What Does Tyler Perry Really Want From His Audience?

Tyler Perry is set release a film version of his play, Madea Goes to Jail, which I happened to watch with my family back home in Nashville over the Christmas holiday. TP flicks are best enjoyed as a community, because as you’re responding to your mother’s giggles about Madea’s swinging bosom, you can forget about what appears to be his real message, lurking beneath all that homespun wisdom.


(Spoilers ahead.)

In Madea Goes to Jail, Sonny, Madea’s nephew, his wife Vanessa,  and their infant son, live with the outspoken matriarch. Vanessa is in graduate school, and Sonny works hard at the local jail, pulling extra hours to finance her education. The two have a deal that once she earns her degree, it will be his turn to go back to school. But it soon becomes clear that Vanessa is an ill-mannered, disrespectful, spoiled, ungrateful bitch who doesn’t want to do the right thing by catering to her husband out of gratitude for his hard work and support. She loudly complains about taking care of the baby or performing any other domestic chore, stressing the need to complete her graduate study so she can make something out of herself. She’s so out of pocket that the busybody next door neighbor, Ella, admittedly manless, irons Sonny’s work shirt for Vanessa, as she sings about how to take care of a man and keep him happy.

Of course, Sonny loves Vanessa’s dirty underwear,despite rumors of her sexual past. He’s willing to overlook her thankless behavior, in part, because she’s beautiful and that’s what good husbands do. We see more of Sonny’s good heart once he goes to work to help Madea get out of jail. He doesn’t like confrontation; he just wants to do his job and be properly compensated for it. At the jail, we meet Wanda, an old high school friend who is now a successful prosecutor for Child and Family Services. Wanda is quietly attractive, saved, and holding a serious torch for Sonny, who either doesn’t recognize it or doesn’t acknowledge it, setting his role as Good Married Guy firmly in place.

Still, things continue smoothly until we learn that his boss and good friend, Nate, is having an affair with Vanessa. As a result of this infidelity, the child’s life is put in danger, and Vanessa lands in jail, seemingly without remorse for her part in the situation. The child needs a blood transfusion to live, which is when we discover that Sonny is not the father. And neither is Nate. Poor, poor Sonny. Overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, and now given the ultimate insult to a good Black man– he’s been taking care of a child not his own! How much more sympathy can we the audience have for him? And what is more natural than for him to turn to Wanda, the less obviously beautiful, already accomplished, spiritually grounded, and — did I mention? — celibate friend, who’s been secretly pining away, waiting for him to notice her.

To be fair, it appears that the film for Madea Goes to Jail will be almost completely different from the play. However, I probably won’t see it, unless my aunt is playing the bootleg version in her nail shop the next time I go home. Finding love through salvation doesn’t sit well with me, and the possible colorism in effect (perfect, fair-skinned fiancee vs. pitiful, dark brown prostitute) also sets my teeth on edge. An internet chum, in a discussion board debate surrounding TP and T.D. Jakes, recently claimed that all Tyler Perry wants you to do is go to church. I’m not so sure.

There is little to dispute that TP’s target audience is Black women, so let’s look at the message we’ve received so far from the play. A beautiful, ambitious driven woman is a promiscuous, shrill bitch and a danger to the home. A good woman doesn’t turn heads with her beauty, is soft-spoken, religious, and will wait- sexually and emotionally- for the right man to come along. We see this play out as well in the movie version of Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? Angela, the successful entrepreneur, drinks, is unruly, and loudly and frequently emasculates her somewhat inept husband Marcus, thereby leaving little sympathy for her during his constant forays outside of the marriage. It is only when he finally snaps, calling her out on her behavior (i.e. starts acting like a man) that she becomes soft-spoken and even takes on the womanly responsibility of cooking him a meal. Patricia has a patient, good husband in Gavin, a great career that reaches high levels of professional praise, but her busy, perfect schedule has a tragic affect on her ability to be a parent. Diane, a powerhouse attorney glued to her Blackberry and laptop, neglects her patient, good husband Terry (played by TP), is ambivalent about her relationship as a mother and, without telling her husband, has made a major decision about her body that directly affects his dreams about family.  These professionally successful women just don’t know how to make a home! And finally, we have Sheila, whose beauty must be qualified with the phrase “Plus-Sized,” soft-spoken, devout, unemployed, willing to take on the emotional and mental abuse of her brazenly unfaithful husband Mike, until her friends force her to accept the truth. Sheila, once dependent on Mike, then must rely on Sherriff Troy, who gets her a job, helps rescue her from being overweight, and gives her the confidence she needs to realize he’s the man she’s been praying for.

I suppose all that would have churches swelling to capacity because in the end, the gentle, pious, overlooked woman gets her man and the career-oriented, no-nonsense, attractive woman must make sacrifices, lest she end up in jail — or worse — childless.

So Getting “us” into church is not his only objective. TP wants to teach women how to have successful relationships by making sure their male partners are satisfied. His morality plays, on stage and film, scold women: Be quiet, in appearance and voice. Don’t try to be more than what you are. Serious ambition is a danger to the family. Be grateful for “good enough.” Wait for the right man to notice you. Don’t bring attention to yourself. Be appropriately thankful when a man takes care of you.

For some, it’s easier to swallow these tidbits of wisdom with humor and the comforting memories of an outspoken matriarch. TP disguises his lessons as carefully as he disguises himself in floral prints and exaggerated twang, but sometimes, the man peeks out from the caricature, and I wonder how long it will be before he has removed the mask completely.

  • I have little patience for TP anyway. I tried to watch Why Did I Get Married. It was difficult, but I got through it. I am not TP’s intended audience. I think your analysis is excellent.

  • Wow, this one gets a standing ovation. I really enjoyed your analysis. And I couldn’t agree more that his movies are “best enjoyed as a community.” I had the very same reaction watching my mother laugh her way through a Madea video as my sister and I cringed. And while I couldn’t agree more with your take on the subtext of TP’s films – I wonder if some of the appeal also has to do with the over-simplified certainty of his solutions. Do this and you’ll get a man… Or, are you having problems in your life? You must not have [enter formulaic one-size-fits-all solution here]. More often than not, this formula includes troubling anti-intellectual attitudes and conservative religious practices; and for some reason, people are craving this kind of certainty and sureness more than ever. It really says so much about the time in which we live – how black women are viewed, how we view ourselves… Remember when The Color Purple was the hit movie about black women’s struggles? Can you imagine what would have happened if Madea had showed up on the Georgia farm in that story? What kind of advice would she have given Celie and Mister?

  • I think Tyler Perry is going to be like Sade..you know what you’re going to get when you see his movies, and he knows he doesn’t have to deviate from the proven formula. It sucks because he has enough eyes on him now to do something bigger and better. Oh and Sade is way better.

  • Rashad, I was finna to say! That comparison was made by the last sentence, lol.

    Really good essay, Nicole. After being forced to see ‘Diary,’ I don’t do Tyler Perry movies (except for Daddy’s Little Girls, cuz I ride for Gabby). What bothers me is that not only is his stuff formulaic, it gives truly deplorable advice. But I always assume his films are for churched black American women, or those who feel bad about straying. Unfortunately, that group isn’t as dominant as these films would have us believe.

  • nichole

    thanks, everyone.

    i think TP’s work is definitely a reflection of our time- how starved Black americans are for quality entertainment (however we want to define that), and how so many of our women are looking for that formula to find the mate who’s going to do right. (and please note, i recognize that finding Mr. Perfect is not exclusive to Black women. browsing the women’s magazine section at any bookstore proves that.)

    now that we have the ultimate Black knight in shining armor as president, it will be interesting to see how TP’s scripts and characterizations change. i’m particularly interested in seeing how he portrays the working mother as dangerous in the age of Black Queen Role Model Michelle Obama.

  • Steve

    the only saving grace that may make me see it is that Viola Davis is going to be in it

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  • Slangdini

    I feel TP movies reflect the hidden patriarchy of middle class black performances. In other words hip-hop misogny and the dysfunctionality of ghetto youth is a frequently (although maybe not enough) discussed topic. Yet TD Jakes and TP movies, and now Steve Harvey books are so invested in this “men need to reclaim their space” notion thats undergirded by both religion and public discourse. I’m all for Good men getting some shine. Or even the idea of black love being a proactive issue for public figures. But this “let a man feel he in charge” rhetoric is just silly to me. Personally as a man I dont feel i need some type of gesture to demonstrate that but i digress. the idea that black women have to revert back to some relationship ideal is a somewhat tricky nostalgia. Often times we find out years later those old couples weren’t really that happy..but these movies claim this conservative ‘golden age’ that we’ve been sold has been lost.

    . But these movies work are indicative of what many audiences might feel anyway, so he cant get all the blame. Regardless he on that bull…

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