Today, Salon posted a must read article by James Hannaham titled “The funny thing about black men in dresses“. He asks the question “What’s so funny about a black man in a dress?”, and whether these roles are a celebration of black women. I say NO. You can decide for yourself…here’s a lil sample.
Some of the most memorable women in black entertainment have been played by men. This drag tradition with roots in minstrelsy harks back to ’70s TV star Flip Wilson’s sassy Geraldine character, and most recently has hoisted chitlin auteur Tyler Perry’s Mabel Simmons, aka Madea, to superstardom. The sharp-tongued matriarch that Perry has portrayed in six hugely popular movies and a long-running TV show makes a cameo appearance in his new film, “Meet the Browns.”
Madea, the seemingly inimitable Aretha Franklin of faux femmes, has yet to inspire knockoffs, but similar drag acts continue to pop up — the corpulent Rasputia of Eddie Murphy’s “Norbit,” Keenan Thompson’s Virginiaca on “Saturday Night Live,” and Martin Lawrence’s repeat performance as Big Momma in “Big Momma’s House 2,” among others. By now, Hollywood drugstores may be running low on plus-size pantyhose…Last year director John Singleton griped to Black Star News, “I’m tired of all these black men in dresses … How come nobody’s protesting that?” And comedian Dave Chappelle told Oprah Winfrey that during a shoot with Lawrence, the writers and producers had twisted his arm to do drag. “‘Every minute you waste costs this much money,’” he recalls them telling him. “The pressure comes in … I don’t need no dress to be funny,” he said. Chappelle also suggested that their insistence amounted to a “conspiracy,” and he got applause for implying a connection between cross-dressing and “Brokeback Mountain,” a film in which neither main character — both of whom are arguably bisexual — wears anything but hyper-masculine attire.
Chappelle’s comment both presumes that impersonating a woman will emasculate him, and that emasculation is equivalent to homosexuality (or at least gay sex, judging by his poorly chosen example). Despite Chappelle’s insinuation, it’s debatable whether this phenomenon has much to do with a gay sensibility. Perry has denied the abundant rumors about his sexuality, telling Essence magazine that having to fend off the speculation has “given [him] a firm seating in [his] manhood.” The newest breed of bruthas in drag has only the most tenuous connection to the decidedly queer cross-dressing entertainment craze of the ’90s, exemplified by Wigstock, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” and “To Wong Foo” — the main difference being the emphasis on frumpiness.
When straight black comedians do drag, they aren’t trying to make women look fabulous. They reach for the floral housecoats and the chartreuse polyester pantsuits. It’s anyone’s guess why the no-nonsense old ladies hold more appeal for them — perhaps grandmotherly aggression and take-no-prisoners masculine attitude have more in common than meets the eye. The clumsy fashion sense is certainly a match.
Like Chappelle, blogger Darryl James sees the phenomenon as part of an effort to neutralize black masculinity. For him and a lot of other straight black men, gender-bending comedians are “castrated clowns,” whose emasculation makes them palatable to white people and man-hating black women alike. “The black man in drag is one of the new coons,” he writes. Never mind that he’s also one of the old coons — according to Marjorie Garber’s 1999 book, “Vested Interests,” the men who played women in minstrel shows were “the best-paid performers in the minstrel company.