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By Ebony Utley | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Sunday, 14 April 2013.


 Tyler Perry’s Temptation gets a lot right in its portrayal of infidelity, but it gets a lot wrong in its portrayal of the main character, Judith. Infidelity is certainly not a new topic for Perry. You can pretty much pick a movie and someone is cheating inside his storylines. But Temptation is the first film of Perry where infidelity drives every aspect of the plot.

Brice and Judith fall in love when they are mere children. They marry when they are teenagers. The world happens to be a hard place. They are poor adults. Future years of unfulfilled dreams pave a path of resentment for Judith. Brick by brick, she follows the path out of her current life and into the strong arms of a wealthy, dark, handsome, dangerous stranger. Marrying young, accruing resentments, neglecting your partner, and having workplace opportunities are all contributing factors to infidelity. In the brief moments that we see Judith actually talking about relationships, her observations and advice are accurate. I’m not mad at the way Perry presented infidelity in the film. I’m not mad that the story was about a woman’s infidelity. I am mad at how Judith was punished for being bad.

Judith’s badness exists in stark contrast to her husband’s goodness. Brice is a good Negro. He works hard, he’s cautious about everything—work, sex, conflict, and life in general. He doesn’t have money or material things but loves his wife even if he doesn’t pay her a whole lot of attention. He’s a good man. In fact, Judith tells him exactly this before she breaks his heart, Tyler Perry style. Cue one of his angry Black woman scenes.

Judith, on the other hand, is bad even in a blouse buttoned to her chin and a wrinkled skirt to her ankles. She’s unwomanly in contrast to the women at work. She doesn’t care about appearances. She’s cold to her client. She’s impatient with her husband. Since she’s always thinking about the future, she can’t quite seem to appreciate what she has. And despite her dissatisfaction, she passively mentions her concerns but doesn’t fight for herself. I watched Judith on the big screen and wanted to be nothing like her.

Until she falls for Harley. With him, she expresses her righteous indignation. She stands up for herself. She makes plans to open her business. She becomes sexier. She is no longer a bad example of womanhood; she’s a badass. But her newfound agency is tainted by drugs and alcohol. Judith walks with confidence, money, and power only because another man gave it to her. The representation of Black femininity that I wish I saw more of, is presented as a facade. When Judith is at her most assertive, she’s battered for finding her voice. Perhaps, she would have died had her good Black man not come back to rescue her. Cue the entrance of a well-chiseled working-class back man from a Tyler Perry movie here.

It’s difficult for me to see Temptation without seeing Perry’s other films as context. Similarly assertive characters like Judith have also been punished for not being good girls. But being beaten is not the extent of it. Judith also contracts HIV. In the trailer, Judith’s mother warns, “He gon take you straight to hell.” After seeing the movie, am I supposed to interpret that hell on earth is having HIV? Harley’s ex-wife also had HIV and she declared (presumably because of it) that she would never find love again. Both arguments are wildly disrespectful to all the positive people living fulfilling lives.

In addition to reminding women that if they have an affair they may catch HIV, Temptation conveys three other problematic missives.

1. Your authority (even as a relationship expert) will be tenuous as long as you listen to your feelings.

2. The path to hell is paved with desire.

3. Women deserve punishment for their poor choices even if those choices have some good outcomes.

Judiths watching the film learn that choosing to prioritize your authority and recognize your desires (both of which are good) will lead to punishments on par with going to hell.

Ironically, nothing happens to Harley—the man who gave her HIV. He’s never mentioned again after Judith’s rescue. There are no consequences for his spread of the disease. Presumably he disappears with his talent, wit, charm, and money to seduce another woman.  At the end of the film, Judith is alone and lonely, slightly hobbled and beaten down by life. Dressed überconservatively and on her way to church, she watches her ex-husband with his new wife and child.

The message is that men deserve their desires; women do not. Everything Judith learned about herself during her affair is seemingly undermined and undone in the face of her losses. Before and after the affair, she was never quite good enough. I concede that Judith finally got her marriage counselor practice, but now her work is all she has. Cue Tyler Perry single workaholic woman character here.

Bad women bear the brunt of punishment in Tyler Perry’s morality plays. Of course, any time a woman has unprotected sex, there is the risk of catching HIV, but Perry’s heavy-handed morality is disproportionately distributed. It’s Perry’s money and Perry’s movie. His conclusions are his prerogative, but as a woman who knows Judiths, it’s important to recognize that despite Perry’s fire and brimstone, being bad by someone else’s standards could actually be good for you.


***

Ebony Utley, Ph.D. is an associate professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach. She is currently working on her second book Shades of Infidelity (www.shadesofinfidelity.com) about women’s experiences with infidelity.



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