In Empire, the Sissy Shines

Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Cookie (Taraji Henson) in Empire. 

Photographer: Chuck Hodes

Queer representation on mainstream television: We all want more of it, and better examples at that—but how to measure success? One approach is, in essence, quantitative. Under this rubric, the likes of which is used by GLAAD and other observers to judge the media, any professedly gay character (who is not problematically tragic or villainous) is a sign of progress, regardless of how much or little that gayness inflects the material of the show. The more of “us” there are in front of the camera, the logic goes, the more positive the state of LGBTQ representation can be said to be.

The numbers game is fine, as far as it goes; but there’s another approach we can apply now that the task of proving the existence of queer people to TV viewers is surely complete. What if we judged the gay bona fides of a show not only on whether queer people are present somewhere in its narrative universe, but also—and especially—on how creatively it uses that presence to color or enhance the story’s basic framework?

If you want an example of a show that does this exceedingly well, I recommend Empire, the delightfully soapy new Fox melodrama from Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, which transposes a King Lear–esque tale of patrimony and the attendant familial infighting into the lucrative, high-stakes world of the modern hip-hop music business. My colleague Willa Paskin provides a good map of the show’s setup in her review; suffice it to say here that Jay Z–like mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is dying, and one of his three sons must inherit the throne. Will it be the suave businessman, the talented young hothead, or (least appealing to Lucious) the highly creative, introspective faggot?

I use that slur here because the show does, specifically in the mouth of Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), the boys’ mother, who, in the pilot episode, has just exited prison after 17 years and is ready to claim her piece of the titular empire that she helped found. Her path to that reclamation is through managing the gay one, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), of whom (despite her referring to him as a fag, sissy, and queen over the course of the episode) she is a devoted advocate and fan.

The juxtaposition of fierce love and decidedly un-PC rhetoric—upon meeting Jamal’s handsome boyfriend, Cookie remarks “You didn’t tell me you was dating a little Mexican! Look at her, she’s adorable!”—isn’t just for cheap thrills. A pair of moving flashback scenes from Jamal’s childhood, one of a prison visit and one of an early drag experiment severely punished by Dad, go to show that Cookie’s approach to her son’s sexuality is supportive, but also pragmatic. His gayness will mark him as threatening, weak, or merely alien in the musical culture in which she wants to make him a star; overcoming those prejudices is not the kind of thing with which sensitivity training can really help.

The complex relationship between Cookie and Jamal may be the most poignant manifestation of Empire’s engagement with gayness, but it’s hardly the only one. I had been told before seeing the pilot that the show had an “interesting gay character,” but these reports overstate Jamal’s still-thin characterization and understate the extent to which gayness (as it relates to family and perhaps the black community) appears to be the show’s central concern. Sometimes this concern is expressed in overly blunt writing, such as when Jamal’s boyfriend responds to his concerns about how black audiences will respond to a gay musician by saying: “It’s 2015; nobody cares. There’re football players coming out.” But more often it is impressively specific, familiar, and well-rendered, as in the way Jamal’s father and older brother uncomfortably refer to his partners as “friends” and in the early dress-up-in-mom’s-heels trauma, a sort of ur-scene (apparently based on Daniels’ own experience) that will be painfully familiar to many gay men. Even the passing exchange between Lucious’ assistant (Gabourey Sidibe) and Jamal about the over-ness of bathhouses added a note of veracity, however random.

The point is, I was thrilled to discover over the course of the pilot that I was not just watching a show that happened to offer up a gay character in an unlikely context, but rather a show that was largely about the fascinating friction between that context and gayness. We can debate whether it is fair (or desirable) to term Empire a “gay show,” but it’s inarguable that the sissy series—if it lives up to the promise of its pilot—has the potential to advance the gay representation conversation a considerable amount. I suspect many viewers will be surprised by all this when the show premieres on Wednesday night—but then, in my experience the power sissies wield always comes as a shock.