Empire, Stereotypes, and the Search for Perfect Black People

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The Great Debaters

Oh no, last night, my husband and I were at it again. We had one of our heated debates. His eyes started bulging and my blood pressure shot up. This time it was about TV shows, specifically my fondness for Empire and Scandal. This particular debate started when I told him that I was just going to wait until today to catch up on the new episode of Empire instead of trying to watch it when I knew he and our daughter would distract me. He stopped clearing the dishes from the table, glared at me, and had the nerve to ask me a question that has been echoing in my head ever since, “How does someone like you that has this blog about female empowerment…how are you able to watch shows like Empire and Scandal? Shows about drug dealers and hoes?”

I looked at him and I think my mouth was open. Our 1 year-old daughter was sitting in her high chair looking from him to me, waiting for my answer. I told him that I think both shows are about more than what he described. I asked him to explain what he meant. During the twenty minutes that he talked about his thoughts first on Empire, then maybe another 10 minutes on Scandal, I did my best not to interrupt and to just listen even when certain things he said would make me want to jump out of my seat. He brought up some very good points. The best of the ones I can remember were:

1. Why is Empire on Fox network right before the 9 o’clock news? He argued that it’s not a coincidence that this happened. He said it is because the show portrays black people rapping, thugging, shooting, and killing and the news reinforces these things for the mostly conservative audience that watches Fox news.

2. Why does Empire have to center around a once-drug-dealer that builds a music company? He argued that the media pigeonholds successful black people into two major areas: sports and music. He said that he would like to see successful black people on TV that are not in these two fields.

3. Why does Olivia Pope [in Scandal] have to be the President’s hoe in order to be a leading character in a popular TV show? What kind of message is that sending our daughters? How does that show empower black women?

After I let him finish with almost everything he had to say, the first thing I told him is that I agree with him and I’ve thought about all of those things before. I told him that it does bother me that Empire is on the most anti-black network that I can think of. This rubs me the wrong way, especially considering the content of the show. However, I did tell him that I believe Empire is about more than drug-dealing and music. It is about family, relationships between brothers, mothers and sons, fathers and sons. It is about homophobia in the black community. It is about mental illness and the lack of discussion about it. The show seems to question the “ride-or-die chick” archetype that we love so much in the black community. Yes, we love Cookie’s character, but I hope I’m not the only one that sees no honor in going to jail for 17 years while your sons grow up without you. Not to mention the fact that her husband not only divorces her, but doesn’t bring the kids to see her and stops going to see her himself. Cookie is feisty and genuine, but flawed.

This idea of being a flawed character is what I spent most of my time talking about last night with my husband. I get frustrated because people are quick to get offended when black people on TV are flawed. We say that we want more positive black characters, but it seems like what we really mean by that is we want perfect, black characters. We want to portray black people as perfect on TV so that our white friends and coworkers won’t think that we are like the “bad” black people that they see on TV or on the news. This type of thinking doesn’t allow black people to be real, whole people in the media or in real life. This really bothers me because I feel like it affects black women the most. We applaud successful black women like Michelle Obama because she has achieved immense success and carries herself with grace. But don’t let her lose her temper or give a face full of attitude. If she does, the media and many racist people on social media will call her names that should never be uttered. She has to be perfect in order to be acceptable. She can’t show any attitude because she would then be validating the stereotype of the black woman with a bad attitude. Sure, you may say that this is because she’s the First Lady of the United States. Of course that has a great deal to do with it, but any black woman that has been in mostly non-black surroundings will tell you that there is more pressure on them to be perfect and keep it all together than their white peers. They carry the reputation of the race on their shoulders after all. This is the reason why I can watch shows like Scandal where the main character is my definition of a “boss” in every way: smart, wealthy, powerful, successful, stylish-yet she fails miserably in her love life by loving a married man. No, it is not ok, but she is not perfect. She has a major flaw, but this doesn’t negate all of her other positive attributes in my opinion. I believe that the day when black people can be whole people on and off the screen, flaws included, without the flaws being attributed to race, we have made progress.

watermelon book

Yes, I am black and I love watermelon. Is that a problem?

When it comes to the question of why a popular TV show featuring black people has to center around drug-dealing and rapping…I told my husband that sometimes we gotta be honest with ourselves. It may be a stereotype, but the creators of the show were not wrong that this type of storyline would be appealing to many people (not even just black people, Americans in general) because most people love a good gangster flick (Godfather, anyone?) and hip hop culture is becoming more and more mainstream than “black” it seems. The two together are a winning combination. Does it bother me sometimes that black people are relegated to sports and music? Yes. Do blacks dominate in those fields? Yes! They do and I’m tired of acting like there is something wrong with that. Of course, black people are talented in all areas and this should be portrayed more, but I’m not offended that the show puts its characters in these two fields.

Towards the end of our debate, my husband brought up the fact that everyone won’t separate fact from fiction, stereotype from reality like I do when I see shows like Empire or Scandal. It is true that it will reinforce to some people that black people are only good at rapping, singing, and being a side-piece. However, I believe that people that truly feel this way are going to look for anyway they can to reinforce those prejudiced beliefs. It is the reason why Seattle Seahawks player, Richard Sherman, was called a “monkey,” “nigger,” amongst other things when he talked passionately to a reporter after winning the Superbowl last year. Nevermind that he is both a phenomenal athlete and Ivy-league educated. Some people will use any excuse to dehumanize him. The same is true for President Obama. He is the epitome of class, intelligence, and success but if he does one thing that people deem out-of-order, he is every racist slur ever stated or written. I, personally, am tired of being enslaved to staying inside of the “good black person” box in order to gain and keep acceptance from our white-dominated society and I don’t mind if my favorite TV characters are outside of this box as well.

I will leave you all by stating that the last episode of Empire did leave me with some not-so-good feelings. One of which was the joke made by DeRay Davis’ character about the “cute, light-skinned girl.” I was thinking, “Please stop with the light skin/dark skin colorism crap. It’s not funny.” Another uncomfortable aspect was the entire music video shoot with the scantily clothed video girls. I have to say that I am torn. I see the major flaws that at times seem to overshadow the more redemptive qualities, but then it’s like I just can’t stop watching. I’m all for more positive black characters in TV and film, but I am known to indulge in my share of ratchet every now and then (Real Housewives of Atlanta, anyone?) What can I say? I am by no means perfect.

What are your thoughts about shows like Empire and Scandal? Do you think the success of these shows do the black community more harm than good? Share in the comments or on Facebook.

10 thoughts on “Empire, Stereotypes, and the Search for Perfect Black People

      • Shahidah says:

        I haven’t really gotten into Empire yet. I keep meaning to watch it over the weekend from episode one. As for Scandal I just find Olivia Pope hard to watch. I love Kerry Washington but watching her on screen, especially when she is doing the whole trembling mouth thing, drives me insane…but with all that said I think I lean more to your side than hubbys although I love his points.
        Now with Scandals Olivia Pope is a hoe thing…I do take offense. Yeah she is wrong for the whole married man thing but its fiction and forbidden love in fiction is just always great. I think if the President was black it would change the dynamic some because brothers could stop yelling that ‘white man’s wench’ line that is old and lame when they jumping for white women all day LOL
        Empire: when it comes to music and drugs the two are so muddled together for the black community it is hard to separate the two especially in the rap game. With that said I actually don’t mind seeing the evolution from street hustler to music mogul (even though I haven’t seen the show). Your husbands point about the time slot well when I read it I was like DAMN THAT IS SO TRUE!!! But thinking of it a little more it could be- but it is a more adult driven show so 9pm is the slot and its unfortunate the news does come right after that but I really did like that POV- sounds like my son who REFUSES to watch Empire for exactly the reasons your husband stated and a few more.
        We do have Blackish though LOL
        I think we are getting a chance to tell our own stories which is great because there are more positive brown faces on tv than I could ever remember before and I like seeing the flawed characters. There is a place for them because isn’t that why we like their shows like Blacklist and House of Cards…hell even going back into the 80’s like Dallas…we didn’t have bad guys we love to hate or women who weren’t just crack addicts or baby mama’s…its changing and although these two are not my fave-I’m loving that we can are being more than the white main characters side kick UGHHHHH I hate those shows. so its progress and I think we are closer than we ever been before because its not just ONE show on its several. Before it was always ONE black show at a time…hell I’m even loving Tia Mowry on Instant Mom…we are in their faces and white people just choose to see the bad or stereotypes are never going to see the positive anyway…they’ll look at that as the true fantasy because its more comfortable to see us the drug dealer, the deadbeat dad or whore crackhead etc…
        so I agree with both of you but I lean a little more with you LOL

        Liked by 1 person

      • poppedblackwomanblog says:

        Yes, hubby made excellent points. I agree with him , but I definitely also agree that we’ve made progress. Of course, we’re nowhere near where we’d like to be in TV, film, or any other area but I wholeheartedly agree that we have to admit that we have more black people writing and producing the stories than ever before it seems. I agree 100% that I’m so glad that there aren’t just the black sidekick characters anymore! About Scandal tho…I don’t know if I’m making this up but I remember reading that Kerry Washington refused the role if the president were black in the show because she didn’t want any comparisons to Obama. If that’s true, it could be that the creator toyed with the idea of making the president black or maybe it was just a reporter who threw that question out there to her idk. But you made me laugh with the “trembling mouth” thing. I admit that some of the love scenes between Olivia and Fitz irk me too. Too over dramatic lol.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. msbijouwho says:

    Psh. You probably already know my feelings on this. But, I’m pretty neutral on it. I don’t watch a lot of TV. I haven’t in the last few years and largely due to 1 – having to share it with other people lol and 2 – not caring for about 90% of what’s on there. However, I did initially watch “Scandal” right when it first started but after everyone else caught on, I abandoned it. It got too soap opera’ish for me. And, I have only seen one episode of “Empire” and that’s largely due to feeling how Aaron feels: it’s another show depicting Black people as thugs-turned-rappers, rappers-turned-thugs, etc. Not to mention, it reminds me of “Hustle and Flow: Life After Whooping A Trick.” Lol. The only reason I care for it is because it’s filmed in Chicago and I love film attention in our city.

    I digress.

    I don’t mind shows like these. I really don’t. If it’s written well, it’s written well. What I don’t necessarily like is how it seems like nothing else gets Black people more riled up and involved than a show involving hella drama, drugs, and “drank.” I mean people plan their day around these shows. They discuss it. They tweet it. They. Live. For. It! And, again, nothing is wrong with that. But, can I get this type of enthusiasm for the next Mayoral election? Can I get this kind of excitement for the next presidential debate? Hell, can I get this type of involvement the next time a Black child — or adult — is gunned down over a damn coat?!

    I don’t mind the shows. I really don’t. I’d just love to see people get excited and pumped about other things that can help out the community or something that will inspire change. Sometimes I feel like people put too much of their lives into these shows, man. They’re just shows, people. Real blood is being spilled in the streets on the daily, ya know? It’s ironic that people will feel deeply for a show depicting lives involved heavily with drugs and violence yet find it alright that the past few years in Chicago have been record-breaking blood baths. Where is the love and compassion there? Ok I’m done. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • poppedblackwomanblog says:

      msbijouwho 🙂 I, too, wish there was similar enthusiasm for social justice as there is for popular TV shows. However, I feel like everyone has something that distracts them from the very real issues of life and the lives of those suffering around them. If TV shows are not your vice, I’m pretty sure that there is something or a couple of things that get more of your attention than problems facing the community. I think that’s true for most of us. TV is a distraction from the harsh realities of life. It’s not good, but it is. I almost feel like it’s not fair to put enthusiasm for TV/recreation side-by-side with the real work of putting an end to gun violence. I don’t think creating time for a particular show or two has to stop someone from doing work in the community. But, I definitely get your point.

      I think that when it comes to violence in Chicago and all that goes with it, there are no easy solutions to this huge problem. Aaron thinks part of the problem is faith/religion has been replaced with secular ideas. I think that could be true as churches used to be strongholds in the community that did a lot of social justice work and other work that uplifted the community. I think the issue is definitely related to the destruction of the family unit and the rise of baby mamas and babies raising babies. Plus the fact that many kids simply don’t seem to be getting “raised” at all, but growing up without guidance. Everyone has an opinion on the cause and maybe we are all right. I think once we identify some causes, we need to figure out how to create solutions. One of the things I applaud Aaron for is that while he has his opinions on problems in the black community and how they should be solved, he also puts action behind it by mentoring boys at his church. The problem I have with many black people that complain that people aren’t outraged enough about blood in the streets, not necessarily you, is that they want everybody to be outraged and talk about the problem, but nobody is DOING anything to be a part of the solution. This is something I am guilty of as well. Whether it’s mentoring, tutoring, or something else, we have to be part of the solution instead of stomping and complaining and getting mad when other people aren’t stomping loud enough. Just my two cents. Thanks so much for commenting. I really think we have to have these discussions and it’s even better when we disagree because maybe we can all improve our thinking because of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bagladyboutique says:

    I am so happy that to came across your blog, especially this one post. I want to thank you for sharing you and hubby’s perspectives. I just want to say that all people in general have different views, purposes, knowledge and experiences. I enjoy watching people of color on television because I grew up during a time when they were very scarce, maids and servants. What people fail to realize is that scripted shows are fantasy entertainment. When I watch a movie or show my mind is open and watch it for what it is, nothing else. I don’t watch it to seek a role model or anyone who represents me. These people are actors who portray a character and I observe their craft. As far as Scandal, that show always bothered me because everyone was so high strung, speaking fast, it just became too much for me to tolerate. However, Empire is a different story, I really enjoy it and agree with you 100%. There are many issues that this show depicts in which people don’t pick up on. People just need to open their minds to how they view things and stop seeking a better life for blacks through film and television its not going to happen. The Cosby Show was the closest thing to towards a positive change and that was criticized for not being the reality of blacks. Again, thanks for the share.
    I am a reblogger, so I hope you don’t mind if I sometimes repost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • poppedblackwomanblog says:

      Thanks for reading and sharing! I like your Cosby Show reference because it’s so true that someone will complain regardless if black characters are shown positively or negatively. I love that there is a bit more diversity now than there was. We have the “high-strung” Olivia Pope and the at times ratchet Cookie lol. I really appreciate you stopping by and I hope you check out and like some of the other posts as well. Much love!

      Liked by 1 person

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