Degrading Drag and the “Mammy” Minstrels
“Blackface transvestites would adopt one of two distinct roles: that of the coal-black mammy, grotesquely disfigured and comically dressed in rags with huge feet, and the lighter-skinned octoroon, or ‘yellow gal’. The latter character was portrayed as beautiful and desirable, and was the object of romantic songs”- Kenneth W. Padgett
Black men donning drag to elicit laughs for box office and television entertainment is not a new development. Historically rooted in minstrel shows and chitlin circuit productions, the theme was considered an upgraded performance from white actors donning Blackface to imitate 3-4 stereotypical Black characters. As evidenced in history, the “mammy” caricature remains a prominent association of straight Black men dressed in drag to depict (and insult) Black women while majority white audiences are pacified and amused with buffoonery. Television shows staring Black actors/comedians playing like- roles were well-received by crossover audiences and garnered lucrative success following 70’s comedian Flip Wilson who popularized character “Geraldine.” Others examples include Jamie Foxx (“Wanda”), Eddie Murphy (The Klumps/Norbit), Keenan Thompson (“Virginiana”/SNL) and of course Tyler Perry and Martin Lawrence reprising their drag roles in 2011 major motion picture releases.
The third installment of Lawrence’s slapstick spectacle, Big Mommas Like Father Like Son, opens today with highly visible promotion on television and urban radio. Last weekend it was announced that all major screenings for the film were cancelled, a strong sign that the film will not be entertaining, or translation: wait till Redbox if at all. Perry’s 6th movie in drag, Madea’s Big Happy Family did not sell-out while on tour in 2010, yet the tired formula is slated for box offices in April- Perry’s possible redemption from the commercial (financial) dissapointment that was 2010’s For Colored Girls.
Promotional posters for the film have appeared all over the internet as they parody Oscar-nominated films by inserting Madea’s drag character. RuPaul’s “Drag Race” however, the highest rated show on the LOGO network for a second year, receives little buzz from mainstream media in spite of its success. Interesting that a show starring homosexual males choosing to creatively compete in drag, doesn’t draw the same attention as straight men “secured in their manhood” rocking floral moomoos, padded breasts and church lady wigs in recurring film roles. Hilarious even, that many Amerians are reluctant to view drag as entertainment unless deep-fried in debauchery, dipped-in degradation of Black women, and served-steeped in Black men’s heterosexual emasculation.
Where is the evolution? Just because comedians, actors and writers can, does not mean they should rely on formulas of old. Particularly in our post-racial/pro-homosexual awareness society, the “mammy” minstrel is quite offensive in the age of the Obama’s and same sex adoptions. A way to break the cycle of chattel slavery stereotypes invading modern consciousness through entertainment is to not support. Recognizing the lack of Black actors cast in major film roles, it becomes crucial to support the films reflecting the diversity of the Black diaspora in a myriad of stories. Support lesser-known independent films of substance, or even the local Black theatre and acting companies. Maybe, if enough people agree to stop the madness in time, Hollywood will take note and we can prevent the major release of White Chicks 2 and the Wanda & Shenehneh movies.