What the Success of ‘Empire’ Says About Representations of Black Women on TV Today

What the Success of 'Empire' Says About Representations of Black Women on TV Today

Last night, accepting her People’s Choice Award for Favorite TV Actress, Viola Davis said: “Thank you Shonda Rhimes… for thinking of a leading lady who looks like my classic beauty.” It was a kind of full circle moment, eloquently and subtly referencing the New York Times article from last year that seemed to question Davis and Rhimes’s success even as it attempted to praise it.

With the momentum of “Scandal” and the association with Shondaland, “How to Get Away With Murder” became one of last year’s most widely watched and widely talked about shows. There was, of course, the delicious melodrama of the plot, but in addition the series sparked conversations about race, gender, and representation on the small screen that had been a longtime coming.

But it wasn’t only “How to Get Away with Murder” that ushered in these conversations. Looking back over 2014, there was a gradual but perceptibly distinct shift in the television landscape, and the presence of black female performers in it. It was, after all, the year that brought an unprecedented number of black actresses in major primetime roles. Just two years before, when Kerry Washington debuted on “Scandal,” a black woman hadn’t starred in a network drama since 1974.

And yet last year, in addition to cable shows like “Being Mary Jane,” “The Walking Dead,” and “American Horror Story,” network television post-“Scandal” suddenly had several black female stars. There was Viola of course, but also Halle Berry on the sci-fi miniseries “Extant,” Nicole Beharie on “Sleepy Hollow,” Octavia Spencer on “Red Band Society,” Candice Patton on “The Flash,” and Tracee Ellis Ross on “Blackish.”

It wasn’t just the larger number of actresses that were cropping up, but also the kind of characters they were playing that was significant. These weren’t types, or even variations on the Olivia Pope tough-with-quivering-lips model. There were standout moments that included Viola Davis as Annalise Keating, all at once vulnerable, flawed, and powerful as she removed her wig and wiped off her makeup to confront a husband’s infidelity. There was also the “Sleepy Hollow” episode ‘Mama,’ that shifted focus entirely away from Nicole Beharie’s white male co-star Tom Mison to hone in on the relationship of her character, Abbie Mills, to her sister, and estranged mother – a rarity in genre programming that cemented Beharie’s status as a lead, and not a sidekick on the genre show.

Across the board, the black female characters introduced last year were far more complex and far more engaging than what’s been seen in some time. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t progress that still needs to be made, or problems that still need to be addressed. “Sorority Sisters” had its debut last year, sparking a debate about the harmfulness of so-called “ratchet” reality television and its depictions of black women.

But when we talk about the need for wider representations of black women, both on the big and small screen, there’s something to be said for messiness. Characters like Annalise, or Mary Jane, or Rainbow from “Black-ish,” are messy, but their messiness is acceptable because it comes in a package of respectability – upper middle-class, educated, etc. In the scripted, primetime television world, where are the black characters that fit the opposite end of the spectrum?

Enter “Empire,” a show that, in a lot of ways, marks the culmination of 2014’s shift. While Viola stepped on stage to accept her People’s Choice Award, Taraji P. Henson’s off-the-wall, scenery-chewing Cookie sauntered into a boardroom growling, “You messin’ with the wrong bitch.” The Lee Daniels-produced hip hop series is far, far, far from perfect. It’s cheesy and over-stylized for sure, but a survey of live-tweets during the show’s 9 pm premiere last night revealed that Henson’s performance was engaging enough to keep people watching.

In spite of, or perhaps because of its flaws, “Empire” highlights an even bigger turn in the representation of black women on the small screen. The show’s very existence is a major move – other than “Blackish,” it’s the only other black-executive produced show with a predominantly black cast on network TV. And Taraji as its star, opposite Terrence Howard, brilliantly tows the line of the so-called stereotype and the “respectable” black female lead. She’s messy, she’s complicated, she’s “ratchet” – and she’s worth worth rooting for.

Today, “Empire” joins “Black-ish” and “How to Get Away with Murder” as the highest rated new shows of the 2014-2015 television season. It’s an interesting cross-section of a shifting TV climate, and a wake-up call for execs who still believe that audiences aren’t interested in stories with black women and black people in general at the center. It’s also a reminder that the Cookies, if handled with some nuance, are just as important as the Olivia Popes.

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged


Comments

Lee

The show Empire, as cheesy as it can get is a fan favorite including mine. But the issue is that is does promote the same old stereotypes that have been out for decades. I think to counteract the stereotypes Lee Daniels included topics that are not viewed in mainstream black culture such as homosexuality and mental disorders. Also Cookie, though she plays your typical ratchet drug dealer, we see she is very complicated which gives her a lot of humanizing traits. She not the typical drug dealer thats put in to make the show more violent. She has a heart and the audience roots for her instead of despises her, which I think is definitely a sign of progress.

debiro1

Do you really think that the powers that be would greenlight a show starring predominanyly us if we did NOT stoop to the lowest common denominator? If you do, think again. At least Empire is supposed to be fiction as opposed to the so-called reality nonsense we’vebeen featured in for the last 10+ years. That’s far worse.

eric

I really wasn’t too thrilled with the premiere. Of all the ways we could’ve been shown as a successful people, they chose to perpetuate the image of accomplished drug dealers and murderers with no moral principle. They dumped every superficial thing they thought would appeal to a black audience into one small pot; even threw in some fried chicken.

Peachez

I could not stand watching Empire. It was a major step back for us as a people, and I cannot believe the people who funded this show have any kind of a positive view of Black people. Sad.

Troublemaker

@Tony … that their stories are not worthy of telling, which is a very troubling point-of-view. We should be arguing for a diverse range of representations."
The blaxploitation era of the ’70’s already had this stereotype on lock. Why resurrect this dead?

Nikki

@Ghost
What are you talking about? Reality Tv? I’m sorry I don’t consider that television. I’m talking about scripted television shows. Walking Dead, Sleepy Hollow, Scandal, Blackish, How to Get away with Murder, Being Mary Jane. I don’t watch reality tv so maybe I’m out of the loop on that aspect.

Miles Ellison

Why is it that people who argue for diverse "warts and all" representation of black people in movies & TV shows always defend cliched stereotypes as if they’re underrepresented?

Trina

As a forty year old who went to and graduated college in the 90s this show is on point. It is great and will certainly maintain this highf level throughout. Empire is closer to reality than Blackish. Everybody knew somebody who sold drugs, for real. We made it. Empire is a fantasy so don’t critique to death, thanks.

Umm

Yuck at the constant use of the word ‘female’ in place of women. I never hear white women being described as ‘females.’ The author of this piece and the commenters need to check their misogynoir.

Ghost

Well said Toney, these people exist lets not pretend that they don’t.———————— It is not about those people existing. It’s about why are these the MAIN types of black folks that we see? In fact why is the ratchet black female the main image we keep seeing tossed out? Where is the variety? Where is the balance? I’m tire of seeing fighting, weave infested, bed hopping, ghetto black women on tv all the time. And does anyone think this show being placed in the same slot as Blackish isn’t by accident?

Carol

@Mike V, exactly. Cookie is a caricature of all the black female stereotypes. I expect to see such a show on BET or a Tyler Perry show on OWN. I don’t want to see it on Fox broadcast network and have the general public laughing at a shoe throwing ratchet black woman.

Mase

I’m happy for Taraji P. Henson and the fact that we have a variety of Black female characters on network TV instead of just one; however, I am afraid that network execs will look at the Taraji character and think that this is what the public wants to see in terms of Black female representation. I highly doubt we would have seen Nicole Behari on ‘Sleepy Hollow’ if it had debuted after ‘Empire.’ FOX execs would have probably asked her to act "more Black" or simply cast a White actress to play the part altogether.

JTC

Sorry, but she was the shit on Person of Interest. I think this is a step down.

VannDigital.com

@Troublemaker like most white filmmakers, most Black filmmakers only think about how they can make more $$$ with less work. shows like Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air & A Different World & Living Single took work. modern-day minstrel shows take next to no effort to make

Ariel

I watched the episode last night, and although I laughed at her outfits and some of her lines, I really liked her portrayal as a mother, (ex)wife, and protector. Looking past the 90s Bad Boys video outfits, I liked that she didn’t come out of prison with an Olivia Pope white coat, or Annalise dress suit. She’s a woman who has been in jail for 17 years. It’s going to be very interesting to see her adapt when she is the Rip Van Winkle of the show. I figured people were going to have issues with her character since she’s not the respectable middle/upper-class, college educated black woman we’ve all grown to love in 2014’s portrayals of black women. But let’s not forget that we can have black women, from stereotypical backgrounds who can still show us what it means to be human. If Lee Daniels can portray those nuances in a manner that doesn’t make me feel like I’m watching a VH1 or Bravo reality show, I’m game and will continue to support.

J Bernard Jones

‘Cookie just got out of prison after 17 years. That’s great! Are there any white shows with mom’s who just got out of prison? I don’t think so."

You’d be more or less wrong: MOM on CBS features a single parent recovering alcoholic white ex-stripper (played by Anna Faris) whose mother (played by Allison Janney) is an ex-convict, recovering drug addict, grifter, liar and borderline slut, Both women are complete hot messes trying to turn their lives around, and usually failing at it. "Mom" is a moderate hit for CBS. The more you know….

J Bernard Jones

I kind of reject the central premise of this article strictly based on it’s premise that with the arrival of Cookie on the scene we "finally’ have a wide range of Black female characters on tv. Nope, that trend has been growing since 2011. The impact of Henson’s immediately previous role as Detective Carter on CBS’ "Person of Interest" starting in 2011 actually started this trend. Others will argue Olivia Pope, but given the inherent emotional weakness and instability of Olivia and her ultimately being a sideline ho, "complex" is not a term that could be used to describe her at all. As for Henson’s "Carter" on Person of Interest and despite the fact that so many of our people (ahem) slept/sleep on the show, Carter was truly one of the most groundbreaking Black female characters on television in decades: every bit the equal of all the other characters (sometimes more so), equally heroic, not defined by her gender but not de-gendered either, her crosses to bear were no more or less important or serious than the others on the canvas. There were things that Carter did as a hero that I’ve never seen any other Black female character do or was allowed to do on television before, which the possible exception of Faux Francie on "Alias." a villain and decades after "Get Christie Love" on ABC. In the modern era POI’s Carter was, quite literally, an equal and a true peer, unlike Olivia Pope’s simpering emotional basket case but a fine precursor for "Sleepy Hollow" Abbie & Jenny Mills. The show was/is still watched by millions and was making its moves around the same time as #Scandal was making waves, with her character being on of the most popular on the show and whose loss was so deeply felt the show addressed it for nearly the equivalent of a full season. I LOVE Cookie on Empire. LOVE her. Cookie is a brilliant, morally and emotionally complex character and Henson is doing perhaps the most ferocious and fearless work of her career, but the fact that we typically trend toward flash, buzz, twitterpations and hashtags often leads us to overlook what really got us to this point.

PhredG

I agree with you JohnJones about TarajiP’s portrayal of Detective Carter. It was well developed and multi-faceted. Shoot, it even made ‘shippers’ happy eventually. I came in at the finale of S3 and got HOOKED. Had to play catchup via dvds before S4 started. I also appreciated her stance on not being featured equally on that TV Guide cover as well. TarajiP is a talented actress. Detective Carter, and Cookie are two of her ‘characters’. ijs

John Jones

I kind of reject the central premise of this article strictly based on it’s premise that with the arrival of Cookie on the scene we "finally’ have a wide range of Black female characters on tv. Nope, that trend has been growing since 2011. The impact of Henson’s immediately previous role as Dective Carter on CBS’ "Person of Interest" starting in 2011 actually started this trend. Others will argue Olivia Pope, but given the inherent emotional weakness and instability of Olivia and her ultimately being a sideline ho, "complex" is not a term that could be used to describe her at all. As for Henson’s "Carter" on Person of Interest and despite the fact that so many of our people (ahem) slept/sleep on the show, Carter was truly one of the most groundbreaking Black female characters on television in decades: every bit the equal of all the other characters (sometimes more so), equally heroic, not defined by her gender but not de-gendered either, her crosses to bear were no more or less important or serious than the others on the canvas. There were things that Carter did as a hero that I’ve never seen any other Black female character do or was allowed to do on television before, which the possible exception of Faux Francie on "Alias." a villain and decades after "Get Christie Love" on ABC. In the modern era POI’s Carter was, quite literally, an equal and a true peer, unlike Olivia Pope’s simpering emotional basket case but a fine precursor for "Sleepy Hollow" Abbie & Jenny Mills. The show was/is still watched by millions and was making its moves around the same time as #Scandal was making waves, with her character being on of the most popular on the show and whose loss was so deeply felt the show addressed it for nearly the equivalent of a full season. I LOVE Cookie on Empire. LOVE her. Cookie is a brilliant, morally and emotionally complex character and Henson is doing perhaps the most ferocious and fearless work of her career, but the fact that we typically trend toward flash, buzz, twitterpations and hashtags often leads us to overlook what really got us to this point.

getthesenets

@Roland, you couldn’t be more wrong or more naive.When the Sorority Sister controversy broke, plenty of the people who were publicly outraged by the premise had already been on the record as being fans of the wives and reality shows via their own social media posts.A lot of them got called out for being inconsistent.Look it up.

Roland S. Jefferson

Perhaps it’s because of the success of the hiphop reality shows ‘Housewives’ etc. these shows in general are not about nor are they marketed to the degree-level African American audience. If they were, you’d see reality shows starring black doctors, lawyers, architects, school teachers. The audience for the shows in the vein of Empire (a hiphop thug TV series) is the same audience that watches Jerry Springer, Maury, etc.

Beemooree

@J . Hawthorne was on cable, not network tv

Nikki

Well said Toney, these people exist lets not pretend that they don’t.

j

what about Hawthorne with Jada ?

Darkan

What father would get so enraged to throw his son in the trash? I guess the same type of father to drop his children out of the window. Smdh and rolling my eyes. Horrible, travesty of a show.

shanna

Empire is unbelievable and all that watch it should be ashamed of themselves! I’ve been reading the comments on facebook. "Wooo hoo Terence and Taraji united again. I can’t wait to see this! Can’t wait till it starts…it’s hard to be a pimp"?? Seriously? And who started this? Lee Daniels and little danny strong who wrote the trifling butler! Why is danny strong writing our stories? But for the ones that like the show, enjoy watching the buffonery! Cookie just got out of prison after 17 years. That’s great! Are there any white shows with mom’s who just got out of prison? I didn’t think so. I’m sensing a pattern. When a black male director has a crap childhood, they show us in a negative light.

Daryl

Tony I get your point, but that’s not what this is about, it’s really about rich black celebs along white their studio slave masters thinking these are the only stories black people want to see and this is the black tv and movie model black people must follow to be successful. It couldn’t have been a drama about a black owned business that wasn’t a record label.

TONY

@MIKE @TROUBLEMAKER It sounds as though you’re either suggesting that these people don’t exist, which I don’t think is the case, or that their stories are not worthy of telling, which is a very troubling point-of-view. We should be arguing for a diverse range of representations. If this show were the only Show with a Black cast TV then I’d feel some type of way, but overall I didn’t see it as stereotypical.

Daryl

Great what we need another show full of black stereotypes, this again proves what I’ve been saying about rich black celebs, soon as they get money they want to go back to playing stereotypes instead of moving forward offering different black images that hollywood is not offering.

Troublemaker

@Mike V I’m with you on this one. Taraji is a better actress than that. She deserved an interesting role. I mean ex-con, drug dealer, fur wearing gum popping materialistic hoochie mama? I don’t understand why some of our black filmmakers/writers believe that we have to stoop to the lowest common denominator in order to tell a story.

Beemooree

I think when ppl refer to the first black female network drama actress , I think they mean sole lead not co lead. Gugu was 2nd billed.

Mike V

While I do agree there is progress, it is VERY unsettling to see Lee Daniels relying on ancient tropes. Much like Tyler Perry, this show seems to put a flashy new 2015-face on a painful stereotypes..

K

I’m gonna be that person, but Gugu was on The Undercovers on NBC which was a network television show. So there was a black woman starring on tv drama before Scandal existed. If we’re speaking specifically African American or non biracial, well then, that’s a different story.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *