The Part Where I Lament About How Tyler Perry Portrays Black Women
Tyler Perry has, and always will be, Tyler Perry
You know that person who was a part of your life several years ago who you let go of because they were toxic af? And you hear their name every now and then and wonder if they’ve made any positive changes since the last time you interacted with them? Then you’re validated in having let them go because it turns out the progress you’ve heard about has nothing to do with actual growth and they’re still out here being a whole ass mess?
Hi. That’s Tyler Perry.
Look at the descriptions of Tyler Perry’s shows Sistas vs Bruh pic.twitter.com/4GoDIfK75q
— Mysa Mami (@Brieyonce) January 13, 2021
Mysa Mami’s tweet got me thinking about Tyler Perry and the misogynoir that lines his portfolio, so let’s talk about it, or rather, add to the conversation that’s been going on for years.
So Bruh, according to the synopsis offered, is the story of four Black men who explore relationships, friendship, careers, and “we ain’t family but we family.” The men are all huddled together with bright, happy smiles, and look like they have the kind of bond where you get funny looks if you ask if you can come over because the invitation’s automatically implied.
Sistas, on the other hand?
That “single Black females” takes me out. Immediately. Don’t even get me started on the one common thread being “why am I single?” Nowhere in the synopsis does it mention friendship or careers, hell, the four women aren’t even together in their picture, just four separate images cropped together with the phrase “single but never solo.”
Now before I go on I will say that the descriptions from the actual Tyler Perry website are more detailed, so maybe they will be less… “Black females” influenced?
Here’s a longer synopsis of Bruh.
For John, Tom, Mike and Bill, no expression could characterize their camaraderie more accurately. Whether fulfilling career dreams or finding love, these four college buddies now in their thirties find themselves learning to stand on their own two feet, while leaning on each other for support and guidance. Sometimes their love is tough and their honesty brutal, but they manage to see each other through every scenario with levity and laughter.
Bruh stars Barry Brewer as Jonathan “John” Watts, Mahdi Cocci as Tom Brooks, Phillip Mullings Jr as Mike Alexander and Monti Washington as Bill Frazier. Additional cast includes Chandra Currelley as Alice Watts, John’s mother; Candice Renée as Regina, the ex-girlfriend Bill wants back; and Alyssa Goss as Pamela, a casual girlfriend of Mike.
And here’s Sistas.
“Sistas”, the new one-hour dramatic comedy by Tyler Perry, follows four single girlfriends who have reached the milestone beyond young adulthood, and are now closer to who they are to become. All the ladies are in their 30’s, and they are all still single. Set in present-day Atlanta, Georgia, Perry takes viewers on a roller coaster ride of emotions and hilarious quagmires that single women can relate to on their own journeys to finding “Mr. Right.”
Andi (KJ Smith), is a newly hired attorney at a prestigious law firm. Hardworking and virtuous, Andi’s love life gets complicated when she becomes involved with a married man. She learns she must lean on her best friends, Danni (Mignon), Sabrina (Novi Brown), and Karen (Ebony Obsidian), if she wants to make it through this. Ever the comedic relief, Danni is an abrasive and young at heart airline supervisor. Sabrina is the more sympathetic one of the bunch who works at a bank, and Karen is an entrepreneur who has opened her own beauty salon.
It is against this backdrop that Perry’s new dramedy takes flight. The four friends learn that at times, their shortcomings can build them up or tear them apart. “Sistas” explores the twists of fates, the unforeseen consequences, and the complexities that come along when matters of the heart are involved. Things will get as bad as they possibly can, but through it all these young women learn to find the humor in almost every moment and laugh out loud. Tyler Perry’s “Sistas“ makes this point with poignancy and candor: that if a person has loving relationships from friends and family, they can have joy in the midst of almost any pain.
Well… at least we aren’t called females, I guess?
It’s clear that Bruh’s description wants you to know that these men are good friends who are going to learn how to stand on their own and support each other along the way. There are mentions of relationships, but they are brief compared to the number of times Sistas reminds you that these women are single. The first paragraph alone mentions their relationship status THREE times (four if you count mentioning Mr. Right) because I guess we’re forever trapped to wonder “why, oh why, am I forever cursed to be single? Where, oh where, are the men? Always men, only men, need a man.”
Don’t worry, after that, we get to the real nitty-gritty, because Andi is … in a relationship with a married man …? And NOW we’re introduced to her friends by name because they’re gonna help her get through this.
I’m also not sure why, in the last paragraph, we need to know that things will get “as bad as they possibly can” for our leading ladies when Bruh has a simple “sometimes their love is tough and their honesty brutal, but they manage to see each other through every scenario with levity and laughter.”
Then I remembered who I was talking about.
Because Tyler Perry has a well-documented history of making Black women suffer.
The moment I realized this, personally, was with a movie called Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor back in 2013, because yes, this formula that Boondocks parodied is spot on, but I hadn’t reached the point of “wow you REALLY dislike us” until 2013. Admittedly, when Tyler Perry first hit my radar back in 2005, I was still in college, and as an up and coming writer, I was happy to see a Black creative thriving in an industry that I could only dream of being a part of. Eventually, the whole Madea catalog lost its charm for me, but I fully bought into the notion to support ALL Black voices because they often go overlooked.
So I didn’t criticize anything.
Because that movie is just so unapologetically malicious toward Black women, disguising it as a message to not take what you have for granted. It straight up labels sexual assault as an affair, the lead character literally trapped on an airplane with the investor she’s working with, telling him no, trying to push him away, and him responding with, I kid you not, “you can tell them you resisted.”
SOMEHOW, the movie insists on trying to convince us that she cheated on her husband in that moment because she’s just so entirely bored of her marriage. In fact, she goes on to leave her husband for this other man… who ends up physically abusing her AND her mother until she’s rescued by her husband. Her story ends with her contracting HIV, followed by her having to get her medication from her now ex-husband because he’s a pharmacist who’s moved on with a new wife and child.
I can’t tell you if Sistas ever reaches that level of yikes because I noped away from Tyler Perry after Temptation, but the fact that he’s still creating stories where we’re always the lowest common denominator is in and of itself a problem.
The further I moved along in my erudition, the further away I moved from Tyler Perry’s work. It wasn’t just the characters I couldn’t relate to, it was the story itself — not because I didn’t recognize it, but because I made an effort to move away and work toward a better one. I wanted successful Black women to be loved just the way they were; I wanted men to be held more accountable for the harm they do to women aside from cheating; and I wanted more complicated and contradictory love stories to be a part of our Black lives. —Morgan Jerkins, I Give Up On Tyler Perry.
The description for Sistas, released nearly 15 years after the first Madea movie, tells me all I need to know, or rather, all Tyler Perry felt was important to know. These women are single, except for one, I guess, because she’s with a married man. And these women are gonna go through a lot of hardship. It’s not as severe as Temptation was (unless if it is, and I’m not about to watch to find out), but all these years later you’d think we’d progress beyond “Black woman in need of a relationship no matter how toxic it is” or “Black woman in a toxic relationship who needs to be rescued.”
I remember seeing news about Tyler Perry being the first Black owner of an entire studio lot back in 2019 and, once again, feeling that kneejerk reaction to praise the accomplishments of a Black man because “that’s a big win for our community.” But it’s hard to be satisfied with that kind of progress when it’s from someone who keeps telling dreadful stories about Black women.
There’s also this thing that happens where you’re seen as being a hater if you criticize work by your own people. You’re told to give it a chance and that you absolutely HAVE to support it because we need to cheer each other on, especially when we’re constantly looked over by everyone else. But how big of an achievement is it when the person in the spotlight doesn’t have my best interest in mind in his stories, even as recently as 2020, which is when Sistas completed its second season.
Nor is there anyone in the writer’s room to have this kind of conversation with him because he has no writer’s room. It’s just him telling these stories. He’s not even entertaining the possibility of growth at this point.
Most of his central female characters are suffering from some emotional instability that can only be helped with the love of a good man or Jesus. From For Colored Girls to I Can Do Bad All By Myself, internalized trauma redirected at the outside world by Black women has been Perry’s forte. His first film, adapted from his eponymous stage play, was actually called Diary Of A Mad Black Woman. Perry specializes in Black women that are “broken,” and the ones who can’t be fixed often suffer from some permanent punishment as a result. —Sesali Bowen, Yes, Tyler Perry Is Still Obsessed With Unstable Black Women.
Bowen ends their article with a very important point. “I’m not implying that he hates Black women and can’t see the value in our good qualities as well. I just wish he was as invested as showing those as he is the wildly violent ones.” While I very much think it is some level of hate, even if you think it’s not, there’s something to be said about someone having an ongoing portfolio that continues to mistreat us. I’m not saying that the women Tyler Perry creates aren’t out there, but like Bowen, I’m saying that sticking to one type of characteristic is doing us a major disservice, especially when it’s an image that so many in our society hold as being truthful—and that’s not just outside our community, but very much within it.
Though really, if it’s not hate, then the alternatives are more unsettling. If it’s not hate, then he either isn’t interested in a more nuanced take of Black women, or he’s indifferent because he’s gotten successful off of our misery and continues to thrive from it.
How about the next time you make another movie about Black women or one that includes them, have a Black woman write it.Have a Black woman’s input. Hire a Black woman. At least, have someone else look over the screenplay. Because Black women deserve to have their stories told honestly, accurately, and sincerely. We have been the butt of jokes and the victim of abuse in cinema for way too long. Write Black women characters that are autonomous, successful, and mentally stable for a change. But until then, deal with the issue you have with Black women, or at least the Black women that you base your characters off of, and leave us alone. —Ashley E. Barrett, Dear Tyler Perry, From An Angry Black Woman.
I say this as a Black woman, as a writer, and as someone who learned that we don’t have to accept all the stories made with our community in mind: to everyone who’s given Tyler Perry a crumb of your time, PLEASE give space to creators who actually LIKE Black women, or at the very least, won’t continue to tell stories that profit off of our suffering.
(Image: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Netflix)
Want more stories like this? Become a subscriber and support the site!
—The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]