In an era when Black Hollywood faces big-screen famine, it’s almost instinctual to celebrate Steve Harvey’s hit movie “Think Like a Man” and its all-star cast as a major success.
But for all of its laugh-out-loud moments, what Harvey is really doing is serving up patriarchy with a smile.
The romantic comedy, based on the comedian’s self-help book, took the top slot from “The Hunger Games” in its opening weekend and brought in an impressive $33.6 million. Yet Harvey, Tyler Perry, T.D. Jakes and countless others are making millions branding themselves as cultural gurus who understand the plight of black women.
Only a patriarchal mind set would constantly paint women with stereotypical, pathological brushstrokes and serve it up as digestible truth. As if real-world paternalism wasn’t enough, we can also have it to look forward to in black cinema.
“Think Like a Man” follows the love lives of four women sketched as common black female stereotypes: the single mother (Regina Hall), the promiscuous Jezebel in need of taming (Meagan Good), the never-satisfied control freak (Gabrielle Union) and the emasculating, powerful executive (Taraji P. Henson).
Using Harvey’s book as a life manual to navigate expectations, courtship and sexual intimacy, they play seemingly successful mind games until the day their deceptive plans backfire and the male characters in the film discover their hidden weapon
This isn’t to say that “Think Like a Man” and movies like it are devoid of wisdom and don’t mirror reality in some respects, but men can’t continue to be conduits of our self-understanding, mediating how we see ourselves and how society as a whole views us. Popular culture is in desperate need of more entertainment mediums that are conceptualized, owned and operated by black women fully equipped to cultivate and sustain their own cultural production.
Otherwise, we will continue to see widespread portrayals of black women as problems in need of fixing. “Think Like a Man” comes on the heels of the American mass media’s recent nagging obsession with the state of black women and an alleged epidemic of singlehood.
It seems this country has been heavily immersed in the examination of black women’s identities in the last few years, dissecting claims about our inability to balance careers with biological clocks and our self-destructive refusal to maintain realistic expectations for romantic intimacy.
Following a how-to guide about relationships for the purposes of manipulating men into monogamy might be shrugged off as laughable by some, but it’s part of a larger “culture of desperation” playing out on reality television shows like “Basketball Wives” and “Love and Hip-Hop.” Our society has been saturated with images of black women who center their lives around evasive black men.
If the mainstream media were the only one telling our stories, the world would believe we’re all nothing more than capitalistic, A-type personalities who are perpetually paralyzed by the fear that our African American knights in shining armor will abandon us for white women. “Think Like a Man” plays off of many of these female archetypes that shape societal perception and treatment of black women.
Ironically, one stereotype of black women omitted by Steve Harvey was that of the “Jesus freak” whose passionate love for God prevents her from having a healthy relationship with a man. Although Harvey didn’t have to go the lengths that Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes have gone to emphasize the role of Christianity in the lives of black women, I believe he made a mistake by completely eliminating spirituality from the worldview of the main characters.
Matters of faith have historically been so deeply embedded into the black American psyche that’s its practically dishonest to reflect black women navigating concerns about love, family and careers without any substantive “God talk.”
But “God talk” in “Think Like a Man” would have likely interfered with the depiction of the women as constantly yearning for a man, as intimacy with God often fosters a sense of fulfillment so great that the opposite sex no longer takes center stage.
Harvey’s decision to deemphasize the role of spirituality was arguably a strategic one considering he rarely omits Christian narratives from his comedic performances. Maintaining centrality in the character’s lives by providentially coaching them through life’s most important decisions, Harvey symbolically played the role of God.
The notion of “thinking like a man” is ultimately not only flooded with sexism but human idolatry in that it grants men a level of supremacy reserved strictly for God. By encouraging women to calculate their every move according to men’s desires and actions, Harvey provides a distorted, archaic roadmap to female empowerment. Women, who are equally made in the perfect image of God, are much better off searching for themselves and who they’re uniquely called to be.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.
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