I used to watch and laugh at Black male comedians who would wear dresses to mock Black women.
I thought it was just a joke and there was no need to be so serious about everything.
My thinking was a complete and ignorant cop-out.
I no longer laugh at the social media viral videos of Black men who pretend to represent Black women for a good laugh. I do not watch movies or shows where it is the same old theme: Look at how Black women are a joke to womanhood and humanity.
It all changed for me when a friend, a White woman, asked a question out of sincerity and a desire to live as an anti-racist person.
One day, during a group conversation, where we lamented the stereotypes of Black women in film, my friend, looking concerned asked, “What about Madea?” I saw confusion on her face, as she tried to make sense that on the one hand we were critiquing narrow imagery of Black women in media, yet, on the other hand, she saw how masses of Black people consumed the Madea plays and movies. One of the Black women laughed, as if carried away in joyful nostalgia, “I love Madea!” As for me, I did not have an answer that really aligned with my talk and my walk. I used the usual push back of how it is just entertainment, and somehow this matter was different.
Inside, I felt unsettled. Madea and other images were really not funny at all.
Sometimes, it takes an outsider to see the disturbing things we deem as normal. My friend’s question invited me to look deeper at how I was living even for seemingly trivial matters.
Watching these forms of entertainment required the same the critique I made of of other television and film narratives.
To approve of them meant that I validated Black women’s subjugation for a laugh.
When I began looking more closely at all of the Black men who built careers or boosted them by pretending to be Black women in the name of comedy, I no longer found any of it funny.
I felt disgusted.
These images mocked Black womanhood, as if we had a history of society creating laws and movements just for us. From supporting Black men in Civil Rights causes and White women in their feminist work, Black women had to, and continue to, strive to not be relegated to the margins. I do not take reducing us to racist images as a thank you to Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm and the list goes on.
Whenever I laughed or invested time and money to watch these attacks against Black women, I demonstrated some agreement of rejecting our humanity.
I am not trying to shame anyone who finds these narratives entertaining. I am sharing why I no longer find it funny as an invitation to think more about why we do what we do.
Why Mrs. Doubtfire Ain’t Madea
I do not find anything funny about any Black man choosing to reinforce the crap that negatively impacts the lives of little Black girls to Black women for the sake of a dollar and laugh.
When given the chance to contribute to the arts, of all the ways to make people laugh, am I to believe that the best we can do in contemporary society is for a Black man to support tools of domination?
I think we can do bettah. Whenever I bring up the issue with Black men dressing like Black women for attention and monetary gain, I receive some type of rebuttle that White men do it too. Good ol’ Mrs. Doubtfire, a character played by the late Robin Williams, surfaces as an example.
Madea and Mrs. Doubtfire are not the same.
White women are not often portrayed as Mrs. Doubtfires. Mrs. Doubtfire is not an archetype of White womanhood, such as Mammie, Jezebel or Sapphire, for they are portrayed in a much broader range of ways. However, Black women are often portrayed in a very narrow range of these media archetypes in images like Madea. Therefore, stereotypes of Black women get reinforced, dehumanizing us in the process, but Mrs. Doubtfire doesn’t become a dehumanizing stereotype of White women. Instead, especially with today’s blend of colorblind racism, Mrs. Doubtfire is just a funny gag of a man playing a woman.
Mrs. Doubtfire and Madea deal with two different constructions of womanhood that has been used in film and accepted by most of the United States society (and even globally exported).
When it comes to the colorblind construction of womanhood, White women are typically positioned at the top of the racial and gender hierarchy, and depending on where you live in the country, Black women or Native American women are typically located at the bottom of this construction. Instead of directly communicating this messages, television shows, plays, films, etc., simply create stories and roles to indirectly and visually reinforce this message in the social imaginations of masses.
As a result, when White women are portrayed as “trash,” an image rooted in classism and racism for likening anything that is close to an ill-conceived vision of Blackness as garbage, or some image countering the dominant narrative of White womanhood, the narrative does not have staying power on all White women. These images are seen as atypical of White womanhood. White women do not have to deal with being seen as welfare mothers and ratchet women from a few movies or skits. Besides, they are not often given token roles and limited roles as the majority of parts available for them. They are often cast in roles that normalizes and humanizes being White.
The opposite is often true for Black women and most, if not all, women of color because the distorted images passed down through different media work as social proof that we represent the deviant form of womanhood and humanity. When a Black actress takes on a role as a ratchet woman, it seeks to confirm the supposed truth of “that’s how they are.” When a Latina actress plays a fiery and hypersexual seductress in media, it serves to prove, “that’s how they are.” When a Black woman portrayed as loud and angry in a commercial, it reinforces a false reality of all Black women. Interestingly, you can find many of these images juxtaposed against a “normal” acting White person as a subconscious reinforcement to racist ideas.
In my lifetime, I have seen White women angry quite a bit, even swearing, but they do no contend with an “angry White woman” narrative projected on them by others. They can be seen as angry, human, and not some out of control monster. These images are dehumanizing because Women of Color face the people who passively consume these images and unconsciously project them on us in our everyday lives. Yet, certain Black women go out of their way to not show the slightest human emotion of anger because they do not want to be seen as the “angry Black woman.”
We have created a world where Black women are supposed to suppress their emotions because of people’s negligence.
It is no wonder why these images have been used to dominate and silence Black women.
Think about it.
Most of an unquestioning majority of society have yet to boycott these issues. Most of society passively consume entertainment without any critique. Most of society subconsciously receives these racist and sexist messages and truly believes they do not impact their perspectives on the world. Most people think because they are not card-carrying members of a hate group and they are spiritual to some degree that they somehow live above this influence. When Black women raise a critique, we can be easily dismissed as “the angry Black woman.” People will nod their heads in agreement, remain silent in affirmation, and use this stereotype to excuse wrong-doings from personal infractions to societal injustices. I do not think it is funny when it happen to Black women in real life, so I am not laughing at Black men who use Black womanhood as an object for their fame. By the way, what has been in it for Black women?
I know people would like to think that we have all things equal, so these issues do not matter. On paper, by law, we are equal, so it makes sense for many people to think there is no nuance to comparing Mrs. Doubtfire to Madea. However, in reality, with all of our progress that I am ever thankful for, we have much of work to do. How many people have signed marriage certificates, but their spouses do not treat them as if they are married? There are laws against murder, rape, theft, and I have yet to experience a world without crime. Laws have not miraculously created a racially just, equal, and harmonious world. They help. But, we, the people, make the choice to either continue to make what is on paper a reality or not. Out of my own convictions, I think I must respect myself, as a Black woman, before I critique other people’s lack of respect. And now that I have, I can encourage others to consider rethinking even what they, too, think are insignificant ways they can live in a way that works against racism, sexism, etc., such as not laughing at Black men mocking Black women for attention and profit.
Humor as Manipulation and Control
Humor has a way of providing a spoonful of sugar to help the poison go down much easier. It can be used to manipulate individuals and groups into accepting and approving problematic ways of thinking and living. Its manipulation can be seen when someone questions or pushes back, they are met with resistance:
“It’s not that serious.”
“Can’t you take a joke?”
A punchline does not make it right.
I love to laugh and joke, and there is a difference between not taking oneself too seriously and agreeing to the continuance of the downgrading of Black women as a norm.
It is that serious.
I think Black women can laugh at ourselves without being the punchline of humanity.
I want more of us to reach down into the deep wells of self-care by refusing to validate these narratives with our consumption. Instead, I want more of us to choose a higher narrative.
As a form of self-activism, I want more of us to make these individual sacrifices of daring to find humor in other ways than at our own psychological, spiritual, physical, and material expense.
Our bodies, our lived experiences are nobodies joke.
I want us to live it from every fiber of our God created beings.
Just like we don’t need another hero, we don’t need another Black man dressed up as a Black woman for a laugh.
I am not even getting into arguments about feminizing of Black men. I am not addressing the critiques of what makes for strong films or comedy.
Black men and others will continue to create content that is problematic.
The question is will you encourage it by consuming it?
Will you share the videos on social media?
Will you laugh and then turn around expect to think that a Black woman’s life matter?