Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Joining Madea's Big Happy Family

It all started when I attempted to cover a Black History Month event for my diversity beat.  Halfway through February a lunchtime presentation about Tyler Perry’s infamous Madea caught my attention—because of the controversy, of course.  

As a columnist flirting with “hard news” reporting, I was more interested in joining the debate than gathering other's quotes.  Even as I interviewed my sources, I maintained my internal mantra that Tyler Perry was a harmful force in the mainstream media.   
Little did I know, I was warming up to Mabel Simmons—the woman everyone calls “Madea.”
As a feminist, I was already wary of Perry.  His drag performance seemed to fall in line with Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, and all the other actors portraying unflattering representations of black women to make a buck.   
I turned to Spike Lee and Dr. Cornel West for support, and with Madea as my focus, I tried to condemn the very successful man in very unflattering attire.  But as I pulled back the layers of racism and sexism, all that was left was-- Madea.
As it turns out, the foundation of my argument was actually the exception.  When deconstructing Perry’s predictable productions, the only feminist element I could find was Perry himself; in a wig and plus size clothing. 

After several husbands, Madea is a survivor of domestic violence and serves up her own justice—with boiling grits and a frying pan.  Her antics are aggressive, but satirical, using a sharp tongue, a fast slap, or even a gunshot to make her point. 
She’s presented as lovably misguided, but with the best of intentions.  Madea only goes to church for weddings and funerals.  She can’t accurately quote scripture anymore than she can abide by the law.

But this non-conformist attitude is not a character flaw.  In fact, it’s her greatest asset.  Madea resists oppressive systems while encouraging others to do the same.  She’s a revolutionary.    

While the rest of Perry’s characters turn to patriarchal Christian teachings, Madea preaches self-empowerment.  She counsels her female co-stars to do the one thing no one else will; stand up for themselves. 
Perry has a knack for victimizing his female characters.  They’re physically and sexually abused by their husbands, boyfriends and step-fathers.  They’re neglected by their mothers and objectified by the community, not to mention Madea’s own brother-- also played by Perry.  
Society turns these women bitter as it breaks them down.  Some become junkies, prioritizing drugs over their children.  Others are guarded single mothers or angry divorcees.  And after they’ve been beaten, raped, disrespected and discarded, these women are expected to forgive.   
Femininity is constructed in terms of good and obedient or bad and reckless in a Tyler Perry film.  And all any woman wants or needs is a good man because marriage is the only imaginable happy ending.  

Even with guest appearances by Maya Angelou and other notable role models, female autonomy is rare.  While most voices encourage the battered and broken women to endure, Madea gives them permission to get mad and get even.
In the midst of real suffering, Madea offers comic relief.  Teaching women to reject subserviance usually requires a dash of humor.  But Madea provides a greater service than just breaking the tension. 

Her home also functions as a safe house.  It’s where women pick up the pieces and sort out their lives. 

It’s where they escape violent and controlling fiancés or unfaithful spouses who would displace them.  It’s where they go when the world has turned it's back on them or they’re having trouble making ends meet.  It’s where they for a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. 
It’s where women seek refuge from the worst Tyler Perry can dish out.   
So if her open door policy makes her a mammy, or her quick wit makes her a sapphire, or Madea manages to adhere to any other stereotype, it’s a forgivable offense. 
We all have Madeas in our lives.  They’re mothers, grandmothers, friends, mentors and the countless women who lead by example.  They catch you when you fall and push you when you’re ready to try again.     
If the best way Tyler Perry can convey the strength and spirit of this character is to play the part himself, then so be it.  Those lucky enough to know a Madea undoubtedly have some inside—Perry just chooses to let her out.

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