Film / TV

teddy perkins and other monstrous men

December 24, 2018
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2018 was the year that Donald Glover could be seen as both a Hollywood darling, for his acting and writing, and an underground kingpin, for his quirky take on hip hop. With the May premiere of the “This is America” song and video, along with a string of visually stunning live performances, Glover began to leverage his mainstream popularity to assist his weird inclinations as a musician and storyteller.

This exploration of the strange and the popular reached its zenith for me when Teddy Perkins arrived at the Emmys in 2018. Teddy Perkins is a fictional character created by Glover for a single mid-season episode of his FX television series, Atlanta. Perkins was inspired by the lives of Black superstars who have complicated relationships (read: toxic) with their childhood, fathers, fame, and race. The result was a surrealist-noir-horror of an episode that was as chilling as it was captivating. Teddy Perkins’ character became a viral sensation for both what he symbolized as a fictional character about our Black superstars, but also because of his disturbing demeanor and horrific actions throughout the episode.

The episode was part camp and part serious horror. Glover called on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane” for dramatic tone—the genre is canonically referred to as “psycho-biddy” because its merging of horror and themes of an aging person, especially a celebrity. Like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which also called on comedy to bring levity between tense moments of fear, Glover created space for laughs so the audience could get relief from the darkness, but he never let go of his vision of shadows or blood. LaKeith Stanfield (“Darius”) and Brian Tyree Henry (“Paper Boi)” were the vehicles for this comedic levity. The episode was also presented commercial-free, suffocating viewers with no relief of a toothbrush ad. This is easier to achieve in film than television, but Glover kept the atmosphere tight without the help of the theatre.

Popularity and celebrity has always been a point of fascination for me. Not simply what energizes a small group of people to participate in a thing, but also the things that resonate with people in a way that feels like it transcends genre and penetrates the zeitgeist. I’m obsessed with the particular idea that, despite all the various ways humans show up in the world, we can still agree on a good love song or a horrifying film.

For a very long time, the overwhelming perspective was that in order for something to resonate with the public, it must be simple. The more complicated an idea or character or song is, the less relatable it would be for many people, thus losing the potential for the moment to become a pop culture phenomenon—the moonwalk, Star Wars, The Beatles—something that captivates young eyes and eyes less prone to being enthralled because of a lack of pop experience. The feeling amongst many people is that in order to reach such a moment, the message and piece of work must be flat, end happily, not disrupt traditional storytelling elements, and probably veer away from topics of race, gender, and sexuality. Or blood.

But in 2018 pop culture was often smart. It was multidimensional and complicated, and led by Black people who are either artists usually shunned from conversations around mainstream culture (re: the embrace of Janelle Monae), or Black folks embraced by the mainstream, deciding to create a more transgressive offering for the public (re: The Carters barefoot, dancing in The Louvre). Both of these elements worked.

The rules about what we collectively love and fear are different, but not dramatically so. What we fear as a group tells us just as much as what we love as a community.

Other generations adapted fear into the conversation, through Jason’s murderous habits and his southern white background, or through Freddy Krueger, a child predator that even found space to terrorize folks in the afterlife via their dreams. These depictions of evil and horror are representative of the artists who created them, and the culture that both socialized them, and embraced these deviants who slashed throats and box offices at their cultural height.

Teddy Perkins was a horror figure reflecting the sins that most haunt 2018: white supremacy, an attachment to the patriarchy that broke us, and our life investment into celebrity culture and fame. Glover designed a character that could not just make people’s skin crawl, but he examined what Courtney Love refers to as “celebrity skin.” It is the flesh forged and toughened through childhood trauma and toxic socialization, and how one becomes a spectacle—or a star—in this same skin through the willingness to publicly perform these horrors or irresponsible behaviors.

My little Black performance art heart nearly exploded when Teddy Perkins was at the 2018 Emmys. An unknown actor, knee-deep in makeup and phenomenal styling brought Glover’s nightmarish character to light, and as it was revealed that the actors most likely to be playing Perkins in the audience were not playing him, a chill could be felt in the televised images.

As the audience struggled to discover who the actor was who was playing Teddy Perkins, candid unassuming photographs with Perkins with various celebrities surfaced. The photographs operated like post-mortem photography from the 19th century, where dead people were captured by the then-novel medium. Because of Perkins’s death in the episode—despite it being fictional—there was an unsettling idea and energy presented by the theory of him surviving a lethal gunshot wound. This ability to return despite the physical violence you have experienced, is an integral part of any great horror character, even the ones that live in our own reality. The most disturbing thoughts I have, are those that make my life or body the site of terror, someone returning to finish me off or to take pride in the quivering mess they made. Which is to say, we’re all Jamie Lee Curtis living through our own Halloween franchises, constantly reckoning with personal traumas and with folks who did us evil.

But Glover’s decision to resurrect Perkins at an awards show, a space regarded as glamorous, served as a horror story about our own culture. His decision to suspend reality and time displayed just how unreal what we are told is real, is. So much so that a fictional character from a cult episode of s television series can take up space and time with “serious” artists and celebrities.

The other horror in Teddy Perkins’ presence at the Emmys is hidden in the subtext, underneath his smile. Each photograph is of him enjoying his time with celebrities. If we are to invest in Glover’s fantasy, we also must assume Perkins is a murderous sociopath who tortured his brother and made a literal gift shop out of his own Black patriarchal father and the Black patriarchal fathers that forged (and eventually destroyed) other great Black talents. And there he was, after the torture and the darkness, drinking champagne and collecting awards as if none of the darkness we witnessed in the 22-minute episode was real or held any weight at an awards ceremony.

The Teddy Perkins episode of Atlanta was the most exact critique of 2018, and it happened before we even reached springtime. Glover’s decision to bring Teddy Perkins to a real life event made us grapple with the idea that we drink and award monsters all the time; that the horrors of white supremacy and patriarchy, and the ones found in celebrity culture, are often shared.

As they were during the 2017 Emmys, when the monster took the form of ex-Trump press secretary, Sean Spicer. Requested as part of host Stephen Colbert’s opening act, the White House flunky in an ill-fitted suit was included despite his horrific collusion with fascist policy and rhetoric that directly affects those he stood in front of. Spicer’s jokes about lying to the public to protect the president’s power and greed proved reality to be much more horrifying than fantasy.

Hence the most disturbing part of Glover’s critique: that the monsters who truly wield the horror, often act as if nothing has happened. Yet the culture will sip champagne and wait to be awarded their gold, even if that means sharing space with those monsters. Luckily, this time, the monster was simply an actor in makeup.