Aaron McGruder’s notorious animated series, “The Boondocks”, has been engaged in radical critiques of black culture, black political formations and black identity politics since its 1996 inception in The Diamondback, the student newspaper at the University of Maryland. “The Boondocks” has grown from a student newspaper comic strip to a nationally syndicated television series that features on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming. Although McGruder has received more and more mainstream attention and notoriety over the years for his bold and sometimes inflammatory satires, he still continues to probe the emergent and controversial terrain of black politics and black culture, despite the vehement protests of his critics.
A recent episode entitled Pause—which explores the problematic entanglement of Hollywood, the black church, black sexuality and insistent, pejorative stereotypes that incessantly haunt black identity politics—recently became the catalyst for a whirlwind of criticisms and litigation as McGruder fixed his satirical gaze upon American darling and Hollywood mogul, Tyler Perry. My article specifically responds to a critique levied by this month’s Blackademics interview feature, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal.
After viewing Pause (click link to watch episode), I found Dr. Neal’s critique, “McGruder Goes in Hard on Tyler Perry? Not Really” (click link to read article) to be a poor analysis at best and tantamount to reactionary propaganda in its functionality. While there are moments of astute political commentary—like Neal’s macro considerations of Perry as a cog in the great wheel of imperialist cultural production—it primarily resonates as bourgeois identity politics shrouded in a trendy liberalism that purports to rail against racist, sexist and homophobic rhetoric, but actually obscures oppression and exploitation as it privileges identity over radical resistance and revolutionary art.
This is demonstrated in Neal’s inept critique of McGruder. Neal is more concerned with what he perceives as McGruder’s “virulent homophobia” and “demeaning depictions” of homosexuality and gender and the baneful “tethering” of the two, rather than how McGruder subversively (and comically) explores the loaded concourse of class, race, sexuality and gender and how all of these misnomers and socially constructed identities meld together for the nefarious reproduction of capital and capitalism.
Neal’s fetish with McGruder’s employment of homophobic and homoerotic imaginings discounts and ignores the satirical panoply of radical material that McGruder actualizes in Pause. McGruder calls a series of racial, sexual, gender, class and religious assumptions into question to demonstrate capitalism’s pervasiveness in perverting various (“black”) identity formations for the sole purpose of commodifying black bodies. McGruder’s fictional antagonist, Winston Jerome, rests at the intersection of these overdetermined and overlapping identity formations within Pause’s narrative scheme, and as a result, must embody key attributes of them all. This explains Winston Jerome’s code-switching, his gender-bending and homoerotic performance as Ma Dukes as well as his effeminate disposition that Neal narrowly scorns as “demeaning and homophobic”.
The complexity of Winston Jerome becomes more apparent once we endeavor to view him with lenses not limited to homosexual and homoerotic readings. As a heterosexual Christian member of the black bourgeoisie, McGruder really finds a nuanced complexity to envelop Winston Jerome in; and it is within this identity makeup that Winston Jerome becomes the most dangerous and susceptible to capitalism’s agenda of commodifying black bodies.
For instance, when Winston Jerome calls Robert into his office to confront him with the video of Robert gazing at the breasts of a female actress (which certainly implies the elite’s ability to conduct surveillance on black bodies), Winston Jerome tells Robert that it’s “okay if he loves women more than he loves Jesus”, because if women is what Robert desires, then he and Jesus will deliver them by the thousands. He goes on to add that Robert can have any kind of woman that he wants. This certainly underscores the patriarchal, Christian impetus of objectifying women (especially women of color) that the American capitalist and white supremacist hegemonic social order mandates. This scene resonates with an acute profundity as it directly follows the scene where a scantily-clad and curvaceous black woman, who used to be a porn star, admits that Winston Jerome “saved her”. She further states, “I used to give up the ass for me, but now I give up the ass for Jesus…and his homeboys.” This telling statement not only reveals her loss of sexual agency but also reveals Jesus (a white man in the imagination of Winston Jerome and no doubt in all of his followers) as a pimp and trafficker of black bodies.
This is compounded by Winston Jerome’s entourage of topless, shiny black men who appear as silent bodies throughout the episode. Besides the homoerotic implications of their presence relative to Winston’s sexual longings, their oily, overexposed and well-defined bodies are meant to conjure images of black bucks on auction blocks. Like the ex-porn star who now “gives up the ass for Jesus and his homeboys”, these bodies are openly objectified and staged for immediate consumption. So in all actuality, in Winston Jerome’s dramas (like Tyler Perry’s retrograde works), it is the black heterosexual performance that publicly objectifies and commodifies black bodies… black bodies that are served up to meet the overwhelming demands of the sexually repressed black church and black bourgeoisie as well as white America’s insatiable appetite for black flesh.
Through Pause’s hilarious satire of Tyler Perry, McGruder brilliantly constructs a narrative space that reveals the poisonous conflation of the (black) church and capitalist state where a variety of black stereotypes and tropes are policed and mass produced for mass consumption… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, within this schema of misnaming, marginalization and exploitation, of which Tyler Perry is a significant player, his role and works cannot be discounted as “innocuous” as Neal recklessly suggests. While I agree with Neal’s point to focus on the structural maladies that create a need for the works of Tyler Perry in the first place, we must also be committed to identifying the dealers of oppression that walk freely amongst us, what Amiri Baraka refers to as “imperialism ruling through native agents”.
In the end, contrary to Neal’s narrow misreading of Pause, we are left with more than a “brilliantly funny episode” that offers plenty “with regards to meaningful cultural criticism”. And unfortunately, the only thing that prevents Neal from seeing that is his homo-friendly identity politics.