Black America's infatuation with butch men in heels

Images of black men dressed as women have become a popular part of black American culture, but does the success of films like Madea’s Family Reunion depend on Tyler Perry’s real-life heterosexism?

BY Advocate.com Editors

March 02 2006 12:00 AM ET

True story: I was
in a theater in a predominantly black part of town and
there was a poster for Madea’s Family Reunion
up in the lobby. 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 transgender 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 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 witty 68-year-old
gun-toting grandmother from the hood, his biggest audience
was black Christian evangelicals. In fact it was black
Christians who launched him to where he his today,
packing in theater after theater as he toured 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 a woman.

But before Madea
there was Andre Charles, better known as RuPaul. In the
early ’90s RuPaul gained fame and success with his
single “Supermodel (You Better Work),” a
tribute to the divas of 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 in 1999 with the Vito Russo
Entertainer of the Year Award at the GLAAD Media Awards for
challenging the limits and breaking boundaries as an
openly gay entertainment professional who has
furthered the visibility and understanding of the
queer community. 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
Madeas in their own communities and families?

In the black
community, very little attention is focused on transgender
people. Common practice is to group transgenders with gay
men, even though they form 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 for gay and lesbian
couples, could even begin to understand the issues
plaguing the transgender community.

Madea is a man
dressed as a woman, 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 toward anything
remotely gay.

But what if Tyler
Perry were gay? Would Madea continue to be as popular
among black churchgoers? Probably not. Assuming his
heterosexuality, Christians can rest at ease that they
are not supporting anything gay.

RuPaul, while a
great performer, was openly gay and therefore never found
the widespread 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’s
character was flamboyantly gay. Martin Lawrence first
introduced us to Big Momma in 2000 and was so
successful that he’s back with a sequel. He too
is heterosexual. And who could forget “Men on
Film” in In Living Color, featuring
Damon Wayans and David Allen Grier as 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 transgenderism as a form
of entertainment. It’s only after the lights go down
and the camera stops rolling that it becomes an issue
if the dress and heels are still on.

Tags: Commentary

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