A Black Man in a Dress: No Laughing Matter
ED GORDON, host:
Over the years, there've been a number of black male comedians that have donned a dress to get a laugh. But commentator Todd Boyd wonders what's the cost of this cross-dressing comedy?
Professor TODD BOYD (Critical Studies, University of California's School of Cinema Television): When comedian Dave Chappell was on Oprah earlier this year, he questioned why so many successful black male entertainers find themselves performing in a dress at some point in their career.
Martin Lawrence, for instance, is well known for his starring role in the big Mama's House franchise. Eddie Murphy has played a woman as one of the many characters he portrays in his Nutty Professor movies. Jamie Foxx was known for his ugly Wanda character on In Living Color, while Marlon and Shawn Wayans did the gender reversal for their roles in White Chicks.
Let us not forget, as much as we might want to, the ill-fated Juwanna Mann movie from a few years ago. Perhaps the most successful cross-dresser of the moment is none other than Tyler Perry, the right-wing evangelical force behind the Madea franchise. Though Perry has long been successful on the chitlin' circuit of gospel plays, he has also translated this success to movies now -bringing his modern day coon show to a big screen near you.
Somehow, Perry's new book Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, ended up on the New York Times Best-Seller's List as well. What's up with this? Why do these performers emasculate themselves, and why are audiences so eager to see the black man humiliated in this manner? Perhaps by feminizing the image of black masculinity, some people are made to feel less threatened and more comfortable. Perhaps the cross-dressing black man is a way to neutralize the image of empowered black men that hip-hop culture provides on a regular basis.
Perhaps some entertainers will do anything for a laugh and a dollar. I'm sorry. I don't want to see any more black men in dresses. That is dead. There are already too many forces at work in society attempting to emasculate black men as it is. We don't need to do anything to aid these forces.
For many years, Hollywood led the way in promoting a series of stereotypes that unfortunately came to define the image of black people in the minds of many. During this time, some argued that black performers had so few opportunities for work in entertainment that it was a matter of doing the stereotypical role or not eating. Whatever you think about that argument, that time has long passed.
Though the entertainment industry is far from being a racial utopia now, performers do have a choice. What is so frustrating about all of these contemporary figures that I've mentioned is that they all seemed to willingly don the dress themselves. This all reminds me of an example made by Carter G. Woodson in his seminal book, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Woodson described a situation where someone is repeatedly sent to the back door so often that eventually they don't even need to be told where to go. They go to the back door on their own.
Woodson suggests that if by chance the individual in question were to go to the their normal spot and find that the back door is not there anymore, that they were already so conditioned that they would cut out a back door for their own use. Whenever I see a black man in a dress on screen, I am reminded of the fact that these modern entertainers are so conditioned that they're stereotypical behavior is now their own choice.
While I support their right to choose, I do indeed detest their choices. Take off the dress, brother, and get your mind right.
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GORDON: Todd Boyd is a professor of critical studies at the University of California's School of Cinema Television.
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