Tyler Perry And The Faux Empowerment of Black Women

Tyler Perry’s films propagate capitalism, greed, colorism, abuse, patriarchy, and the perpetuation of stereotypes. So why exactly was the director chosen to headline a women’s empowerment luncheon this weekend?

Many words reverberate when I find the strength to watch a Tyler Perry film: violence, misogyny, HIV/AIDS, stigma, stereotypes, dependency, greed, classism, and others. The one word that never leaves my lips, however, is “empowerment.”

So imagine my surprise when I realized that Mr. Perry was headlining Women’s Empowerment 2014, and before the same women his films often denigrate. Like Mr. Perry, I too have male privilege but unlike him, my career is not based on the vilification of black women by using archaic and grossly problematic caricatures under an “empowerment” guise.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Women’s Empowerment was created in 1995 to enhance the lives of black women by addressing issues that impact their health, hearts, and pocketbooks. But I wonder what kind of black women were being considered when Mr. Perry was selected as the keynote speaker for this Saturday’s luncheon.

According to Gary A. Weiss, Radio One Regional Vice-President, “We are honored to have media mogul Tyler Perry join us this year. He is the personification of empowerment and inspiration.”

I can agree that Mr. Perry is a likely example of perseverance, faith, and persistence, but his films—and by extension, him—also propagate capitalism, greed, colorism, abuse, patriarchy, and the perpetuation of stereotypes, so again I ask: empowerment for whom?

In “Tyler Perry Hates Black Women,” the Crunk Feminist Collective penned five reasons Mr. Perry hated black women. Although this was written following the premier of his show, “The Haves and the Have Nots,” the representation of the black women in that television show closely aligns with the un-nuanced illustrations of those in his films. In fact, his characters are emblematic of the problematic depictions of black women that Melissa Harris-Perry so eloquently examined in “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black in America.” Surely in every Mr. Perry film we have observed the one-dimensional Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire, and often in the same room, at the same table, discussing their problems (usually about men, because obviously women’s lives must revolve around us).

Because I am deeply troubled that Mr. Perry is headlining a conference before women when his “art” repeatedly proves that he could not possibly care for black women’s existence, it is vital to re-mention these five points:

  1. Tyler Perry is a cultural batterer.
  2. Tyler Perry can only represent black men positively by throwing black women under the bus.
  3. I feel some type of way that Oprah would be involved with such foolishness.
  4. On his best day and her worst day, Tyler Perry ain’t even in Shonda Rhimes’ stratosphere.
  5. Tyler Perry is dangerous.

These five points—and the continuation of these films—underscore the danger of Mr. Perry headlining Women’s Empowerment 2014, or any other year. It is evident that Mr. Perry cannot create real depictions of black women because he does not love them. And no, not sexually, but rather: Mr. Perry does not recognize the human condition of black women, and of their complexity and nuance. All too often, Mr. Perry creates films about working class black women where he chews them up, spits them out for the consumption of those same people, and expects them to say “bravo.”

Since when is it empowering to subtly illustrate that women are miserable until a “good man” saves her world? Is it really inspirational to typecast black women and depict them as outdated stereotypes and caricatures? And surely black women deserve better than “if you commit adultery, you will get HIV” as shown in his film, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.

Mr. Perry employs black women—and yes, much more than other directors and screenwriters—but does that mean he can unapologetically display class, culture, and gender warfare? I hope not.

Mr. Perry is a questionable choice to headline Women’s Empowerment 2014 because of his portrayal of black women in his films, but also because, well, he’s a man. I take issue with a man feeling as though he can empower women, as opposed to standing in solidarity with women.

But since Mr. Perry was selected and will deliver his keynote this weekend, consider this: If we are now using “empowerment” as a substitution for “being wealthy” or “promoting capitalism at the expense of others,” then I suppose, sadly, that Mr. Perry is the best person for the job. This, despite his main victims being those he claims to celebrate, speaks to the inability of certain aspects of society to view women as nuanced individuals.

However, if people are focusing on black women’s autonomy, security, health, self-care, and ability to navigate through society as real people and not objects for our desire, then Mr. Perry’s shallow words will certainly fall on deaf ears.

Preston Mitchum is a civil rights advocate and legal writing professor in Washington, DC. He has written for The Atlantic, Huffington Post, EBONY, and Think Progress. Preston is obsessed with incorporating intersectional frameworks into laws and policies. Follow him on Twitter @PrestonMitchum.

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