I am known by many as a pop culture killjoy. I am the person constantly pointing out fallacies in historical dramas. The woman pointing out misogyny in your favorite romance. The black friend ruining your favorite cartoons with discussions of the underlying racism of the characters. If you look up “party pooper” in the dictionary, it’s just an unsmiling picture of me, with the caption “That’s not funny.”
So it would surprise many to hear that I love, love, love Empire. Yes, the soap opera on Fox. A drama filled with black people portraying hustlers, drug dealers, hip-hop artists, ex-convicts and murderers. I can’t get enough. And if you thought this was some confession of a guilty pleasure, you were wrong. My love for Empire feels no shame.
From the first episode of Empire, there have been many thoughtful articles concerned with how this show portrays black people to the rest of the world. In an industry with a well-known history of misrepresenting and underrepresenting people of color, some have rightfully asked, “Do we really need another television show portraying black men as violent, gun-toting hustlers and black women as rude, loud and angry?”
But I’m here to tell you that you should forget all that noise.
Empire is not about presenting black people to white America. Empire is not for white America. It is for us. That doesn’t mean that white people can’t or don’t watch it (just like I watch, well, just about anything else on television). It simply means that white perception is irrelevant.
So much of black life has been built around countering the negative and oppressing stereotypes imposed upon us by mainstream society. From the “magical negro” to the “sassy black friend,” these images of black people as entertaining, one-dimensional sidekicks have had real and devastating consequences for black people in real life. But that constant struggle, while important, is externally focused. It is a fight to move up a ladder of respectability built on whiteness. The struggle to prove that we are good enough can, at times, look a lot like internalized white supremacy.
What does this have to do with Empire? Well Empire just doesn’t give a damn. Empire is a soap opera. A campy, overly dramatic series of love, lust, betrayal and intrigue. The characters in this show are beautiful, immoral and sexy. Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie is entertainment in its purest form, loudly pushing her way to success in amazing leopard print outfits. She throws a stiletto at her ex-husband in a show of uninhibited anger that would put Susan Lucci to shame. Terrence Howard’s Lucious is the lying, cheating, womanizing, patriarch that we all love to hate. Their children are conniving, backstabbing princes vying for the throne.
Of course, the family empire is a hip-hop label built on drug money. Of course, Cookie is a convicted felon. This is no more surprising than the fact that they’d have a closeted gay son longing for his father’s approval or that Lucious would be hiding the fact that he only has a few years to live. What else would you expect from a soap opera?
Stories of rich and powerful people doing very bad things are not new to entertainment. Television drama is a place where we can let our imaginations run wild, where we can build a world ruled by our selfish, passionate, fame-hungry alter egos. The world of Empire is black fantasy. Whiteness is practically nonexistent in this glossy world of high drama. The struggles these characters face are not soul-crushing stop-and-frisks by the NYPD or the everyday violence of racial micro-aggressions. Victory for these characters is not rescue by white saviors or newfound interracial harmony. White America is the peripheral character in this show, only brought out when needed for a plot twist or to play a minor sidekick, like the wife of the oldest son, Andre.
It is rare that black people on our screens get to be devious, sexy, wealthy, corrupt, loving or angry — purely for the entertainment of other black people. It’s almost unheard of to see black people on network television as the stars, the sidekicks, the love interests, the villains and the heroes all in one show. It is refreshing to see a show that does not ask for white approval or patronage. A show that seeks nothing else other than to keep black people at the edges of their seats, wondering what outlandish things these sexy narcissists will do next.
Empire makes a statement by not making a statement. Black entertainment, like black life, is rich and full on its own. It has nothing to prove.