Firstly: there are spoilers below. I won’t apologize for them. I’m trying to save you from seeing this film, after all, so yes, there are spoilers.
Secondly: I wish Tyler Perry would stop making movies about women.
This morning I saw Perry’s newest mark-misser, Single Moms Club, in which five single mothers from different walks of life coincidentally cross paths and become friends. You can tell that Perry thinks he put a lot of thought into the “walks of life” aspect, as the women are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. But their lives and personalities are straight out of the one-dimensional Woman Playbook that Perry has become known for: we have the sexified Latina knockout whose cleavage is displayed prominently in every scene of the film; we have the ambitious career woman who, because she’s an ambitious career woman, is sexless and bitter; the helpless, dainty white housewife who is so innocent that she doesn’t hear innuendo when her outdoorsy male neighbor hints at “erect wood;” the sassy black woman whose husband and older sons are in jail and slaps a lot of people throughout the film; and, finally, the pure, good black woman whose only fault is being too good of a mother.
The movie is tiresome for a number of reasons, which I will discuss here. Perry claims to have made this movie to support single moms and highlight their challenges, but the majority of the film is spent punishing them and highlighting their failures. Their children hate them—sometimes inexplicably—and blame them for everything. Before all the parents (including my mom) jump up and exclaim over the reality of kids blaming everything on their parents, let me say, “Sure.” Sure, kids blame their parents for stuff. But the blame that the women in this film receive isn’t the kind of blame that kids realistically level at their parents: “I didn’t get invited to a party because you won’t buy me cooler clothes!” or “You won’t let me have a cell phone! I hate you!” No, it’s adult-level blame, which merely happens to be delivered by children. In these blamey lines, I hear the societal judgment popularly aimed at single mothers, which Perry works in clumsily not because he wants to challenge these assertions, but because he agrees with them.
For example, Wendi McLendon-Covey’s character, Jan, the successful career woman, is told by her twelve-year old daughter: “I’m never going to be like you. I’m going to grow up and marry a man and have a family so I don’t have to do everything myself like you!” The daughter then proceeds to tell her mother that she’s ruining her child’s life because she chooses to continue to dedicate a lot of her time to the publishing company where she’s worked for seventeen years. Cocoa Brown’s character, Lytia, is told by her youngest son (after he shames her for her lack of education when she doesn’t know the answers to his homework) that he “isn’t his brothers or his dad” and she has to let him grow up and be a man. He’s also twelve-ish. Amy Smart’s character, Hillary, is told by her daughter to “Stop making everyone leave us.” Esperanza, played by Zulay Henao, is still being supported financially by her ex-husband but he dictates her life, and her daughter’s lack of respect—and disdain—for her is evident throughout the film. These are some of the things Perry charges single mothers with—being overprotective/smothering, having careers, being uneducated—and it is the children in the film who communicate most of these accusations, which is both annoying and disturbing.
Another thing I noticed was the number of “I’m sorry’s” that the single moms in the film delivered. I wish I had been keeping a tally. The women are always apologizing to their children, their lovers, and their bosses. Meanwhile, no one is apologizing to them: not for harm, disrespect, insult, or anything else. Especially the children. When the kids of these moms are caught spray-painting and smoking at school—the intersection of their lives that brings all the single moms together in the principal’s office—they don’t apologize. Each of the children are petulant, dismissive, rude, and bored by their mothers’ attempts to discipline/reason with them. Perry makes a point, I would say, of illustrating that the women are shoddy disciplinarians. That’s a man’s role, I think Perry would declare, which is evident in the way that all of these women’s lives are “fixed” by the end of the film.
What’s the fix? You guessed it. Men.
Each of the women gets a man, and by the end of the film they are miraculously happier, more stable, confident, and in healthier relationships with their children. Just like that. The magic is in men, Perry seems to think, as healthy single-parent families do not exist in this film. And of course Perry just had to cast himself as the cool, calm, collected, well-dressed man with car engine expertise who appears early in the movie just in the nick of time to save Nia Long’s character from car trouble. All of the single moms have some kind of drama with the fathers of their children: drug addict, jail, nasty divorce, controlling jerk, sperm donor. But Tyler Perry’s character? He’s a single dad, but he’s normal! “We’re two good people, just not good for each other” was the gist of the line. He sees his kids every weekend. Takes them fishing. What a great guy! Perry’s insistence on painting himself as the savior in his films is distracting and irritating. But that’s taking me away from my central problem with this film, and that’s Tyler Perry’s problem with black women.
It’s been said a thousand times, but I’m going to say it again because it’s still true: Tyler Perry has a problem with black women. It’s evident in Single Moms Club, in which we have two black women, different in age, appearance, and socioeconomic status. Perry displays them as two archetypal poles of black womanhood: the good woman, and the sassy Mammy.
Nia Long’s character May is a writer. She lives in a nice house. She has one child. She is educated. She has no bad habits. She is polite and funny and her language is precise and her clothes look like she shops at Macys. In a conversation with the other single moms about sex, she reveals that she has been celibate for a long time. Unlike the other women in the movie, she has no flaws: she is kind to everyone and loves her son so much that it makes her flighty and, once, when her son runs away, angry. But only because she was being such a good mom.
Then there is Cocoa Brown’s character, Lytia. She waits tables for a living. She lives in a ratty apartment complex. She has “more children than the Harlem Globetrotters,” according to McLendon-Covey’s character. She is “sassy.” She is loud. She is inappropriate. She is often angry/annoyed/confrontational. She is gruff. The white single moms tell her how “strong” she is. (Sigh.) She slaps people and says “girl” a lot. She wears leopard print pants and other bright colors. She talks freely about sex in the conversations with the other single moms.
In these two women, Perry reveals to us his feelings about black women. There are Mays, classy, sexually pure women with no bad habits, who Tyler Perry’s character, TK, obviously wins by the end of the movie, and who exist to remind us of the virtuous woman we should all strive to be. And then there are Lytias, who Perry casts as the comical foil to May’s perfection: the brunt of all jokes, the classless train-wreck no one wants to be. In fact, much of the movie is spend mocking Lytia. And when I say much, I mean it. Barely a scene passed where some joke at Lytia’s expense wasn’t being flung into the dialogue.
The scene where Lytia’s son shames her for her lack of education was not a poignant moment meant to shed light on the plight of women who have children at sixteen, as was the case with Lytia. It was a jab, written not as a “deep moment” but as a deliberate gag. The line about “more children than the Harlem Globetrotters” was delivered by McLendon-Covey’s character. In fact, most of the racist, misogynoirist lines were: “Why did you name your child after a Jewish holiday?” McLendon-Covey asks. Lytia’s daughter’s name was Rashawna. Ha ha. Single black moms can’t help their twelve-year old sons with their homework because they had to drop out of school! Tee hee. Black single moms have a bunch of kids! Kee kee. Black single moms name their kids the darndest things! Often, it seems that Perry is hiding his own disdain of Lytia behind McLendon-Covey’s character. She delivers all of the black-mom-disparaging jokes, but I’m not fooled: those are Perry’s jokes. They’re in the film, after all—his film—so he must think they’re funny. Black single mothers are a joke to him, it seems, worthy of little respect and standing in their own way. Unless you’re a black single mom like Nia Long, Perry’s logic goes: the ideal woman. Celibate. Sweet. Sophisticated. There is little room for humanity or flaws on Perry’s scale of black womanhood.
But there’s more. The most telling scene is when Lytia is the first to arrive at Hillary’s home for a single moms meeting. Hillary, the helpless white housewife who has had a maid for as long as she’s been married, is now, after the divorce, “without help.” Help with a capital H. She is completely clueless about how to care for her own children: her infant sits crying in the highchair and her young son spins aimlessly in the kitchen—I’m not really sure what he was doing, actually. But have no fear—Lytia is here! Perry’s casting incarnation of the sassy black Mammy character reveals itself in full force as Lytia swoops in, scoops up the baby, stops its crying, and tames the other boy with a whisk of her hand. “Let me ask you something,” Hillary says to Lytia: “How do you be a single mom?”
Because what do white women know about being a single mom? She asks Lytia because as a black woman, she must be the expert, right? Hillary is a divorcee, and the other white woman in the film is single by choice with her decision to go with a sperm donor. Only black women end up as single moms that are unwed and unsupported, Perry seems to say. “You better not ask me to be your maid!” Lytia quips, and it’s supposed to be funny. But it’s not. It’s too late for her character to reject the role of Mammy with this line: Tyler Perry already prescribed it to her.
One of the most disturbing scenes is one with Lytia and Terry Crews’s character. Crews is his typical clownish self, courting Lytia at the diner where she works as a waitress. The very first words she says to him are, “I don’t like you!” And she doesn’t. Never is there flirtation in her meanness to him. She rejects and dismisses him regularly. Once, she missed the bus and was late getting her children to school, so she accepted a ride from him, but made it clear that it did not mean she was interested. Eventually, at the urging of the single moms, she allows him to accompany her to the movies in a group outing, making it clear that it’s not a date, and even flirting with another man in Crews’s presence. However, at the end of the evening, Crews forcefully kisses her. When I say forcefully, I mean he grabs her, and smashes his face into her face. She shoves him off, slamming him into his truck. She says, “I am a woman, okay!” meaning that she won’t be treated that way. Crews’s character then grabs her, slams her against his truck, and kisses her again. (And when I say “slam,” I mean slam. The violence is intended to be comical—Lytia is “so strong”—but it’s disturbing.) Crews comes up from the kiss and Lytia looks dazed, still pushing him off. He says, “And I’m a man, okay!” Meaning…what? That when a man wants to kiss a woman, he will? Even when she shoves him off? That when a man wants to kiss a woman, he will, because she doesn’t know what she wants until he shows her? Eventually Lytia gives in and kisses him back, forcefully, and they take turns slamming each other against the truck while making out. When they finish, Crews says, “When I see you tomorrow, you better be nice to me!” and Lytia says in a soft voice, “Okay baby.” In other words…she submits: Tyler Perry uses the violence of Crews’s character to “tame” Lytia. Tyler Perry’s interpretation of a woman like Lytia is that she not only doesn’t want tenderness, but isn’t capable of understanding it either. Affection and violence go hand in hand for Lytia, and in a film that is supposedly about self-growth and soul-searching, Lytia isn’t allowed to grow beyond that prescription.
Tyler Perry’s vision of black women is not only woefully narrow, but abusive. In a film he claims celebrates the single mother, I see nothing but judgment, blame, and shallow misogyny. The only way a single mom can be happy, Perry tells us, is by ceasing to be a single mom: he creates “the single mom’s club,” and by the end of the movie, destroys it. There is no single mom’s club. There is only a club, he thinks, for bitter, lonely, angry women—and occasionally the perfect princess who just hasn’t met the right man (himself) yet—and that’s not a club at all. My mother told me once “If someone keeps showing you who they are, eventually you need to just believe them.” Today I sat in a theater of black women and throughout the film, the audience was mostly silent, even as everyone filed out of the room. Mr. Perry, you keep showing us who you are. Are you surprised that we believe you?