08 November 2007

An Open Letter to Tyler Perry

Dear Mr. Perry,

Do you like women? Not "like" as in gay or straight, but "like" as in respect. I have seen a few of your films now - Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion, and Why Did I Get Married? And increasingly, I find myself questioning whether you truly love, respect, and appreciate women in their own right.

Don't get me wrong. I have found your films entertaining and thought-provoking, even if a little over the top. I have laughed, groaned, and mourned along with your characters. And I have truly appreciated your attempt to portray black women in roles that expand beyond the skimpily dressed, booty shaking figures that we see on MTV and BET. In your latest film, Why Did I Get Married?, you made a point of depicting professional, highly educated black women. And as woman with a few graduate degrees, I saw part of myself in your characters' struggles to balance work, family, and self.

But at the end of every film, I was discomfited despite having had a good laugh. And when people asked me whether I liked the movie, I struggled to express the conflicting feelings within: I was entertained and glad I saw it but I'm not sure that I liked it and perhaps I could have waited for the DVD.

Leaving the theatre after viewing Why Did I Get Married?, my husband and I did our standard check in. "What'd you think?" he said. "It was entertaining but…" I paused before continuing, "I'm starting to wonder if Tyler Perry likes women."

You see, Mr. Perry, I have noticed a disturbing pattern in how you resolve your films: the solution to the woman's problems is always located in a man. You seem to think women incapable of standing on their own, being happy, whole, and successful outside of a relationship with a man.

Let me assure you that I am not one of those "I don't need a man" sisters. I have been married for 10 years now and my husband's unconditional love and support has helped me to become who I am. However, I have also learned that my ability to truly love my husband is only made possible because loving him is a choice which I freely make - over and over again. I am not with him because I am afraid of being alone. I am not with him because I think that life would be meaningless without him. I am not with him because I feel otherwise incomplete. I am certain that I could live - and thrive - without my husband. But I choose to share life without him because he makes it richer. I've come to think of my marriage as the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae: the sundae is good by itself, but the cherry makes it different and better (and Mr. Perry - I really like cherries).

But your idea of "happily ever after" always involves a woman finding happiness in a new relationship or becoming a "better wife." Your female characters transfer their emotional dependency from one man to another. (Really, couldn't Helen have at least gotten an apartment of her own before investing her happiness in Orlando? Couldn't Sheila have done the same before marrying Sheriff Troy, less than a year after her divorce from Mike?) Professional women sacrifice their career aspirations in order to accommodate their husband's desire for more children. (Dianne's concern about pregnancy jeopardizing her career was a valid one held by many women. Rather than trivializing it as "selfish," perhaps she and Terry could have had a discussion about how to accommodate her professional aspirations as they raised their family, instead of her "I'll do whatever it takes to keep you" speech. I'm not saying that marriage should not involve compromise. I'm just asking for a little reciprocity). And sisters who seem to have it together, including supportive husbands, turn out to be emotionally repressed. (Why couldn't you at least let Patricia be emotionally balanced, given the fact that you portrayed three seemingly healthy men? Do you really think we're all screwed up?).

I'm worried because I've seen a lot of women like this - in my personal life and in my career as a psychologist. I've seen women who sacrificed their educational and occupational dreams because their husband's job required frequent moves or forced them to take on a disproportionate share of family and household responsibilities (in addition to their jobs). I've seen women who have denied themselves to take care of the needs of everyone around them. These women have ended up in my office - depressed, anxious, overweight, and just plain stressed out. And all the while feeling like they had no right to complain because "at least I have a good man."

I really appreciate your emphasis on forgiveness in your movies. But I wish you'd also emphasize the importance of reciprocity as well as individual health and fulfillment. I know that you're trying to do something good, so I want to push you to do more. Because ultimately, I believe that you do like women, that you love women. You just don't know how. So right now all you're doing is replacing one stereotype - the sex-craved jezebel - with two others that are slightly better - the needy, victimized woman or the superstrong sister. You're pulling the rug from beneath us even as you give us legs. And unfortunately, because many of us are so battle weary from the assault on our images, we don't realize that we should expect better. But we deserve better. And I have faith that you can - and want to - do better.

07 November 2007

A Chance Encounter

I just had an interesting encounter. Sitting in the campus coffee shop at Duke University, where I teach part-time, a woman approached me.

"Are you a graduate student?" she asked.
"Actually, I'm a professor," I replied.
"Oh! What department?"
"Women's studies."
"What class do you teach?"
"Black Love."
"Wow! That must be explosive."
"It's quite enjoyable. I've just come from there." Indeed, I was still unpacking my computer.
"Well, I'm from the Caribbean and you want to know what I think of black men in America?" I nodded and she proceeded to gesture from the tabletop to the floor.
"I'm not sure what that means," I said.

She clarified by giving a thumbs-down sign. I wasn't quite sure how to respond.

"Really?" I finally said, hoping the lift in my voice would encourage her to say more.
"Black men in America are no good. Every now and then you find a good one here or there. But most of them are no good."

I wondered whether I should tell her about my husband, my brothers, my brothers-in-law, my cousins, my uncles, etc. - all the good black men in my life. I was tempted to invite the young brother at the next table to join our conversation. I wished that some of my students were around.

She continued. "Then again, I'm not a feminist. Are you a feminist?"
"Yes, I am."

She gave me that look, the one that sisters use - no matter if they're from U.S., the Caribbean, or Africa - when we're sizing you up. She announced that she was going outside to smoke. But as she turned to walk away, something caught her eye - the gleam from the ring finger on my left hand.

"You're married?!" she asked incredulously.
"Yes I am," I said.
"And you're a feminist?!"
"Absolutely. They are not mutually exclusive." I found it ironic that the woman with such a dismal view of black men was surprised to discover that a feminist liked men.

She went outside for a few minutes. Coming back in, she grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the table.

"Are you religious?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm a Christian. In fact, I'm a minister and I teach at Shaw Divinity School."

Her mouth fell open. We talked for nearly an hour before exchanging telephone numbers and promising to keep in touch.

Ironically, my class today was about the way in which our imaginations are shaped by popular culture such that we hold judgments about each other based upon what we think we know. Many of us walk around with scripts in our head that tell us what to expect from other people based upon a label. Black man = no good. Feminist = hates men. Christian = not feminist. These are a few that my conversation partner seemed to hold at the beginning of our encounter.

With rare exceptions, most of us have some sort of script in our head. And for those in the United States, these scripts are heavily tainted by the legacies of racism and sexism. And these scripts, in turn, poison our romantic relationships. They are the walls that box us in. They limit our imaginations in terms of who we see as romantic partners, how we function in relationships, and how we expect our partners to function. And quite often, they prevent us from seeing the truth about ourselves.

People are usually more complicated than labels. At the risk of sounding cliché, it's time to think outside the box.