticism of race relations, I think the emancipator power of humor fails. The immensely wealthy Perry, who apparently lives on a 17-acre estate, lives a life unlike that of the typical black community that he describes in his book, and yet he feels obliged to poke fun at working class people in that community. He has become the voice of the establishment, using his humor book to push, in the final pages, his lucrative franchise of “DVDs and films” and advocating, sometimes through Madea, “acting white” and playing up to the expectations of white America to achieve the “American dream.”

            As a white man, I can’t speak to the truth or falsity of Perry’s depiction of black America, but multiple journalists have criticized Perry for what is little more than a caricature. Jamilah Lemieux, in an open letter to Perry, thanks him for employing so many black men and women in the film industry, but said that she’d “like to see people who look like me on TV.” She complains that people of color “have been fed the same images of ourselves over and over and over because they sell,” and that Perry has done little to say something genuine and authentic. To be honest, I don’t think that Perry will continue to be the voice of black America much longer (although it isn’t for a white man like me to say). It’s encouraging to see more and more black comedians breaking into the mainstream: stand-up comics like Hannibal Buress and Dave Chapelle and sketch artists like Eric Andre and Key and Peele have made names for themselves in defying the establishment and giving a new voice to black America. Chappelle in particular has been incredibly mindful of the way he uses stereotypes in his act, even refusing to continue his successful television show because he feared that it reinforced destructive images of African Americans. In the future, we may see fewer easy familiarities and more of sensitive and careful criticism in black comedy.

Cheap Laughs and Cheapened Truth

My favorite types of humor involve witty banter and the humor of experience (situational humor). Yet, I have begun to notice a decline in these sorts of heightened humor. I often see people tell jokes about specific demographics, or at the expense of someone’s superficial appearance. The lightest versions of these jokes are humorous, and the strongest can be quite offensive.
Upon reading Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life, I noticed that Tyler Perry often seems to search for these “cheap laughs.” These are laughs generated by extracting from stereotypes or standards in society. I often felt that, as a result, the advice that Madea gives did not feel genuine. That is to say, I could not tell whether or not Perry attempted to sell her advice as yet another joke or something more genuine, and I felt that these jokes then fell flat.
“Madea” gives a lot of advice throughout the book, but one piece in particular is: “Something else I hope this book will do is to help people understand that you have to feel good about yourselves” (17) Madea probably means this when she says it, for she is characterized as a well-meaning, Mother-knows-best sort of mother figure. However, I wonder what Perry means through his use of Madea.
Perhaps Perry chooses to use Madea as a bit of a joke. That is to say, he takes her comedic wisdom too far in the comedic sense, thus making her unrealistic. For example, in the section on page seventeen during which Madea explains her purpose for telling these stories, she ends by describing herself. She presents herself as a simple woman, who wants to talk to readers, namely women from the various section topics, about her own experience to help them with theirs. Yet she ends this almost comforting piece of advice with, “Everything about me is simple except for these stretch marks” (17). This lightens the moment by cheapening it, possibly not the most effective method. Perry uses this technique throughout the book, and while some may laugh the first time they read such a comment, eventually readers can see her as an unrealistic character. Some women would indeed make comments such as these, but when considering the methodical format to Perry’s “humor” in this manner, the joke becomes less effective.
Why is it funny when a women makes such a joke in real life? I feel that sometimes these jokes are humorous, because the woman pokes fun at herself to show that she can laugh at herself and that she understands the idea that there are more important qualities. Yet sometimes I don’t laugh at these jokes, because the woman is only trying to prove that she can laugh at herself and that such self-effacing thoughts do not perturb her, when, in actuality, they do. Perhaps Perry is at fault here. Perhaps I would find this repeated caricaturizing of Madea funny if it was coming from one of the “Madea-types” herself? Might the jokes fall flat or cheap sometimes because a man in his forties—who neither intimately knows the experiences nor, as a man, can understand them—is poking fun.
Is truth, then, necessary for comedy? Perhaps not. When we watch any movie or attend any play, we understand that the actors are separate from their characters and their characters’ experiences. Yet the illusion of truth is essential, and must persist for audiences to become invested. Tyler Perry would never be cast as “Madea” in a movie or play unless he were to dress up in drag, wear a fat suit, and thereby perform a mockery. Thus it is very difficult to take this book and read it as anything but that. I do think that it is possible to successfully—that is to say, both truthfully and comically—“play” a character different from oneself without turning the performance into an outright mockery, but this requires compassion and honesty instead of a search for cheap laughs sans substance.  

Self-Conscious Entertainment

            Tyler Perry’s Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life contains a surprising amount of social commentary. I was expecting an account of slapstick antics, and, while these aggressive and purposefully humorous anecdotes are certainly present throughout the book, there were other sly moments of social awareness. The opening section of the book contained a kind of self-conscious goal statement when it proclaimed that, “I hope this book will . . . help people understand that you have to feel good about yourselves” (17). It does actually contain some empowering comments about self-worth and such, especially for women and girls, but this fact may be skewed by the fact that Perry is a man writing a “memoir” as a woman, which is really just for entertainment.
Perry covered many issues from teen pregnancy to racial issues to Republican presidents. He also wrote about the women’s issues, mentioned above, which was interesting, as his narrator is a woman, but he himself is obviously not. Discussing all of these issues in the purportedly humorous format was an interesting choice. It seems that Perry is using humor as a platform to advocate certain views. An article, or some other medium, about teen pregnancy would be much less likely to reach the same readership. At the end of the day, though, it’s pretty obvious that he is out to entertain and sell books. Some of his advice is empowering, such as when he tells women to look more closely at their ideas of self-worth. Some is outrageous, like when Madea tells readers that she has been married eight times and that all of her husbands died mysterious deaths after boring her and then eating her sweet potato pie. Even though he slips various social commentaries in among his anecdotes, whether or not Perry seriously expects his writings to contribute to social change is debatable.
            This book reminded me of the genre of the modern stand up comic. Both often share a kind of in-your-face vulgarity, and an emphasis on shock value. The laughs come from the unexpected and the absurd. Both types of humor usually seem to be purposeful entertainment with not much room for another agenda. Stand up comics often take on other personas in their acts, just as Perry has done with Madea. Madea, as a character, can say more offensive things than Perry might be able to get away with, especially about women’s issues. The authority to laugh at is changed by using another persona. Both comics and Perry also recount anecdotes that did not necessarily happen to them. They perhaps exaggerate or emphasize a detail that they included to be self-consciously funny. Obviously, Madea’s life experiences are somewhat different from Tyler Perry’s, even though some of the stories might contain a grain of truth.
            Overall, the Madea series is self-conscious entertainment, yet in a different way than other works that we have read. It gets the easy laughs, like the ones you might get from killing eight husbands with sweet potato pie. While it mentions teen pregnancy and cycles of poverty and racial issues, these, interestingly enough, are only a platform to Perry’s idea of the humorous. The humor is not necessarily a gateway to exposure for these topics, as it was in Tales of the Tikongs or Candide. Perry’s goal is to entertain and his parade of books and movies speaks to his success in reaching that goal.