Since its premiere, Empire has drawn many comparisons to female-centric, deliberately trashy reality soaps in the vein of the Real Housewives franchise. Some critics have deemed this a good thing, as when Dave Schilling, in Grantland, wrote about Cookie’s inspirational debt to reality TV: “Bravo reality shows offer a view of femininity (especially black femininity) that was rarely expressed in the popular culture.” Others have dismissed Cookie as little more than a “nicely wrapped up” stereotype of the loud, abrasive black woman.
It’s true that, in many ways, it can be difficult to differentiate the women of Empire from the women of Bravo. (Cookie’s nickname for Anika, her ex-husband’s fiancé, is “Boo Boo Kitty,” which recalls Real Housewives of Orange County star Tamra’s similarly antagonistic nicknames for her castmates Lizzie and Alexis: “Kentucky Fried Titties” and “Jesus Jugs,” respectively.) Empire’s reality-TV echoes are a huge part of why it has managed to capture the public’s fascination so suddenly and astonishingly. And the soapy drama would indeed be little more than a beautifully-produced, more heavily-scripted version of those reality shows if mudslinging and fighting over men were all the women of Empire did.
But in more recent episodes, the show’s characterization of its women has gotten more and more interesting. For all of their cattiness, Cookie, Anika, and Tiana have gradually proven to be more than one-dimensional cartoons with no discernible brains or talent to back up their overinflated egos. Anika may be smug and bougie, but she isn’t content to “only” be Lucious’ fiancé—as head of A&R she’s aggressive in handling artists. Tiana fully inhabits the IDGAF attitude of the star who clearly inspired her, Rihanna, while taking full control of her own image and career. (Seeking out Cookie as her new manager is by far one of the smartest things anyone on this show has done.) And above all, Cookie is smart, talented, and tenacious; she commands respect. In a sly, and very Lee Daniels (read: sloppy and inconsistent) way, these women are much more than types.
Underneath all of the flashy production, clunky dialogue, and Timbaland-produced beats, Empire does an impressive job of highlighting its female characters’ agency in a typically male-dominated, often sexist, industry. Cookie is undoubtedly the most fully realized character, male or female, and the writers give her as much bite as bark. Whatever your feelings on the quality of the series’ “hit” songs, the writers treat Cookie as if she really is as savvy a music producer as she says she is. It’s not just her $400k that started the “empire,” it’s her great ear and gift for music, as shown in flashbacks to the early days of her career in the music business. She can play the piano, and doles out musical notes to her protégé son Jamal (and Tiana, and Elle) that inevitably turn out to be just the inspiration they need. And in last week’s episode “Our Dancing Days,” Cookie proved she’s more than a sassy black lady by improvising a make-it-or-break-it speech in front of a group of wealthy potential IPO investors after ALS-stricken Lucious suddenly takes ill behind the scenes. She is cool, confident, and winsome in the moment—and she essentially saves the company (for now, anyway).
This is all a far cry from the way Real Housewives and its many imitators mostly portray women as washed up professionally and personally, dating a moderately famous athlete or musician, or all of the above. The primary requirement is that they be willing to have an attitude at any and all times. And this attitude is not in the service of any particular character development—female melodrama is a constant narrative drumbeat.
Sure, Empire is not particularly deft in its handling of gender roles—the competition between Cookie and Anika inevitably devolves into cheap comments about each other’s looks. (In one hilariously melodramatic dinner scene, of which there are many, Cookie sees fit to put down Anika’s slim figure by clutching her own bottom and proclaiming, “THIS is an ass!”) Daniels and primary co-writer Danny Strong also throw in a couple of thinly-constructed female characters who border on offensive—for example, a 40-plus year old Camille played by Naomi Campbell (yes, that Naomi Campbell) seeking to be publicly labeled as the girlfriend of an immature, 20-something Hakeem Lyons.
But thankfully, the show has begun to peddle its stereotypes with a bit more finesse. Even the kind of on-the-nose moments we’ve come to expect from Daniels and Strong have made the show’s female characters stronger. When Andre explains that the reason Empire is firing singer Elle Dallas (played by a pitch-perfect Courtney Love) is because she’s, above all, “difficult,” Cookie lays into him: “I know that word. See y’all like to toss us to the side when you can’t control us anymore because you’re lazy, and you don’t want to do your job.” It’s great to see that such a messy, corny, but thoroughly entertaining show with a predominantly black cast can exist in the same realm—network TV—as more “dignified” fare like How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish, and Scandal. We can’t all be Olivia Pope. But we’re not all Jesus Jugs, either.