An Open Letter to Tyler Perry
Dear Mr. Perry,
We write as people living with HIV and their allies to express our deep disappointment with your latest film, Temptation. This disappointment is made all the greater because you have done much that can be applauded. Audiences see your plays and films not simply as entertainment, but as opportunities for inspiration, spiritual healing, and unity.
In Temptation, however, you have done a great disservice to people with HIV, and particularly to the African-American community, which, as you know, is disproportionately affected by HIV.
As you may be aware, one of the greatest barriers to addressing the HIV epidemic is the high level of stigma and misinformation attached to this simple virus. Stigma prevents people from getting tested for HIV, from protecting themselves during sex, from accessing care when they test positive, and from disclosing their HIV status to family, friends, and sexual partners. Myths and outdated perceptions about how HIV is transmitted and the implications of an HIV diagnosis have resulted in discriminatory treatment towards, and violence against, people living with HIV.
Unfortunately, Temptation can only serve to perpetuate stigma. Your film depicts people with HIV as untouchable and unlovable, doomed to a lifetime of loneliness, and unable to tell their own stories. It implies that men with HIV are sexually irresponsible and predatory. And the final image — that of a woman who has been infected with HIV due to an extramarital affair walking away alone and unhealthy — sends the message that HIV is a punishment for immoral behavior.
Mr. Perry, as a leader in the African-American community, is this really the message you want to send in 2013, over three decades into this epidemic? Your impact on beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in the community is not insignificant. And if you portray people with HIV as sinful, secretive monsters, unworthy of love and incapable of reproduction, what incentive do people have to learn their HIV status or for people with HIV to disclose their status?
HIV is not something that “guilty” people get. It is not a punishment for cheating, lying, using drugs or alcohol, having more than one partner, or not asking the right questions. It is a virus whose transmission is fueled by poverty, ignorance, racism, sexism, homophobia, fear, violence, and many other factors - not by people with HIV. In fact, studies show that the overwhelming majority of people with HIV fiercely protect their partners once they know their HIV status. Many of us are in long-term relationships with HIV-negative partners. And yes, we even have children!
We call on you to undo the damage that your film has undoubtedly already caused.
We ask you to meet with people living with HIV and hear our stories. We know that you are deeply committed to the communities that have supported your work and we ask that you make a public statement and consult with us to develop storylines that will help end HIV stigma so we can get to the real business of ending this epidemic, together.
Your response is greatly appreciated and we look forward to hearing from you in the very near future. Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.
We await your response.
List in formation
Black women are, it seems, damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Our collective singleness, independence, and unsanctioned mothering are an affront to mainstream womanhood. But a high-profile married black woman who uses her husband’s name (if only for purposes of showbiz) or admits the influence her male partner has had on her life is an affront to feminism.
Wilson says that in the context of pathologized black womanhood and black relationships, Beyoncé and the Knowles-Carter clan “counter a narrative about our families that has been defined by the media for too long about what our families must look like and how they’re comprised.” Black women’s sexuality and our roles as mothers and partners have been treated as public issues as far back as slavery, even as family life for most citizens has been viewed as a private matter. Our nation’s “peculiar institution” treated human beings—black human beings—as property. And so, black women’s partnering—when and whom we partnered with and the offspring of those unions—were at the very foundation of the American economy. According to Jackson, “People would talk about black women’s sexuality in polite company like they would talk about race horses foaling calves.”
Like critiques of her sexed-up performances, response to Beyoncé’s recent pregnancy illustrates that black female bodies remain fodder for public gossip. Even with the devotion of mainstream media (especially the entertainment and gossip genres) to monitoring female celebrities’ sexuality, “baby bumps,” and engagement rocks, the speculation about Beyoncé’s womb stands apart as truly bizarre. Almost as soon as the singer revealed her pregnancy at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, there was conjecture—amplified by a televised interview in which the singer’s dress folded “suspiciously” around her middle—that it was all a ruse to cover for the use of a surrogate.
The HBO documentary, which chronicled her pregnancy, failed to quiet the deliberation. Gawker writer Rich Juzwiak proclaimed, “Beyoncé has never been less convincing about the veracity of her pregnancy than she was in her own movie…. We never see a full, clear shot of Beyoncé’s pregnant, swanlike body. Instead it’s presented in pieces, owing to the limitations of her Mac webcam. When her body is shown in full, it’s in grainy, black-and-white footage in which her face is shadowed.” There is, in this assessment, a disturbing assumption of ownership over Beyoncé’s body. Why won’t this woman display her naked body on television to prove to the world that she carried a baby in her uterus?
The conversation surrounding Beyoncé feels like assessing a prize thoroughbred rather than observing a human woman, and it is dismaying when so-called feminist discourse contributes to that. Feminism is about challenging structural inequalities in society, but the criticism of Beyoncé as a feminist figure smacks of hating the player and ignoring the game, to twist an old phrase."