African Americans have been portrayed in a negative way dating back to when they were first brought to this country against their will. The first form of popular entertainment in the United States were Minstrel shows. Minstrel shows, which began in 1843, were shows where white men would sing, dance, and act in blackface (The Minstrel Show) . Minstrel shows were used to make Black Americans look unintelligent, ugly, and unable to integrate into society. In today’s popular culture we see many of the same negative stereotypes of black men and women, but they aren’t viewed as racist because they are sometimes perpetuated by Black people.
A stereotype develops when there is an imbalance of power. Stereotypes,”…get hold of the few simple, vivid, memorable, easily grasped and widely recognized characteristics about a person, reduce everything about the person to those traits, exaggerate and simplify them, and fix them without change or development (Hall, 1997,pg. 257).” The Mammy caricature is the most famous stereotypical depiction of the African American woman. Mammy was created during slavery to prove that Black women were happy and content with serving the white family, making slavery a just and humane institution. The Mammy is depicted as asexual and ugly because of her close proximity to the man of the house; depicting her as such makes her non-threatening to the woman of the house. On the other hand, the Mammy is strong and rules her house with an iron fist. She is in charge of her house and not submissive at all in her personal life. The men around her are depicted as weak , under her supervision and rule. She is also prone to violence, she will beat her children and anyone in her family who misbehaves. The Mammy caricature went against everything women during that era were supposed to be; therefore, making seem inferior and “other.” The modern day Mammy can be seen in none other than the famous Madea.
Tyler Perry is an African American actor, producer, director, and screenwriter. Perry directs, produces, and portrays Madea himself. His inspiration behind the character comes from his own person life, “back around the 1970’s, the Madeas in our neighborhoods began to disappear and they left an unmistakable void” (Perry, 2006, pg. vii). To Perry, Madea represents Black grandmothers and he created this character to fill a void to help rebuild the Black community. The Madeas, he says, have been an important part of many African American lives growing. Whether or not Perry’s character Madea comes from a loving place, does not dismiss the negative stereotype Madea represents.
Madea possess many Mammy traits, the first being her appearance. Madea is played by Tyler Perry, a man, who is about 6 feet 5 inches tall. He wears a fat suit and low sagging breasts when he gets into his Madea character. Madea is overweight, extremely tall, and loud. Like Mammy, Madea does not fit societal norms of attractiveness. “ By cross-dressing to become Madea, Perry accomplishes a dual role. First he eradicates the male sex organ; that is he destroys the Black male penis. Next, he eliminates the functioning sexuality of the Black woman ( Bell).” Mammy has also been portrayed as a non-sexual woman and because Perry isn’t a woman at all, this further pushes the notion that Mammy is unlike the average woman and in the “other” category.
Madea is similar to Mammy in that she is also nurturing and protective of her family. She also seems to be the head of the household and watches over everyone who walks through her door. In a scene from the first movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea is in the kitchen making food for a family friend, she hands her the food. Madea says, “You didn’t come by here yesterday, you got to eat something out there on them streets you got to be careful (Perry, Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman).” In another scene, in the same movie, the family friend is being threatened by her husband. Madea walks in with her handgun ready to defuse the situation. Madea is the matriarch of the family, at the end of each movie she somehow manages to bring the family together.
The men in Madea’s family and also in Mammy’s family all seem to depend on them. After slavery, the stereotype of the lazy and stupid black man become popular. We saw this stereotype in minstrel show characters like Sambo. Madea’s brother, Joe, is dependent on Madea for his every need, even going as far as to ask her to hand him the remote control that was right in front of him. Joe is always joking and laughing, while Madea is either in the kitchen or giving advice to family members. Joe even makes fun of Madea’s physical appearance calling her ugly and man like.
Mammy has been described as a dimwitted character and Madea exhibits this character trait. In the film, Madea’s Family Reunion, Madea’s foster daughter asks her for help on her Algebra homework and after looking at the worksheet with a confused look on her face, Madea replies “honey I don’t know nothing about Al Jarreau honey when I was in school we had three R’s read, write, rifatic (she meant arithmetic) I don’t know nothing about Al Jarreau ( Perry, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family reunion.)” This statement shows a lack of intelligence that is shockingly similar to the manner in which Manny is portrayed.
Although there are many similarities between Mammy and Madea, there are a few differences. The first being that Madea is not submissive or obedient at all; in fact she is almost the complete opposite. Madea is assertive, scurrilous, and outspoken not just in her personal life but in general. Madea does not care about what anyone thinks of her black or white. Meanwhile, Mammy would never utter any word of disrespect towards a white person. Madea’s never changes her character in front of different groups of people; she is vile in every situation. Madea has a long and extensive criminal record starting from the age of 9. She was also promiscuous in her adolescent life as a stripper and prostitute. This part of Madea falls more into the jezebel stereotype than the Mammy stereotype. The jezebel is the stereotype that black women are more sexually promiscuous than other women.
Tyler Perry’s Madea movies have made him one of the most successful directors in Hollywood. His films regularly do well in box office. In 2011 Forbes named him one of the highest paid men in entertainment earning 130 million dollars in 12 months (Forbes). Madea’s Family Christmas made 25 million dollars in a week and grossed about 68 million dollars by the end of it’s run in theaters. Is Tyler Perry making money off of degrading the Black community or is Madea just a fun light -hearted character? This is a question that I’ve recently been asking myself. I have watched most of the Madea and found them entertaining. It’s wasn’t until last year that I realized the many negative stereotypes in Perry’s movies. I was talking to one of my caucasian friends and she brought up the Madea movie she watched the night before. We talked about the plot and the different character and at the end of our conversation she said, “Black people are so funny, imagine having someone like Madea in your family it would be so much fun.” I could not stop thinking about that comment for weeks; did she really believe that Black women acted that way? After watching the documentary Ethnic Notions in class, I learned that stereotypical images of Black Americans have been around since the beginning of popular entertainment in the United States (Litwack, Ethnic Notions).
Although many people, including Black Americans, find Madea to be a source of comedic relief and not as a harmful stereotype, it does not erase the fact that Madea movies include many stereotypical images of Black men and women that date back to slavery. I believe that the popularity of Madea movies says something about our society and how much we enjoy watching Black Americans be reduced to stereotypes. Stereotypes hold communities back from doing well because they are are chained by what society thinks of them. In the US today we hear that Blacks are athletic, funny, good dancers, good singers, etc. These stereotypes are not negative but by reducing Blacks to these stereotypes, most do not receive the opportunity to succeed.
“The Minstrel Show.” The Minstrel Show. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. <https://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/jackson/minstrel/minstrel.html>.
Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications
Perry, T. (2006). Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings. New York: Penguin Group
Bell, Jamel Santa Cruze. Interpreting Tyler Perry: Perspectives on Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Print.
Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Dir. Tyler Perry. Lions Gate Home Entertainment, 2005. Film
Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion. Dir. Tyler Perry. Lions Gate Home Entertainment, 2006. Film.
Ethnic Notions. Dir. Leon F. Litwack. Artform Productions, 1982. Film.