You’re never going to believe this, but there was a time in my life where I thought Madea, the elderly woman played by Tyler Perry in drag, was hilarious. During my middle school days, Perry was a household name in Black families as an urban playwright. I never made it to one of his sold-out shows, but bootleg versions of the DVD releases always found their way into my home. Adorned in his wig, muumuu, and huge fake breasts, Perry parlayed his way into the multimillion dollar film empire that is still thriving today. And my naive younger self, with very little of the Black feminist sensibilities I have today, laughed right along with the rest of his audience. There was something wrong with what I was accepting as entertainment, something that spoke to the physical being of myself and all of the other women in my family. As a male comedian, Perry was offering an offensive and problematic representation of plus-sized Black women to the masses. And this representation did not start or end with Madea.
The show Martin is one of the greatest Black sitcoms on television. Following the life of local radio DJ Martin Payne, the show was testament to Black love and friendship before Insecure, and even Friends, were a thing. One of the strong suits of its titular star Martin Lawrence was that he could easily hilariously play other characters, both male and female, on the show. Local street hustler Jerome and Martin’s over-the-top next door neighbor Sheneneh Jenkins are arguably more beloved characters than Martin himself. These characters were supposed to be gross exaggerations of players commonly found in Black urban communities. But none of those characters are as triggering to me as Big Shirley, the girlfriend of Martin’s best friend Cole (Carl Anthony Payne). As her name might suggest, she was inhumanely large. Though the identity of the actor has yet to be identified, the voice implied that she was played by a man. She towered over Cole by at least two feet in height and was only ever shown from the neck down during her rare appearances.
By never showing her face, Martin made Big Shirley more of an idea or theme than a person. She was the domineering force in the life of a weak-minded Cole, who was the dim-witted member of Martin’s crew. Even when Cole wanted to end their relationship, he could not. Eddie Murphy played a similar character, Rasputia, in Norbit. She is physically abusive and mean, forcing sex on her husband Norbit, who married her because he was too nerdy to say no. Both Big Shirley and Rasputia are hyper-sexualized, a constant threat to vulnerable men who lack the facilities or wherewithal to decline the sexual advances of plus-sized women like they’re supposed to.
While I was able to laugh along with Madea because her old age accounted for much of her comedic appeal, the images of the plus-sized women on Martin and Norbit haunted me. As a fat Black woman of dating age, it was extremely disheartening to see myself portrayed as some kind of desperate animal lacking in the self-awareness to know that I lacked the qualities to be considered part of anyone’s dating pool. I was called Rasputia and Big Shirley and Big Sesali by mean-spirited peers in middle and high school. Boys would tease each other by suggesting that one of them had a crush on me.
Much of the literature and discourse about Black male comedians in drag — both plus and straight sized — is about emasculation. Many comedians, notably Dave Chappelle, have spoken publicly about how crossing over into mainstream entertainment required this “embarrassing” act. In addition to Lawrence and Murphy, big names like Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock, Marlon and Shawn Wayans, and Miguel A. Nuñez have all achieved mainstream success by portraying women. As a feminist, I reject the idea that the worst thing that a man can possibly be is a woman. It’s misogynistic and transphobic. And when you consider that dressing in drag as a joke only furthers the careers of men who go on to become wealthy giants in their industry, it’s downright ridiculous.
The truth is that caricatures of Black womanhood from men are usually more harmful to women. They rely on tropes about Black women being ghetto, uncivilized, and unattractive; stereotypes that Black women still have to fight against everyday. And that trend hasn’t changed. Black Instagram comedians use Black women as characters so much that it’s not uncommon for them to be hired to promote weave companies. Part of the reason I find Joanne the Scammer to be so refreshing is because she aspires to be a version of white womanhood, in addition to the fact that the actor who plays her, Brandon Miller, actually identifies as LGBTQ. (And of course, her commitment to a feminism that seeks reparations by scamming men and white folks out of money.)
In the entertainment industry, Black women are villainized or caricatured unless they fall into an extremely narrow window of desirability. When you add the size component, the result is a dehumanizing performance of disgust, shame, and malice towards fat Black women. Men have relegated plus-sized Black women to punchlines in a way that has real effects on how the rest of our communities view us.
In the weeks leading up to Perry’s latest film Boo 2! A Madea Halloween — a sequel to the first Halloween-themed Madea movie — I considered going to see it. Fifteen years later with a lot more confidence and sense, I was curious to see if Madea could still get a chuckle out of me. But then I thought about the Perry fans who would be beside me — the people who had yet to question the messages Madea sends about Black women and their bodies — and decided against it. The film topped the box office. Clearly there is still work to be done.