Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Relational View of Tyler Perry’s Character, Madea

Tyler Perry’s movies top the opening weekend box office statistics for highest grossing films. His book, Don’t Make a Black Woman take off her Earrings is a New York Times best seller. As of today, Perry’s message board had 1,207,673 postings.

Fans credit him with being someone they can look up to; as providing experiences in his movies that make them feel less stressed and uplifted. His work reaffirms their spirituality. His fans embrace him as a survivor like themselves who suffered deprivations and abuse at the hands of relatives.

Norma L. of Toronto, writing on Perry's board, says “as a black woman, I can see myself in Madea.” Madea is the fictional character developed based on women in his family who were strong and independent in his New Orleans’ community. These 'Mother Dears' were tough, but also were big-hearted and are idealized in Perry’s character. They have the capacity to rescue community members from a fate of ‘writhing in eternal pain’* [in the form of drug abuse, prostitution, jail, poverty, hunger and loneliness].

With critics, journalists, and academicians looking askance at his creative productions, his appeal to African Americans begs for explanation. Having attended a day long lecture given by James Fosshage, a self psychologist and NYU instructor in the American Relational Psychoanalytic track, I began to think about Madea as offering an implicit relational experience that fulfills his fan's desires for empathic connection and mirroring.

Fosshage’s model of mind presents the idea that thought first occurs in images and contains more affect and captures more meaning than does the verbal formulation and expression. Because his plays tap so many imagistic modalities: auditory (songs), very (staging and costuming), somatic (laughter, sadness, outrage as physical stimulations), he is communicating with his audience, right brain to right brain.; thereby conveying a deep sense of empathy.

Through Perry’s and the audience’s reverie, they come to agree that Madea understands. Madea mirrors African American women back to themselves as responsible, single, devout yet suspicious of religious folly. They are individuals saddled with responsibilities but no real power and an all too frequent history of abandonment and betrayal. No one is going to exploit the 6’1” Madea. It is through the imaginative joining with Madea that African American women get the revenge or justice that may elude them in real life.

For Fosshage, growth occurs through identification and through the use of idealizing selfobjet representations. In Madea, we have Perry identifying and idealizing the aunt who could aggressively intervene in his moments of abuse. The audience does the same, in turn, using Perry in this way.

In short, he is part of his fan base’s ongoing transformative process in which their existing internal relationships with their self image is being reworked toward a feeling of being effective in the world and achieving a sense of personal and spiritual justice.

From Fosshage, October 10, 2009, presentation to the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society.


Lycia Alexander-Guerra, M.D. said...

I did not hear Fosshage saying that growth occurs from identifications or even primarily from self object experiences. Instead I thought he had emphasized that the analytic relationship (which sometimes, and intermittantly, includes identifications and idealizations)provides the opportunity, repeatedly, reliably, for new relationship (both via implicit relational knowing as well as explication and perspective)and within this new relational knowing, there is transformation of self and self-with-other.

A different point, more to Madea, or rather speculation about why Tyler Perry chose that name. Given that in the Greek play Medea kills her own children (to punish her husband), I thought you might comment on the paradox of motherhood or mothering intimated by Perry in his choice of Madea.

Kim Vaz, Ph.D., LMHC said...

I do believe making the link between Madea to the Greek myth of Medea is an important one in a larger research project. But it should not take precedence over understanding how Madea (i.e. Mother Dear) is constructed from the specific object relationships within a working class African American community. There is a long tradition of “othering” Black women’s maternity and maternal opportunities and abilities that has an immediate relevance to their current life circumstances that is not necessarily capture by Eurocentric traditions.

Kim Vaz, Ph.D., LMHC said...

In his 8:15am session, Fosshage did saw that we grow through identifications and internalized object representations, certainly albeit through the implicit knowing process.

It is important to note that Fosshage was speaking primarily about the analytic relationship. I am applying Fosshage's clinical model to an artistic production and the relationship between an artist and his fan base.