*updated 7/11/10. the video was incorrect. see the correct video below*
To begin with an aside, a video:
I’m really not down with proselytizing and trying to get folks saved. No. The reason I am interested in this performance is because the singers are, of necessity, blind but there is a background noise – of hands clapping – that features only a female group. I want to be attentive to the gendered dynamics of such performance. On the one side, literally, there are male singers who cannot see the women occupying the other side of the stage. The women are there to applaud the actions of the men. It is this sort of gendered incongruence that I think is a feature of much black popular culture. The women in this performance serve as a repository, as an audience for the men who are blind (to them, to their posture) but nevertheless need the performance of the feminine for their own performance of song to cohere properly. Of course, the genius of the “Blind Boys” was in the fact of their blindness, in the fact that we are an ableist world that privileges certain modes of bodily existence as normative. This literal blindness was exploited by record companies who would utilize these voices while not paying the proper amounts of money. I want to be attentive to the ways that blindness as a metaphor can work in the service of ableist normativity and say that this writing is against that sort of ableism.
As the necessarily constructed audience is female, I want to give attention to other constructions of audience. The problematic construction of audience that I detect in the performance of “Leaning” is the reason why I am bothered by Tyler Perry. The ways in which media constructs black audience has all sorts of resonances for the ways we think through and think about gender. So I want to offer a few words about how TP constructs his audiences and how a figure like Aaron McGruder – by way of the cartoon The Boondocks – works against these gendered problematics.
To begin again for the second time, another aside: when I talk to black women – if we’re on the phone, if we go to dinner, if we’re walking down the street – they often call me “girl…” you know, in that “sistergirlfriend” sort of way. Sometimes we’re talking about dating and relationships. Other times, we’re talking about food and football. But somehow, I – a male-identified, male-bodied subject – come to occupy the space of “girl” for these women with whom I am in such close relationship. What this hints at, for me at least, is that the ways in which “sistergirlfriend” is constructed has as much to do with the sorts of conversations that take place between folks as it does with the bodies who sit in front of or walk beside us. We don’t always agree but we converse. Because of the ease with which we can speak about issues, because of the comfort with knowing each other, because we glide in and out of a variety of topics, I can figure differently – as “girl”…and that’s real cool to me. (Though, I am always aware of the gendered dynamics of any conversational transaction between myself and women; I do not name this ease with relationship in order to declare that I am not still influenced by and must daily struggle against sexism, misogyny and patriarchy.) I name this relationship in order to recalibrate how gender and audience is conceived, not necessarily based on bodily construction but equally on the possibility for conversation between subjects.
And thus, Tyler Perry. We all know about and many lament the work he produces. Black women, for him it appears, are a monolithic group. They are either professionally successful but vindictive or professionally wanting but sweet. They are trifling or triumphant…all through the power of Jesus and a man who will serve as an erotic and romantic partner. His work is as homophobic as it is sexist, patriarchal and boring. Nuance is not the name of his game. TP constructs audience, it appears, based on lack: of a man, of success, of spiritual fulfillment. His construction of a female audience is the reproduction of the blind boys who sing and the seeing women who only clap. There is no transaction taking place – which is to say, there is no conversation between the blind boy (TP) and the mute but clappy audience.
As the uber-phallus, he gives women the images they want, or are supposed to want. Those who speak back are simply haters, or misguided or bourgeois. The only ones who figure for him are those who keep clapping as he keeps singing his song. Why is the construction of audience done in such a way to have TP performing and while the audience mutely claps along? What do these continual refrains mean when considering how gender is thought, how sexism, patriarchy and homophobia perpetuate? Normative ideology regarding women as receptacles is reproduced by these constructions of audience. We can clap but we can’t speak back. We can speak back but the ways we speak will be shut out because of the singing. And the blind boys will not see our posture because of the flashing lights of celebrity.
There has to be another way. I find Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks refreshing for just this reason. His construction of audience diverges from TP’s constructions because the audience – by way of his satire – are required to be critically distant to the work (as opposed to how TP dismisses critics). A cartoon that features anime styling and fight sequences, it could be argued (at least from one blogger’s point of view) that McGruder critiques the very sexist, patriarchal and homophobic folks that TP pacifies with his performances. Using the episode “Pause” (or, what has been affectionately dubbed “The Tyler Perry Episode”) as an example, McGruder’s usage of the phrase “no homo” and the term “pause” in the episode by the annoyingly sweet, misguided, faux-thug Riley as a declaration to distance himself from “gay sounding” phrases is a literal send-up of folks (from Cam’ron on down to Kanye) who use this sort of rhetoric. “How can I know you not gay if you don’t say ‘no homo’, Granddad” is what he says. Riley repeats these two phrases so much throughout the episode that they enter the realm of the ridiculous. The audience McGruder constructs must ask what the usage of these phrases mean by someone like Riley – a character whom many find humorous but silly – and then reflect on their own usage of such cornyass vitriol. In other words, most people like Riley but few want to be Riley. But Riley has literally exhausted all of the rhetorical possibility for explanations of “no homo” and “pause”; the explanations for such phrases he offers are evacuated of any coherence or depth. For one to continue with this language means they have to figure out a way to do so without resorting to the types of rhetorical flourishes Riley proffers. This is a difficult task. McGruder allows his audience to think differently.
Of course, also in that episode are the ways in which Winston Jerome (TP?) slips between drag, effeminate and hypermasculine performance while still maintaining the language and sentiments of homophobia, sexism, patriarchy and religiosity. The plays produced by Winston Jerome in the episode force a consideration of the type of audience we are when we participate in his enterprise. Stretching Winston Jerome as a metaphor to his limits, the character implodes: hella sexist, homophobic and patriarchal while at the same time sometimes in drag, sometimes effeminate, sometimes hypermasculine, always in love with Jesus. Whereas TP constructs an audience that must sit, watch and clap along, McGruder creates a situation in which the audience cannot idly sit and watch but must create critical distance between themselves and all of the characters in order to assert their own personhood. That’s a lengthy way of saying that McGruder allows his audience to think, to challenge, to dissent. Similar to the ways in which the audience must create critical distance between onself and depictions of Riley, audience must do likewise with depictions of Winston Jerome (or…TP). The conflictual nature of ambivalence is protracted in such a way that in order to enjoy TP, one must figure out a way around the sexism, patriarchy, religiosity and homophobia found in those performances.
This is not to say that McGruder constructs a “masculine” audience. Rather, it is to say that McGruder’s audience has to engage listening practices in radically different ways than TP’s. We don’t just stand, listen and clap to the beat. We reorient it, we revise it, we refresh it.