Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Madea on Reality TV, Madea in Boulder Gardens Cafe, Good Souls, and my Faux Open-mindedness

When I read Tyler Perry’s book, I couldn’t help but try to think about if I knew any madeas in my own life. I first thought of the comedienne, and now academy award winner, Mo’nique. But I didn’t think about the actress in her Oscar role, instead I recalled a project she did before Precious, a reality show on VH1 called Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School. This reality gem brought back 12 of the most shameless contestants from the first two seasons of the surprisingly successful Vh1 show Flavor of Love; a bachelor type competition in which 20 (seemingly mentally unhinged) women competed for the affections of Public Enemy rapper Flava Flav. Mo’nique played the part of charm school headmistress in the series, and was portrayed as the source of timeless wisdom on social etiquette, as well as ruthless tough love for the girls. One of the more memorable episodes showed the charm school girls attending a prom, at which Flavor of Love season 1 cast member ‘Pumkin’ (most famous for spitting in the face of her arch rival ‘New York’ upon being eliminated) decided to make obscene innuendos while taking an ice luge, and then “hooking up” with one of the men Mo’nique had brought in for the mock prom. During the weekly elimination ceremony in that episode, Mo’niqe expelled Pumkin, citing her “whorish” behavior (I specifically remember that direct quote because it was the first time I had ever heard the adjectival form of ‘whore’), and saying something like “Child, you need to keep your legs closed to strange men, or else you always gonna be a ho” (that part is more of a paraphrase, I recall her starting a lot of her advice with ‘Child,’ and I know she explained to Pumkin how her behavior categorized her as a ho). Pumkin didn’t take kindly to Mo’Niques words and called her a hypocrite, and I will never know what else because the rest of Pumkins parting words to her own madea were bleeped out by Vh1 in compliance with the FCC, and I’m no good at reading lips. But as Madea says, sometimes people just don’t want to hear your advice, sometimes their gonna hate you for it. So for a lot of the book, as I read in my head I heard Madea’s words in Mo’nique’s voice.
But I also wanted to think of a real life example of a madea that I had met, and I came up with a perfect one: Miss Diane. Miss Diane is a cashier at Boulder Gardens Café. Diane is African American, old, Proxy-Connection: keep-alive
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r hair is very short-cut (less than an inch off her head) and grey. Diane is a heavyset woman, and she wears glasses remarkably similar to Perry’s Madea. Diane intimidated me for the first couple of months that she rung me up at boulder, she is physically a bit imposing and you can tell she’s not one to mess around with (kind of like LaJuana from the GMBC pharmacy). But I also came to notice she had kind eyes, and she warmed up to me quickly (In stark contrast to LaJuana). She always spoke to me in this really cool, calm way of being nice that I think is unique to the type of person I now know as a “madea.” Miss Diane and I soon established a very friendly rapport; she’s loks out for me, she’s had my back for the better part of the last 4 years. If I swipe a sandwich without my usual Gatorade, and she sees my meal card balance is really low, she’ll say something like “Why you not getting a drink today baby?” I’ll always reply “Eh not too thirsty, got water back in the room.” And she’ll say something like “Well I’m not looking over at the Gatorades, nobody’s gonna notice if someone took one and walked out the other way if they didn’t have enough money on their card…” She’ll smirk and I’ll get the hint. I always say “Thanks Diane, I really appreciate it.” But she always claims to have no idea what I’m talking about. She’s cool. But I’ve also seen her in a bad mood and she is by no means someone to cross. Diane’s a madea, that much I’m sure of. In thinking about my experience with Miss Diane I think I can pick out a specific characteristic that is present in all “madea” characters. You see, soon after meeting Diane, I came to realize that she has what me and my roommate would call a ‘good soul.’ That’s what’s at the core of the madea stereotype; an old black woman who’s tough as hell, but who has a “good soul.” I’ll try to explain the origins and meaning of a “good soul” in the way I’m using it:
I learned to work is phrase into my regular vernacular from one of my best friends (and teammates) here at Loyola, Dan McDevitt. McDevitt’s a quiet kid until you know him, but he’s one of the funniest kids I’ve ever met. I’ve been friends with him since the very beginning of freshman year when he lived down the hall from me, and lived with him since sophomore year. McDevitt always has a very original and honest way of looking at people, and usually can articulate those views in hilariously clear words. So freshman year one of my good friends and teammates from high school, Tim Keegan, came to visit for a recruiting trip (he’s a year younger than me). I’ve always looked out for Keegan, and felt a sort of an ‘older brotherly’ protective feeling towards him, because he’s a really nice kid but can be pretty socially awkward. A lot of times in high school despite being one of the nicest kids I know, his uncomfortable demeanor and awkward word choice caused people to misinterpret their interactions with him, and either lash out or reject poor Keegs, who had no idea what he did wrong. Introducing him to the team I hoped they wouldn’t get the wrong impression of him. Me and McD took Keegan for a run on some trails around Loyola and talked for a while. After Keegan’s dad picked him up, I asked Mcdevitt what he thought of Keegan. He responded simply “I liked him; He’s a good soul.” I laughed really hard at this description for some reason, partly because of the way McDevitt says things, partly because who uses words like that? And partially because it was a really accurate description. Keegan can be weird and maybe a bit conversationally off-putting, but he really is a “good soul,” I had just never thought of using those words to describe a person in colloquial conversation. Ever since then me and McDevitt have spoken about people in terms of the quality of their souls (e.g. “That girl that sits next to me in theology is such a good soul she let me borrow her notebook the whole weekend to copy her notes before the test,” or “Dude my Communications teacher is the worst soul, he gave me a C- on my paper and wouldn’t even meet with me to tell me what I did wrong.”)
These uses of a good soul are a bit superficial, based only on a nice act, because it has become such a regular part of speech. But there’s an understanding between us that in the purest sense the phrase is reserved for a quality that is different than “nice” or “pleasant.” It’s for someone that can maybe be uncomfortable to spend time with or even unpleasant (they don’t have to be, these qualities are for the most part irrelevant to their soul). Someone with a good soul inherently means well. No matter what they say or what you’re changing subjective opinion of them is from day to day, you can still tell that they have a good soul, because in the end they want the best for everbody. Even if you’re mad at someone, even if someone’s annoying the hell out of you, or if they just pissed you off, you can still know they have a good soul. Madea’s have good souls. They might be scary sometimes, you might want them to just go away, they might call you a ho on cable television, they might snap at you after a long day if you forget to tell them to swipe your evergreen instead of your meal, and they might pull a pistol out of their purse and shoot at you for playing music too loud, but they have a good soul, and that’s what’s important about them.

So that was my example of Madea/humor in the real world (or attempt at such), but I also wanted to talk about another aspect of reading/reacting to this as a piece of literature. A lot of what I’m going to talk about stems from what we talked about in Tuesday’s class. I can definitely tell why this book is funny to a lot of people, I get that, but it isn’t what I considered “my type of humor.” I’m not putting Perry’s writing down, because being as objective as I possibly can, I can see what is funny about his writing. The absurdity of Madea’s advice mixed in with some heartfelt pieces of real wisdom I can see as a contributing factor to his humor. The exaggeration of some elements of Madea’s statements, and the understatement with which she talks about some very morbid subjects also seems to be a piece of the humor. But reading it I kept thinking to myself “Ok, I get it…” but I didn’t laugh out loud too many times, and I was constantly reminding myself “this just isn’t my type of humor, that’s all.”
I would think “Sedaris’ writing is much more my taste, I like his style better.” But when I think about it, a lot of Sedaris’ techniques that I enjoyed so much are almost the exact ones I just listed for Perry; so why was I so adamant that Perry’s comedy “just wasn’t my taste”? Was I just not giving myself the chance to find this laugh out loud funny? Had I opened the book and read the first words already knowing that this book wouldn’t be my type of comedy? Had my respectful view of Madea as objectively funny for some, but just not my particular brand of humor been shaped before I even opened the book, just by the commercials I see on TBS for House of Payne or the trailers for Perry’s movies? Had I just put this in a box as “black comedy” without even realizing what I was doing?
These questions tugged at a much bigger question that I think is at the core of a lot people, a question that can be hard to think about and to face head on, but one that needs to be. It’s a question ridden with fear, anxiety, and discomfort: Am I racist? I think racism is despicable, and I in no way want to be a person that lets the color of someone’s skin affect how I view them at all. But not wanting to be racist is the easy part. Anyone who thinks it stops there is just naïve. We live in a society that gives us very clear boundaries, boundaries that are sometimes painfully evident and sometimes almost completely invisible (yet still just as strong). One of these boundaries is race, and it takes a conscious effort in your everyday life to not let this boundary restrict you or your opinions. So while I would have never purposefully thought “I’m not going to like this book, because it is comedy for black people,” I’m afraid on some level that is what I did. You need to ask yourself in situations like these “Why do I have the view I do?” because a lot of times without even realizing it we are letting these boundaries completely interfere with how we see things.
This line of thought led me to wonder about if there is any legitimacy at all to comedy “for” a specific race. Is there a black comedy a white comedy an Asian comedy and a Hispanic Comedy? If these categories exist, is there also comedy that is able to transcend these boundaries, producing a more universal humor? And if there is a comedy for each race and a comedy for all races, where does Don’t Make a Black Woman Take off Her Earrings fall? In the spirit of honesty, I’m going to have to admit that I wrote off Madea as “black” comedy before I even read it, all the while thinking I was being objectively selective, giving it a fair chance. Because of the clips of House of Payne I had seen flipping channels, I decided without even realizing it that a book written by Perry is just something like the Barbershop/Beauty shop movies; just not for me. And as I look back at what I read, I don’t really think that was fair (note: it’s also not fair for me to judge any barbershop or beauty shop movies, because I’ve never seen them).
On page 201, Madea starts a chapter by saying “Let me tell you something. In the black world, there’s the church, the beauty shop, and the barber shop.” And while I didn’t think about it consciously in this way while I read it, I think that phrases like this kind of shut me off. I’m obviously not part of “the black world,” so I’m not going to be able to relate to this. I’ll read it and try to appreciate it, but I’m going in with tainted expectations, the odds stacked against me to make a connection. There are a lot of phrases like this in the book (“If you’re not black, then….” “In the black community…”), and I think that they kind of subconsciously flip a switch in my head that makes me read what comes from a very isolated place. But when I think about it now, the flaw here seems to be more with my thinking than Perry’s writing. These aren’t sentences of exclusion, but rather invitations to be included in the comedy regardless of your culture. While we should work to break down some of these boundaries, some of them are real and should be respected. It’s true that there are many different cultures and these provide different experiences for the people that are a part of them. To pretend that there is no difference at all would be just as ignorant as presuming this difference is what people should ultimately be judged by. There is a certain culture in “ghetto” neighborhoods in America that is largely centered around African Americans. Perry is acknowledging that this isn’t the culture of all his readers by giving sentences like these, and by doing so is kind of implying “This is the world I’m talking about, so be ready if it isn’t where you’re from; let me explain what its like, so you can laugh to.”
I think there are some comedians that pander to racial boundaries to get laughs. They can get cheap laughs by making crack after crack about their ethnicity, but it gets old. Perry’s humor isn’t like this, he’s showing the humor he found in this specific subculture that he is a part of, but he’s doing it in a way that includes all of us, and what I have learned is to have an open mind (and to double check, because sometimes you don’t have an open mind, even when you think you do).

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