Tyler Perry’s Gay Problem
Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too? shocked
absolutely no one by placing a strong #2 in last weekend's box office battle with
a $30 million dollar take, but what was shocking and surprising to me was one
very blatantly homophobic scene in the movie, as well as the history of stereotypically homophobic
elements to Perry's movies that haven’t yet been thoroughly examined.
If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, be warned there
are heavy spoilers ahead.
The last third of the movie finds
Janet Jackson’s Dr. Particia Agnew and her husband Gavin (Malik Yoba) engaged
in a bitter divorce that gets increasingly ugly due to his battle for half of
the royalties from her book sales.
In retaliation, she attempts to
humiliate him by bringing an enormous birthday cake to his office and
presenting it to him and all of his coworkers filled not with a stripper, but
with a flamboyantly gay black man dressed in a miniskirt and neon-colored wig
who pops out of the cake in a spray of glitter and gyrates suggestively
while It’s Raining Men plays in the background.
I’m not making this up, Tyler Perry did. The
point of contention here is not that the gay man in question is in drag or
effeminate, but that he is used as an over the top spectacle to challenge the
masculinity of a character perceived as acting outside of masculine norms by
claiming entitlement to his wife’s earnings.
Janet Jackson and Malik Yoba in Why Did I Get Married Too?
What makes a bad situation even
worse is that during this man‘s “performance,“ Jackson’s character is screaming
a litany of homophobic remarks toward her husband along the lines
of (and I’m paraphrasing only slightly)
“If you want to be a bitch, here you go!” and “Here’s your bitch!”
So, for all of us who are keeping
score, gay men are: outrageously feminine, objects of scorn and ridicule for
respectable heterosexuals, and freaks that can be used to make an embarrassing
public spectacle out of one’s enemy. Yep, got it.
Due to a well-documented history
of general awesomeness surrounding gay folks, I’m inclined to give Ms. Jackson
a pass on this, but Mr. Perry gets no such luck. In fact, this is only the
latest example of homophobia I’ve noticed in his movies.
The original Why Did I Get Married was a
similar-sized box-office hit that also had its own share of questionable
portrayals of gays. In a very brief scene near the beginning, a flamboyant
older white gay couple (dressed in pink, no less) is seen giving attitude to
Tasha Smith’s firecracker of a character Angela. Her reaction to the two, while
not as blatantly homophobic as the treatment of the lone gay presence onscreen
in the sequel, portrays yet another takedown of obviously gay characters for
the desired approval of Tyler Perry’s predominantly African-American,
But Perry can be an equal opportunity offender. His movie Madea
Goes to Jail featured - what else - a big, butch, tattooed lesbian hell
bent on “claiming” the pretty young inmate and prostitute played by Cosby
kid Keisha Knight Pulliam. I’ll leave
the irony of a man who made his fortune by dressing in drag trading in
offensive images of gays in his movies up to others comment on.
What I will say is that once is
curious, twice is upsetting, but three times borders on pathological, and it
leads one to wonder why Perry feels the need to include such deeply negative
and stereotypical images of gays in his movies.
Of course, Perry’s movies are
predominantly made for the aforementioned African-American, churchgoing
audience, but believe me when I tell you that there is a sizable fan base of
gays of all colors who are fans of his movies for their absurd melodramatic
shock value alone. It's true that the films themselves are mostly badly
written and stiffly-acted morality tales with lessons right out of Sunday
School, plot twists telegraphed in strokes so broad a toddler could see them
coming, and characters who lack the depth to be one-dimensional.
But the camp value of these movies is
off the charts, made even more so by the fact that the product isn’t delivered
with a John Waters-style wink, but with the stone-faced determination and
gravity of a mediocre talent determined to "Make A Point" with all the subtlety
of a fist going into a cheating wife’s face (2008’s The Family that Preys).
The end result can actually be
quite delicious, especially when he corrals people who should really know
better (Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Kathy Bates) into these hot messes, and
especially when a pro like Kathy Bates delivers her lines with a gleam in her
eye that suggests she knows exactly the kind of trash she’s participating in.
Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard in The Family That Preys
That said, when I’m ripped out of the trashy fun of his
movies by the ugliness of scenes like the drag-queen-stripper-in-a-cake scene.
I can only wonder why Perry feels the need to ruin the guilty pleasure of his
movies with such blatant and mean-spirited homophobia. There have been thorough
takedowns of the messages in Perry’s movies written from many
perspectives and I‘ll be shocked if this is the first gay one, but what they
all boil down to is that Perry is simply giving the audience what they
By serving these images up to an audience all too ready and
willing to receive them, he‘s playing into an idea of homophobia and gays that
has its roots in the church. For all of his movies’ moralizing and faith-based
messages about being a Good Christian, audiences are told through this imagery
that it is okay to ridicule the few deeply stereotypical gays that he allows
into his inner sanctuary of representation onscreen.
Of course, homophobia is not something that is exclusive to
the Black community. African-American moguls like Oprah Winfrey and Tyra Banks
are aware of the perception of heightened homophobia within it, and choose to
fight that perception and enlighten the same target audience with positive and
multidimensional portrayals of the LGBT community in their various
projects. They are aware of the power of
the images they’re broadcasting to the masses.
Perry is as well, and that‘s the problem. To present homophobic imagery and language to
a specifically targeted heterosexual, churchgoing African-American audience
reeks of a filmmaker’s intent that is insidious and quite disturbing.
Whether I’ll see another of Tyler Perry’s movies is
something I cannot answer. My enjoyment of them, much like my enjoyment of Why
Did I Get Married Too?, was stopped dead in its tracks by the ugliness of
the scene and the general creepiness of the homophobic elements within it.
The decision to include this gay man in drag, this
image to a predominantly African-American audience is indicative of a man
who has the power to present images of themselves to an audience that is
starved for representation and instead chooses to use that power to further
marginalize gay members of that community who are already on the fringes.
Whether Tyler Perry is giving his audience what they want or
what he thinks they want is up for debate, but in the future I just may
be averting my eyes to whatever he has to offer.