"Empire" Can Redefine Black Media Stereotypes

I'm not saying that Empire alone will pave the way for a redefinition of black media. But it's a start. A very fun one.
Publish date:
March 23, 2015
race, stereotypes, representation, Empire

As you can probably tell from my last post on black television characters, I'm very invested in media representation. Television can make or break a character of color, depicting her in an inspiring light or writing her off as a basic, one dimensional figment of the imagination that supports the misconceptions made by society's stereotypes.

I recently read a piece on NPR discussing whether or not the Fox drama Empire reinforces black stereotypes or redefines them. I watch Empire for pure entertainment, on the contrary to the other shows I watch, which either lead me to contemplate post-apocalyptic socialization (The Walking Dead), political madness (House of Cards), feminism and justice (Orange is the New Black), horror, death and the afterlife (American Horror Story) or how to apply random ingredients in my recipes (Chopped on Food Network, I am obsessed). So, yes, It is safe to say that I started watching Empire with the expectation of pure dramatic and musical enjoyment.

I didn't even want to watch the show at first – I enjoy Taraji and Terrence but I thought it would be too much to add another show to my extensive roster. And, initially, Empire didn't appeal to me: I usually don't like watching shows that are hyped up by the masses because it feels like I'm hopping on a bandwagon.

But after watching one episode with one of my dear friends, my ass hopped right on that bandwagon. Heck, I practically straddled it.

Why? Because it really is an easy show to watch. In a superficial sense, the actors and actresses are all eye candy, and it helps that most of them are already familiar. From a musical standpoint, the tracks are damn catchy and some of them are so generic that I'm surprised I enjoy it so much. Most of the songs are amazing though – of course they are, Timbaland is the head of production – while other songs feel like reflections of the manufactured mainstream hip-hop we shake our asses and bob our heads to today.

The characters all have dynamic, dimensional roles and storylines, and the music that accompanies it all is just as important to the storyline, not serving as merely a soundtrack or background noise. Finally, I appreciate the fact that the soap opera addresses issues such as psychological problems, homophobia and chronic illness, just to name a few.

When I'm about to watch something with an all-black cast or by black writers and producers, I expect to see something that will either represent another side of my race or make me think about an issue within society. I feel that way about Spike Lee and his masterpieces. I feel that way about Tyler Perry as well, but from a critical perspective; his movies are problematic to me and when I watch them I – um, that is best saved for another discussion.

Yet, popular black television and cinema shouldn't fall into two distinct categories – either extremely conscious or exaggeratedly dramatic. There are many more sides to black culture than that, and having a variety of black shows and movies will help illustrate how diverse our experiences are. I'm not saying that Empire alone will pave the way for a redefinition of black media. But it's a start. A very fun one.

And, with writers like Shonda Rhimes (Scandal), directors like Ava DuVernay (Selma), Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights), George Tillman, Jr (The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete) and Shaka King (Newlyweeds), we're getting a wider representation of black life. However, we could still have even more presence in film and television, to lengthen, strengthen and make more eclectic our selection.

We have an interesting relationship with television. We like it because it allows us escape our everyday lives, but often, the most popular shows are the ones that feature sex, crime, drama, drugs, murder and controversy. Yes, this is all found in Empire. But it is found all over television as well – most of the time, not in black media.

As I stated before, I just wanted Empire to be my guilty pleasure, my bowl of ice cream every that is equipped with assorted toppings and extra chocolate sauce.

So when I read the NPR article, I felt a bit sad. Although the writer was only qualifying and shedding light on some perspectives of how people view Empire, I felt disappointed that yet again, a black production is being criticized on the way it portrays blackness. The writer also mentioned other shows featuring people of color that can be judged as stereotypical, like Off the Boat and Blackish. It seems like it's difficult to create a show of color without critics believing the show is feeding into at least one stereotype.I get it. At first glance, Empire seems like it's rooted in stereotypes. Cookie is a loud, outspoken, flamboyant black woman who just got out of jail. Andre looks like a successful black man who "sold out" by marrying a white woman. Where do I start with Lucious, the head of Empire who has done unfavorable things to get to the top? Where do I even start with Hakeem, the youngest son who seems to only care about fame? And then there's Jamal, the talented one who is also gay and cannot gain his father's acceptance.

The NPR critique also points out that the main characters have light skin while all of the darker skinned characters are "the help", such as Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the assistant, and Derek Luke as one of the bodyguards. This brought up the issue of colorism that is apparent in black culture and history. And it is noticeable observation on the show.

However, I’m not sure if this was intentional or coincidental. That upset me too, but only because colorism is an issue I have observed and experienced throughout my whole black existence. There’s songs about it, books written on it, and I have collected sonnets of insults on darker skin, all worded by fellow black children while growing up.

The way to break stereotypes in media is to build characters whose personality and actions are more important than their skin color and background. This is described in the NPR piece, but I'd like to briefly reiterate it.

Cookie is more than an "angry black woman," she is intelligent and talented and shows a wide range of emotions in the show. At times she is scared, in love, brave, supportive and diabolical. Andre is dealing with bipolar disorder, feeling unaccepted and overlooked in the musical family and is devising his own plans of taking over the Empire. He and his wife are together because of love and commitment, as she has helped him through his mental illness. Hakeem feels the impact of being raised without a mother and finds himself in a complex romantic relationship, nonetheless, he is also striving to prove himself to his father, fans and himself. Jamal is obviously the most likable character, serving as a humble hero for viewers to connect with, who doesn't let his homosexuality define him or deter him in a public sphere where, although various sexualities are becoming accepted, many people are still phobic to it. As for Lucious, I have nothing flattering to say about him.

Despite me being disappointed about the finale (it felt like a scramble of gasp-worthy events, jam-packed into two hours rather than organized into separate episodes), I do think that Empire is onto something, when it comes to race and ratings. Some of us enjoy watching the show very much, and it has little to do with race and how it is served to us. Of course, it's always a pleasure to see people of color on TV, and I believe the more we do, the less we will judge the characters off of the colors they represent and more on the human stories they aim to tell.