The book Dr. Miriam Petty, a professor at Northwestern University in the School of Communication department of Radio, Television and Film, is writing examines the work of media mogul Tyler Perry, specifically about the older adult female character he created and performs. The character, Medea, is a good Samaritan, somebody who has principles. But Dr. Petty says that in the midst of films and plays that have explicit Christian messages and explicit Christian affiliations, Medea is “unchurched.” “She does not go to church, she smokes pot, and she carries guns around in her purse. She is kind of an outlaw figure in a lot of ways and that is a choice. There is something purposeful about crafting a character in the midst of narratives that are so explicitly religious. You might ask, ‘What is Medea doing here? Why is Medea here getting high in the middle of things?’”
Dr. Petty said she has been interested in ways that the character of Medea is deeply attractive to and deeply polarizing of Black audiences. She said there is a kind of love-hate relationship with Medea – and Tyler Perry’s work more broadly – among many Black communities.
Dr. Petty’s first book, the acclaimed “Stealing the Show,” covers the classical Hollywood era, focusing on the connections between Black performers and Black audiences.
“It’s always interesting to me to find out what drives someone crazy about this work or what makes them happy about it. I feel like I’ve been able to draw from interviews in a way that has shaped what I have been theorizing about him [Tyler Perry] and about how his work functions.”
Dr. Petty said there are interesting tensions that crop up again and again in Mr. Perry’s work and they are tied to Black communities and the threads of Black intellectual history of Black life. She said tensions around class and around money are a big part of almost every film he has ever done, whether Medea is in them or not. “Region is always a big part of it, and that is really relevant given the impact of the great migration of African Americans from South to North in this country,” said Dr. Petty. She said religion, family and, particularly, elders and matriarchs are a big part of it. Gender is also a big theme and source of tension in many of his films, she said.
“Part of what makes him work or not work for many Black folks is the way he negotiates or doesn’t negotiate these themes or threads, the way he engages those ideas,” said Dr. Petty. “I think he’s very intentional. He makes a lot of really intentional choices.”
Just as her interest drove her to examine deeply the relationship between performers and audiences in her first book, that is key here. “I’m really interested in him in terms of his relationship to Black audiences. In my field of film studies, there is a fair amount of attention to audience studies, but within those fields, the audience can often just be theorized as a White audience. There is most generally little attempt to understand how the work resonates with any other audience than a White audience.”
Asked if she thought she would ever do a joint talk with Tyler Perry she said, “Everybody always asks that – and I don’t know because for me, I’d be open to it. But at the same time I think that the kinds of investments he has in it and the kinds of investments that I have in it are very different. They’re not necessarily complementary – or at odds either, but I’m not sure it would hang together.”
Dr. Petty believes she is the first media-studies academic to look into the work of Mr. Perry. She said that she believes the length of time it has taken for people in the field of media studies to pay attention to Mr. Perry speaks to a kind of intellectual snobbery often apparent toward mass entertainment of any kind.
Dr. Petty says Northwestern was really appealing because of its stature as a Research One institution, because of the rigor of the program that she is a part of now – Radio, Television and Film – and because it got her back home. She said that the fact that all three of those things were possible in one job was amazing to her. The fact that she and her husband, Steve, could be on the same campus and work in their fields was key as well.
Dr. Petty says what she most appreciates about Northwestern is that for her development as a scholar there is no other place she could have done the things she has been able to do – “from writing ‘Stealing the Show’ to doing a symposium on Tyler Perry, writing the second book I’m working on. The biggest part of that is having relevant and brilliant colleagues, having colleagues whose work isn’t even always in the exact same field as mine, having colleagues who are about a certain kind of rigor in their work and who are smart enough to hear what I’m talking about and be like ‘What about this?’”
Dr. Petty says she has been made fun of for the length of the acknowledgements she listed in her first book, but that “there are colleagues whose imprint on that work was just invaluable and I didn’t have those colleagues until I came here. There are people who’ve changed my life and who are part of my community – both personal and intellectual.” She included among those who changed her life the graduate students she supports and directs as Director of Screen Cultures Graduate Studies.
Asked how she strikes the balance between all her responsibilities both personal and professional, she joked that she does so “poorly.” “It’s an effort. I don’t think that it is something that comes all that naturally to me. I’m a person who dives into what is in front of me, so it’s required me to commit and recommit to some self-discipline that isn’t always like riding a bike for me. I have to remind myself and have other people remind me. Having a child who is only marginally impressed by my career helps because he’s just like, ‘Yeah, yeah, but where is the movie night you promised?’” She said it also helps to have a partner [her husband, Steve] who is very balanced and committed to being a feminist.
Dr. Petty talked about the year the family moved from Princeton, N.J., back to the Midwest and about all the change that that involved, not only in terms of moving, finding housing, and starting new jobs, but also losing two family members who died that year, including Dr. Petty’s mother. “It was a lot. And, there was some grace that we had earned at our previous institutions that we sure could have used, but we hadn’t earned it here. … So, that first year was really, really hard.”
Dr. Petty said Evanston, however, was a perfect blend of urban and suburban for her family – that right away they enjoyed the closeness to Chicago, the closeness for being with her family on the south side and what the City offers. “But Evanston has a nice sort of hum of its own,” said Dr. Petty. “Since I was a kid I’ve been coming to Evanston, and you see how far it has come in terms of having a downtown and in terms of having a couple of different shopping districts. It’s a comfortable fit for us in a lot of ways that matter – in terms of work and school.”
Still, she said there are a lot of things that are complicated for her as a woman who grew up a Black girl in the city. “Being in the suburbs feels conflicted to me. I joke that I’ve discovered that I’m a suburban soccer mom and I don’t know how this happened. It’s like, ‘What?’”
Dr. Petty said she appreciates the diversity there is in Evanston, but that it can be frustrating sometimes to be the diversity yourself, “because more often than not you or your child are the diversity for someone else. That’s an experience that’s different than the experience of finding it there already.”
Dr. Petty said Evanston is a lot like Hyde Park, where she grew up. While she said that it is not as diverse as Hyde Park, she said that it has a lot of the same type of complex history. Both Evanston / Northwestern and Hyde Park / the University of Chicago are college-centered communities and have a history of an interest in equity and diversity and a history of exclusion. “Both places have those histories and sometimes in both places there is a commitment to boosting the inclusive history and pushing aside the exclusive, the less flattering history. In both places it means a lot to look with honesty on that history,” she said.
Dr. Petty was away from Chicago for almost a decade while at Emory for graduate school, Princeton for post-graduate work, and Rutgers teaching. She said that when she left Chicago, she had a certain set of priorities that were very different from those she brought back, married and a mother.
To the point of what it is like to raise a child here, Dr. Petty said, “My son is 8 and is still pretty safely in the cute zone, but we only have about three more years where we can rely on that and then people are going to start looking at him in a different way. That matters here in a way that it wouldn’t matter in Hyde Park. … So, I don’t take for granted the idea that he’s going to always be as welcome or tolerated.”
She also said she thinks that people’s intentions are in the right place in Evanston, that she is encouraged when she finds spaces where White people are willing to listen and hear where Black people are coming from – that this is key at this point in the history of this country. “There’s a way that people are stepping up at this moment that is intentionally positive, that I think is necessitated by this moment.”