"Don't Laugh, America." -Rollo (The Cleveland Show)
So, this is not a note to diss The Cleveland Show. As a matter of fact, I could have spearheaded the initiative for Cleveland (from Family Guy fame) to get his own show. I was ecstatic! Needless to say, last night’s episode, “A Brown Thanksgiving,” shot down the last shreds of my optimism. What started as a parody of Tyler Perry ended up a nightmare and a re-entrenchment of whiteness and its influence on black manhood.
Dominant culture’s obsession with black masculinity in American popular culture is certainly not a new phenomenon. The often grotesque fascination with not only the physical body but what the body represents – hypersexuality, menacing intentions, and the straight up “bad nigger” – are often the consumptive domain for many black male characters on television. Cleveland Brown, however, goes in the opposite direction; he’s lovable, goofy, and downright non-threatening. One could argue that he is the reconstruction of an Uncle Tom or Coon figure seen so often in minstrel shows at the end of the nineteenth and early 20th centuries.
What strikes me as odd about Cleveland, however, is his laughing in awkward situations when, say, expressions of anger, frustration, or despair would be more cognitively appropriate. Whether intentionally done by the producers or not, what is highlighted is a lack of available discourse for black men to relay a healthy emotional response to crisis-moments. If Cleveland were a real person, he’d have hypertension, high blood pressure, and a zero chance of making it to retirement age. He’d also be in line for going postal. Indeed, Christ Rock used to joke that white folks were afraid of the wrong Negroes. The visibly hostile black men were virtually harmless, Rock quipped, compared to those unassuming and genuflecting, old black men that white folks always see as fun-loving and easy-going. Rock reported that underneath all of those toothy grins and warm handshakes were some of the bitterest, white-folk-hating black men on the planet.
Chris Rock’s observations aside, Cleveland’s laugh is especially prevalent in this episode of The Cleveland Show. The central focus is Auntie Mama, the matriarch figure of Cleveland’s wife Donna. Voiced by Kym Whitley, who is often the sexual Jezebel in most of her performances (which is a discussion for another day) Auntie Mama excuses her sexually explicit actions with “I’m Outrageous!” This is a double entendre – outrageous as in shock value and outrageous as in “I’m offensive and exaggerated.” She is literally sketched like an animated Muh Dear – grey hair, big breasted, and big boned. In short, Auntie Mama refigures black womanhood and black women’s sexuality. While she appears to be a 2009 Mammy figure, she laces her verbal exchanges with sexual escapades with various men. Off the rip, Auntie Mama could be Madea’s folk. Tyler Perry’s wildly popular envision of the strong black matriarch, Madea too distances herself from the traditional mammy caricature with sexual innuendos, a piece, and a girdle.
In similar fashion to Perry, Auntie Mama’s character is the matriarch of the family, portrayed as the savior figure of the black family. And, in similar fashion, both characters are men dressed in drag. The question begs to be asked: is the queering of the black male body in this episode a backdoor way – pun intended – for black men to affirm normative black manhood on the figurative backs of pathologized black women characters?
In this sense, Auntie Mama and Madea are the literal and figurative queering of the black male body. Literal in the sense that they are in drag and representative of their assumptions of black womanhood and figuratively because they place themselves in the space of interpretation that extends beyond “normal” behavior for black men. There is a blurring of masculine and feminine identity here that ventures into the gray (and avoided like the plague) discussions of black sexuality.
What fascinates me about Auntie Mama and Madea is their choice of how they portray themselves as black women. They are not representative of the flamboyant cross dressers of yesteryear like In Living Color’s “Men on Film” series with Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, but rather the Big Mama character so beloved in black culture and mourned by comedians like the late, great Bernie Mac. While Wayans’ and Grier’s characters lack any representation of heterosexual normativity, Madea and Auntie Mama replace daintiness and femininity with masculine characteristics of dominance and hyper-sexuality. The asexuality of the mammy/matriarch figure leaves room for Perry and Auntie Mama to perform and explore expressions of black masculinity.
In the case of “The Cleveland Show,” Auntie Mama’s character reaffirms the misconceptions of black women as sex crazed and hungry creatures of habit. Even the updated Jezebel trope (i.e., the black groupie) overlays Mama’s character. She compiles a list of popular athletes and musicians with whom she is willing to exchange sex for basking in their limelight. Her sexual interaction with Cleveland’s father Freight Train, however, moves the conversation away from discussions of black womanhood to black masculinity.
Cleveland’s father “Freight Train” reaffirms almost every negative connotation of black men’s existence. He’s violent, an absentee father, a womanizer, hypermasculine, and threatening. He is the “bad nigger” par excellence. Even his name (or nickname, I got to re-watch the episode) suggests a train wreck of an existence. Freight Train continuously denigrates and feminizes Cleveland, in one instance associating him with more feminine features than his mother. Freight Train establishes and maintains his dominance through physical prowess.
Early in the episode, Cleveland discovers Auntie Mama is a man and contemplates telling the other members of the family. His father overtly flirts with Auntie Mama and their “teasing” culminates with sex. Cleveland struggles through telling his father Auntie Mama is a man or letting him sleep with the man unknowingly. He makes his decision to keep silent against the prodding of the good and evil consciences symbolized by Hall and Oates (two popular white recording artists).
Auntie Mama’s conquest over Freight Train signifies the rape-conquest relationship of prison discourse. The body is collateral and used as an instrument of subjugation for social dominance within the prison social hierarchy. What is fascinating here, however, is the reversal of roles between Auntie Mama and Freight Train. You have two cases of extreme masculine expression – the “womanly” Auntie Mama and the “Knuck if You Buck” Freight Train. While it would seem that Freight Train forces his masculinity upon Auntie Mama (who, we later learn, is really Uncle Kevin) it is Auntie Mama who overshadows Freight Train’s identity—“she got him shook.” His willingness to be subservient to Auntie Mama because of her sexual prowess suggests his hypermasculinity being quelled by Auntie Mama’s queered masculinity. Once Cleveland tells Freight Train of Auntie Mama’s real identity, Freight Train recoils in horror and vomits, desperately trying to purge himself of his affiliation (both personal and sexual) with Auntie Mama.
Of course, the question also remains about the intended audience for The Cleveland Show. There are numerous implications of whiteness and the black male body. For starters, Cleveland is voiced by Mike Henry, a white actor. The show’s producers, who are also majority white, bank on our affiliation of the characters with stereotypical representations of blackness as humorous. However, the exploitations of these cultural expressions are in fact reaffirming longstanding paradigms of institutionalized racial bias. While this episode parodies Tyler Perry’s character Madea, it also uses our assumptions and familiarity with Perry’s character to reaffirm voyeuristically the marginalized practices of cross-dressing and the doubly marginalized black male cross dressing body. This in turn problematizes and reiterates the black community’s homophobic tendencies and innate desires to ostracize those who fall into the queer category.