While images of Black men dressed as woman have become a popular part of Black American culture in entertainment, does the success of the Black actor who plays a role in drag depend on that actor’s heterosexism in real life?
I was in a theatre in a predominately Black part of town and there was a poster for Madea’s Family Reunion up in the lobby of the theatre. Several Black women who looked to be in their 40s and 50s had gathered around the poster and were remarking how they were going to see the film when it came out. Just then a Black transgendered female walked through the lobby and one of the women remarked to her girlfriends, "Look girl, a he-she," and they all started giggling like teenagers.
On more than one occasion Black America has rushed to the box office to see Black men dressed in drag and with the national release of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion, Black audiences will again embrace the idea of a man playing a female role on screen.
When Tyler Perry debuted his character Madea Simmons, a 68 year-old witty gun toting grandmother from the hood, his biggest audience was Black Christian evangelicals. In fact, it was Black Christians that launched him to where he is today, packing in and filling up theatre after theatre as he toured around the nation with his plays. With a spiritual message included in all of his productions, Perry allowed Black Christians to feel good after seeing him prance around the stage dressed as woman.
But before Madea, there was Andre Charles, better known as RuPaul. In the early 90’s, RuPaul gained fame and success with his single "Supermodel (You Better Work)" a tribute to the divas of the fashion. The single placed in the top 30 on the Billboard Pop Charts and the music video was nominated for Best Dance Video at the 1994 MTV video music awards. Through the years, RuPaul has appeared in various movies and music specials. He was honored as in 1999 with the Vito Russo Entertainer of the Year Award at The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) media awards for challenging the limits and breaking boundaries in becoming an openly gay individual who has achieved excellence in the field of entertainment and furthering his visibility and understanding of the community through his work. Still, RuPaul’s fame and acceptance has come from mostly white audiences, even though he is a Black entertainer.
So why is it that Black audiences can embrace a man playing a female role on the silver screen, but still have problems with real life Madea’s in their own communities and families?
Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth, including but not limited to transsexuals and cross dressers.
In the Black community, very little attention is focused on the transgender community. Common practice is to group transgenders with gay men, even though they are their own community within an already marginalized group.
Even in the gay rights movement, transgender issues have been pushed to the bottom of the list for fear that Americans, who are barely able to deal with the idea of marriage between gay and lesbian couples, could even begin to understand the issues plaguing the transgender community.
Madea is a man dressed as a female, plain and simple. No matter how many feel good religious messages Tyler Perry feeds his audiences, Black Christians are embracing cross dressing as a form of entertainment, which is not problematic, except for the fact that Black Christians are known for their homophobic views towards anything remotely gay.
But what if Tyler Perry were gay? Would Madea continue to be as popular among Black churchgoers? Probably not. At least with his assumed heterosexuality, Christians can rest at ease that they are not supporting anything gay because after all, it is just a role. RuPaul, while a great performer, was openly gay and therefore never found the wide spread acceptance and fame that Madea has. Famed actor Wesley Snipes gave us Noxeema Jackson in the 1995 film To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. While heterosexual himself, Snipes’ character was flamboyantly gay. Martin Lawrence first introduced us to Big Momma in 2000 and was so successful that’s he’s back with a sequel. He too is heterosexual. And who could forget "Men on Film" on In Living Color, featuring Damon Wayans and David Allen Grier who played the very gay film critics Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather. Again, both Wayans and Grier are heterosexual and went on to do great things after the end of the series.
Blacks have no problem with cross dressing and transgederism as a form of entertainment. It’s only after the lights go off and the camera stops rolling that it becomes an issue if the dress and heels are still on.