Infamously attributed to airing racist propaganda, Empire seemingly emerges from the same liberal promise of Fox’s daytime talk show The Real. In issuing black faces of opportunity, Fox appears dedicated to alleviating its negative stigma. However, in the continued pattern of creating and casting of blacks in stereotypical roles, their efforts fall short.
Empire centers on Luscious Lyon’s rags to riches story. As a young, impoverished child, Lyon (played by Terrance Howard) sells drugs to satiate his hunger. While music served as a key escape for an undesirable disposition, drug money would prove foundational in establishing his empire.
This rags to riches story, depicts the exchange of socioeconomic poverty for impoverished morality. Empire personifies this poverty reversal in dissolving matrimony and maternity (among other familial bonds) in exchange for wealth. Empire depicts the “hood” as an unshakeable affiliation, that not even the most flawless diamond can sever.
These lines depict Empire’s confining of blackness to the street or the fast life solely obtained by rapping. Thus, this series depicts a “rapping” to riches story as opposed to rags to riches story, where blacks eliminate the deprivation of poverty through rap stardom.
My problems with this sitcom stem from the encouragement of black youth to color within the lines outlined for them. Rapping specifically, is a common ambition of many black men. While this ambition may stem from genuine interest on some occasions, it is mostly due to an interest in attaining the lifestyle of a rapper. Successful rappers have a seemingly high status personified through fancy cars, big homes, and beautiful women. Due to the nurturing of society, many black men see rapping as the sole means to obtain the glamour of wealth. So while black faces on television are liberating, they often work to confine blacks within the limitation of stereotypes.
Black Faces White Masks: A Stereotype is born…
Empire Creator Danny Strong speaks of a riding in a car and coming up with the idea of Empire while listening to a Jay Z or Puffy song. While I am sure this story read well on paper, it is problematic that a white man conceptualized black wealth as intertwined with drugs. It is also worth mentioning that the implied interchangeability between Jay Z and Puffy is also problematic. Despite both men being rappers turned entrepreneurs, they are vastly different in sound, style and influence.
Thus, Empire joins a long line of predecessors who portray blackness from a place of jaded privilege. The result of outside portrayal is a distinctive yet dissonant portrait of anxiety rather than accuracy.
Perhaps the greatest allure of Empire is the predominately black cast. A predominately black cast on a prime time drama series emerges amidst a growing but singular presence of black stars on otherwise predominately white shows. These prime time shows with a singular yet central black presence are Scandal (ABC),Extant (CBS), and How to Get Away With Murder (ABC) to name a few.
The depiction of progress is quickly negated, as the embodiment of a white man’s imagination breeds the creation and casting of Empire. When juxtaposed with shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, Empire is an advancement of this singular but central black presence. However, despite the limitations in black presence, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder project blackness and whiteness from a black perspective, as the creator and executive producer is black screenwriter Shonda Rhimes. Empire, as a product of Danny Strong’s daydream, perpetuates blackness through a white lens.
For starters, the word “bitch” is tossed around tirelessly throughout the episodes. The use of this word seems to mimic its presence in popular culture, however its colloquial use by middle-aged parents( Terrance Howard, Taraji P. Henson) seems almost unbelievable. My thoughts are that the writers felt obligated to remind the audience of their character’s origins, through the casual use of this expletive. Thus we needed to know that it was Cookie’s “$400,000 started this bitch.” The placement of the word “bitch” in this sentence seems to suggest the “hood” origins of such money.
Given it’s unfaltering negative connotation, the use of the word “faggot” is also quite unsettling. Cookie uses this word as she tells Luscious that she wants to show that, “ a faggot really can run this company.” While Cookie is cast as a woman of no filter, this sting of this comment lies in its usage and reference to her own son’s orientation.
Its use sticks out like Walter’s use of the word in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. When meeting Beneatha’s love interest, Walter comments on the young man’s “faggoty looking white shoes.” I suppose this word is used for shock value and to capture both character’s implied simplicity. However, there are countless other creative ways to convey the same idea.
Cookie is both funny and unfunny in her unfiltered commentary. My laughter is stifled as her behavior is believed to mirror the reality assumed of black women. While Cookie is not unlikable, her character is a contemporary caricature of the “urban” black woman. She is crass, loud, reprimanding, street savvy, and thus fulfills the controlling image of a Sapphire.
As conflicted as I am about this character and Henson’s portrayal, the most powerful line of the premiere: “Pretty White girls always are even when they aren’t” is liberating. Cookie issues this comment after inquiring about her eldest son’s interracial marriage. This line captures the conflict of a black woman to “be” as opposed to their white female counterpart who just “is” by default.
What I do appreciate about Empire is the Cookie’s humanizing of the angry black woman stereotype. Yes, to a certain extent Cookie is very angry. However, who wouldn’t be angry after making the ultimate sacrifice for their family, only to be cast aside like an unwanted houseguest? Cookie created at the price of her destruction, her sacrifice mirroring traditional black women whose backs were the pedestal of which many stood.
Cookie also softens the stigma of the angry black woman through the genuine love she has for her children. The extremity of her experience has not chilled her maternal warmth. She believes in her outcasted son Jamal, in a way that fosters the belief in himself.
On the topic of Jamal, I also find his performance progressive in the portrayal of another marginalized group. Jamal’s failure to color in the lines of heteronormative behavior earns him his father’s hatred, but his mother’s understanding. I especially like that Jamal brings the best out of everyone around him. His musical genius allows his younger brother Hakeem to shine. The wound of his father’s alienation brings out the softer side of Cookie. Despite the alienation of his son, Jamal enables Luscious to see the manifestations of his musical genius in one of his children.
Many regard those who live beyond heteronormativity as solely defined by their orientation. Jamal personifies that an individual is so much more than who they sleep with.
His father’s obvious favorite, Hakeem Lyon is the youngest of the Lyon boys. Hakeem is young, talented, entitled, outspoken and unapologetic. His arrogance stems from his privileged upbringing, but veils his hurt from growing up motherless. Hakeem embodies the stereotypical “hood” dream of rapping, smoking weed, gold chains and womanizing.
On episode two of the series, Hakeem embarrasses himself and his family by physically exposing himself and rendering offensive commentary about President Obama amidst a drunken stupor. Interestingly, these comments result in his growth in popularity and praise from a white media anchor.
This increase in popularity and praise from the white media showcases exactly who buys into the negative behavior of black youth. In severing ties with the assumed affiliation between black people and a black president, Hakeem aligns himself with the white media. This alignment and praise isn’t due to the belief that Hakeem’s actions are positive or “refreshing,” but that they actively substantiate the prototype of black men.
In his drunken rant, Hakeem refers to President Obama as a “sellout” and says “oh, the police coming to shoot me now?” which prompts laughter from his friends. Ironically, Hakeem himself is a sellout as his mockery of the fate of young men who look a lot like him personify an ignorance and separation many black celebrities have from the reality of their racial perception.
Hakeem’s overt disrespect to this mother, also coincides with his distorted self perception. In his cavalier disregard for his mother’s contribution to his lifestyle, Hakeem appears to disrespect her but actually reveals a lack of personal integrity. This trait enables Hakeem to disrespect others, as his arrogance acts as armor to his insecurities. Hakeem’s portrayal, is of course reflective of the disposition of many millennials who feel above and beyond those who paved the way for them.
Despite being the powerful mogul behind Empire records, Luscious’ feats are reduced in the base actions taken to make his wealth. Luscious Lyon’s unexpected fatal disease surfaces as the karma of his past and present efforts to keep his empire.
Luscious’ discovery of his fatal disease prompts his encouragement of sibling rivalry between his three sons. In their desire for the throne, the three sons mimic the black male’s struggle for the top stop. This is an accurate portrayal of blacks and success, as it depicts the competitive reality that black face when striving for the sole top slot. In general, few, regardless of color or circumstance, make it to the illusive top, but even fewer blacks make it.
Luscious’ eldest son Andre embodies the contemporary black elite. With a degree in business and valuable financial skills, Andre is a pillar in Empire’s stature. Despite being a rose that grew from concrete, Andre severs all ties with his incarcerated mother until her release. Although his mother’s sacrifice would afford her husband and children their lifestyle of privilege, Andre distances himself from Cookie as an effort to keep up his white-collar image. Interestingly, despite his academic feats, Andre is visibly envious of his musically inclined siblings. Despite holding a high place in this company, Andre plots to sever the bond between his two younger brothers to appoint himself the head of the company.
Interestingly, Andre is seldom seen interacting with his brothers. He is only seen interacting with his parents, for the sole purpose of orchestrating his plans for monetary success and title. His overt distance from his musically inclined siblings reflects the envy, but also reflects the distance of the black elite from the black artist. Members of the black elite, mirror the wealth of an artist but their success is granted by the knowledge and intellectual achievement of an education. Andre’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his brothers depicts the elitism that often fosters distance between the elite and the artist.
While Andre is last in line for the throne, he already has his trophy. Although Andre’s trophy isn’t a Grammy, it’s allure is just as a golden. With porcelain skin and blonde hair, Andre Lyon’s trophy is in the form of a wife, a white woman.
Trophy Interracial Romance
Andre Lyon and his wife Rhonda embody the interracial romance seemingly necessary for a black prime time drama. I find it very interesting that a show that has worked hard to appoint a black audience with famed black director (Lee Daniels), and prominent stars of Black Hollywood (Terrance Howard, Tariji P. Henson), to feature an interracial love scene as the pilot’s sole steamy moment.
Interestingly, one of the redeemable moments of the pilot was the portrayal of trophy wife Rhonda Lyon. As the wife of the non- musical offspring of Empire CEO Luscious Lyon, she is as invested in preserving the Empire as her husband. While the sex scenes between the couple displays lust, their chemistry seems rooted in their love of money and higher status.
Problematically, the role of Rhonda seems almost overly sexualized to the point of humiliation. While she and Andre are newlyweds, Rhonda’s willingness to negotiate through satiating her husband’s sexual desires make her seem shallow and one-dimensional. Rhonda Lyon emerges from what seems to be a pattern of white women put in sexually vulnerable positions on black sitcoms. Scandal viewers will recall watching Mellie give Fitz perform unwanted fellatio as he sipped forty-year old Scotch in the shower. This scene replayed in the back of my mind as I watched Rhonda Lyon slip on what is now referred to as “a blow job bib” before sinking to her knees in what seemed to be very costly business attire.
Is this performing in the stereotype of white women being quite eager to please? Or is this suggesting that these are the type of women that visibly flawed men go home to, or in Rhonda’s case the type that go for black men? Or perhaps the depiction of these characters as overtly sexually compromising depicts the white woman’s dedication to the pursuit of money and power.
Regardless of the response to these queries, the emerging pattern is disturbing. While the perpetuation of black stereotypes is often troubling because its validity is assumed, are the same standards applied to whites who share intimate relations with blacks? My thoughts stray to John Brown…
Perhaps reflective of its role in the black community, color plays a pivotal role in character portrayal on black sitcoms. In discussing this show with a colleague, the following query hovered over our conversation: How black are black television shows?
When considering this query with regard to Empire, colorism is an obvious yet unstated muse. The lead, Luscious Lyon played by Terrance Howard is a fair-skinned man with light eyes. Cookie (played by Taraji P. Henson) while more pigmented than Howard, is still at the fairer end of the spectrum. Lyon’s love interest Anika is also rather pale, falling into the pattern of racially ambiguous arm candy present in most black movies or sitcoms.
Interestingly, actors of a deeper hue are cast as the help. Notably, Precious star Gabourney Sidibe, is conveniently,cast as Luscious’ assistant. Despite being a familiar face, Sidibe is undoubtedly reduced to the help due to her resemblance to past “hollywood helpers” such as Hattie McDaniels. Lyon’s bodyguards, and assistant Vernon are also of darker complexion.
This dynamic mirrors the traditional conceptualizing of blackness where lighter skinned blacks hold a more luxurious place than their darker skinned counterparts. Those of a fairer and darker hue are equally abject in a majority driven society yet earn the privilege of a pretty packing to support the overall denigration of the race. The menacing presence of such dynamics in popular contemporary sitcoms often goes unstated and vastly unnoticed.
Interestingly, Taraji P Henson’s Cookie mirrors Wendy Raquel Williams’ rendition of Tasha Mack on The Game. Both women are beautiful, breeders of talented offspring and despite lacking formal education ( and a filter) they are quite business savvy. It is also interesting to note that both characters are graduates of Howard University.
This hits close to home for me as I too am a graduate of Howard. As an alumni, I can attest to the majority of Howard women as being the antithesis of Cookie and Tasha. So what does it mean that one of the most prestigious black universities nurtures one of the most unwavering stereotypes of black women?
It suggests the same message as Empire: you can leave the hood/plantation etc but the experience never leaves you. What does it mean that education and positioning fail to negate the negativity of blackness? This suggests that the construct of blackness is an unshakeable fault. To take this a step further, the inability of blacks to shed the skin of an undesirable disposition suggests that these attributes of blackness are necessary. This troubled projection of blackness are necessary in the stagnancy of racial perceptions. The ability to shed the skin of constructs would enable one to truly build an Empire. Until then, all material and portrayal are just various manifestations of imperialism.
Veiled by a star director and Academy Award nominees, the abjection of Imperialism continues.
This argument may be regarded as “reaching” or “hateful” by some, while prompting others to scratch their head in curiosity. Nevertheless, despite the variety of responses, Empire presents blacks with the recurring predicament: visibility or value?