Why Did I Get So “Sensateeve”?: Homophobia and Tyler Perry’s Black Marriage Franchise

by Guest Contributor Nonso Christian Ugbode

A good rumor is like a wild forest fire. It comes and goes mostly on its own grand will and terrorizes most in its presence, firefighters and rumormongers alike. The frenzy of speculation around Tyler Perry’s stated or implied sexuality is such a rumor, a sea of loud crackles and hazardous smoke, so forgive me for keeping my distance. Fire burns. This statement is about something different, albeit adjacent. After a viewing of Perry’s “Why Did I get Married, Too?” one cannot help but be struck by its somewhat blatant and unchecked homophobic moments. From “boys-being-boys” to boys in drag jumping out of cakes for no apparent reason the film strikes a discordant chord in some instances of comedy that mostly comes across as coded homophobia.

A good critique should always come with a healthy dose of confession, so here are a few to color your reading. My perspective is one of a black man in search of true love. “That all-consuming, can’t-live-without you love,” (forgive the borrowed phrase dear Carrie Bradshaw.) The kind of marriage I seek is expressly banned in about forty-one states in this great union of ours, and New York just barely legalized it. So aside from being an idealist I am also a bit of a fantasist. Suffice it to say that when I look at depictions of love, Black love in particular, I seek mirrors of myself by habit. Tyler Perry is the main focus here only because he has the biggest mirror – one that if it is not going to pay me any compliments should at least not distort my reflection. That’s all I’m saying.

With two movies in this vein under his belt, a look inside the contemporary Black marriage one might say, Perry has succeeded in saying absolutely nothing about Black gay marriage. Much has been explored when it comes to the committed heterosexual Black relationship; the physical cheating, the emotional cheating, the wanting the baby, the not wanting the baby, the death of the baby, the emotional and physical abuse, etc. And beyond the pathology one manages to glimpse quite a few moments of bliss; which is what keeps me coming back to the franchise maybe. The love portrayed for example between Louis Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson in the sequel is moving. And in all that exploration there is not a mention of girls who marry each other, or boys who are committed to one other, and how wonderful that might be. Not a sentence. Now this is of course expected, as it is status quo. If the president is allowed to have a constantly “evolving” perspective on the “issue.” Well, we can all also pretend it’s nothing to speak up about, I guess.

So beyond being a martyr for the cause the least one could expect from Perry would be not to put down being gay, right? Well, here come the spoilers.

Our sequel journey starts on a vacation retreat to the Bahamas with our four married couples and things turn a bit South when fifth wheel and wife beating ex-husband Mike (Richard T. Jones) shows up. Angela (Tasha Smith) is of course in his face right away and her closing insult to him is “you are such a queen.” Apropos of nothing. Implication? Only a queen would stroll into a nice healthy “couples” retreat to ruin it. Now the argument here, the reason her friends don’t say “c’mon girl you throwing stones,” is that it is just accepted that Black folk are homophobic behind closed doors. Heck, the first people blamed right after the California Prop 8 fiasco was “churchy” Black folk. Forget that some reporting, like David Kaufman’s for The Root in March of this year reveals the issue to be more complex:

“But the truth is actually reversed. Focused far more on job creation, health care and education than on gay marriage, black voters aren’t supporting conservative candidates simply because they oppose LGBT rights. Instead, they are voting for progressive pro-LGBT candidates — despite disagreeing with their pro-LGBT platforms.”

So it is convenient, maybe funny, to think that there are all these Black church folk dismissing gayness all the time but it’s just not true. At a recent screening in Harlem, I watched a crowd of mostly Black people interact positively with the idea of marriage equality after screening independent filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris’ short on Byron Rushing, the Black heterosexual Massachusetts state representative who took it upon himself to fight for marriage equality in his state. Most of the faces in support of Rushing’s cause were not White.

Our second brief moment of homophobia in Perry’s sequel makes an appearance on the boat in the Bahamas while the boys are hanging out and fishing. Mike has just admitted he misses his ex-wife Sheila (Jill Scott) and is crashing the Bahamas couples retreat to try and get her back. When Mike is less than receptive to his friends’ jabs, aka “Sheila don’t want you no more,” Gavin (Malik Yoba) teases Mike for being “Sensateeve”. Also known as the international black gay version of the word “sensitive.” Black men are never supposed to be seen as sensitive of course, let alone “sensateeve.” It is interesting that both these moments center on a character portrayed as essentially “the problem” in an otherwise ideal marriage. There’s an exploitation of a broad stereotype in there somewhere keep digging. The most pronounced moment of homophobia is given to us toward the end of the film when Pat (Janet Jackson) finally confronts her soon to be ex-husband who has been arguably extorting her for money she earned as a successful author. Pat steps into the room with some fierce black and white heels, a black fitted pantsuit, and a slim tie. Suggesting of course masculinity, and with it, power.

She ushers in a giant cake that is rolled in as her husband uncomfortably watches his employees sing him “Happy Birthday” on his wife’s request. After several previous scenes of marriage decay between the two we are still not quite sure why things are over, only that he says she no longer loves him, and maybe she thinks he’s immature. After the “birthday” serenade is over Pat gives the order and a skinny black man, dressed in glittery skin tight spandex, and a loud lollipop colored wig emerges from the cake working it better than Marilyn Monroe might have. Here Pat accuses Gavin for being a “bitch” by trying to steal money he did not earn, and one assumes the “bitch” in this metaphor just popped out of the cake. One has to assume this, otherwise why the show?As Gavin walks away Pat follows repeating her accusations and threatening to fight for what is hers. The moment is supposed to call to mind Angela Bassett burning her cheating husband’s clothes in “Waiting to Exhale” maybe, it is supposed to be a victory. For the most part it falls flat, it climaxes unexpectedly and we end up in the hospital (lawd), but mostly it is unsuccessful because the entire time you’re wondering why a skinny flamboyant guy wearing what can only be described as “Ompaloompa Chic” just jumped out of a cake, and what that has to do with a crumbling marriage. Is she trying to tell him his homophobia ruined their marriage? Nah, I think she’s just trying to tell him he’s a “bitch.” You know, “punk,” “sissy,” “fag.” Sigh. So take all this as you may. I may be reading way too much into it. I may be watching way too many Tyler Perry movies just to complain about them. But the picture I get here is this: black marriage is hard, black marriage is not for punks, or bitches. And if your Black marriage is falling apart, first check to see that you’re not married to one of them, they kill marriages.

Or maybe I’m just being a little Sensateeve.

  • Val R.

    Many Black people have been socialized to hate other Black people and themselves, Perry seems to have been socialized to hate both Black people, women in particular, and homosexuals. That’s clear. What isn’t so clear is why so many African Americans who see and enjoy his films can’t see the hate in his films. That perplexes me.

  • Alex

    JM, Your comment just reminded me of how the racial politics come into play as well. In 2011, I still see more White gay male couples in television than Black gay male couples.

     

    • JM

      Heh, Black straight couples are hard enough to find in mainstream TV. A Black gay male couple? You might as well ask a writer to do detailed research on quantum mechanics. Black people are still the Other in many ways. So are gay people. So a Black gay person is the Other twice over and therefore alien and inscrutable.

  • Alex

    A part of me wishes that a heterosexual Black man wrote an article making the same points you make. Why? Because I want to hear  from heterosexual Black men since the topic is about them as well…about  how femininity is often attributed to homosexual men but not heterosexual. The cynical side of me feels that femininity will always be coded as “weak” and masculinity as “strong” in the movies. . . that this will not change until it is no longer an insult for Black men to be accused of being sensitive, feminine. And given the power dynamics in this country, I doubt that  heterosexual Black men would be publicly okay with any implication that he is feminine. 

    And yes I know how controversial  my statement is, yet this is exactly what my thinking is…that heterosexual Black men are not going to say in public  “so what?” to any hint that he is feminine. A few? Maybe. Many? No.  And I say this knowing many of the people I’ve seen participating in  discussions on this issue are White women straight and LGBT,  LGBT Black men, and Black women, both straight and LGBT. Heterosexual Black men? Not so much.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=806562 Nonso Christian Ugbode

      I’m with you on this one Alex. I think this is why I was drawn to the Byron Rushing story, here’s a straight Black politician putting his voice into a conversation that many would not fault him for keeping at bay. I think  there’s also a false assumption here too that only gay men, and maybe women, loose something in the face of homophobia. I think straight Black men loose a lot of plain humanity when they are implicitly shown as the benefactors of this homophobia – their silence is nothing I want to really scold them for (hey, I can’t force anyone to a fight they don’t want), but it is a silence that I think they falsely assume is not ultimately harmful to them as much as homophobia is harmful to gayness. 

  • JM

    Of course a a Tyler Perry movie would make that kind of statement about Black masculinity. It’s important to note that, even in “mainstream” media gay men are still portrayed not as people, but as ciphers to reaffirm male sexuality. To wit:

    They can be a woman’s fabulous Gay Best Friend, advising her on all matters related to clothing and men (though always single, or if they have a boyfriend/partner we never see them interact with each other).

    They can go all the way on the stereotype and make a gay man all about glitter, Madonna/Lady Gaga, snapping and primping. No matter how many people say “OMG I have friends like this, it’s not offensive,” the fact remains these characters are defined ONLY THROUGH the glitter, Madonna, snapping and primping and really have no identity outside it. They are usually saved for comic relief to make some snappy comment and put everyone at ease.

    They can be portrayed as victims, probably on the DL. Yes, it’s a sad reality that a lot of LGBT men and women are forced to live double lives due to our homophobic culture; yet the trouble with this depiction is that LGBT people are shown with a lack of…I guess agency? Power?

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, to show a Black gay relationship would mean treating gay people as just that–people. However, this won’t happen with gay men. It’s because a lot of men put so much mental and physical energy into what they perceive to be the signs of “manliness” (attitude, sports, women take your pic) that if a show were to depict a man who does not fit the mold in any way, it suddenly throws the entire mold into question. If manliness is seen as sleeping with the most, hottest women, and yet along comes a guy who doesn’t, and yet is still a respected character on level with the straight guys? Then I guess all the effort guys (in the public and private spheres) go to to be “manly” would seem meaningless.

    I’m not sure if this makes sense, but basically to maintain this rigid definition of masculinity (which is then used to sell clothes, shoes, cars you name it), you can’t permit alternatives. Therefore, variations on that rigid definition must be denigrated and disregarded.