FOX's saucy and cliché "plot twist" filled hit, Empire, just piles on the non- in a melodrama about a young, black, gay man trying to become a successful hip-hop artist. Jamal's fight to prove himself as an artist while refusing to hide his identity isn't just a matter of being accepted by the public; rather, his struggle is breaking into the industry when it's dominated and reigned over by his homophobic father.
Language is a prominent factor in why this melodrama is such a significant show to consider through the lens of queer studies. The viewers don't just recognize Jamal's struggle because he is openly gay and trying to be a hip-hop artist in a community oozing of hegemonic homophobia, there is a constant misuse of language to systematically oppress and discourage Jamal's sexuality. This language isn't only used in intentionally hurtful ways, but abusive and crude language is intertwined in even the most supportive lines.
Cookie Lyon: "I WANT TO SHOW YOU A FAGGOT CAN REALLY RUN THIS COMPANY.
Lucious Lyon, Jamal's father, rose from a drug dealing thug to the owner of an elite recording label and the leading name in the hip-hop industry. In Episode 1, Season 1 we are shown repeated flashbacks of the days before Luscious' Empire was established and the boys were young--where Lucious' extreme homophobia and lack of connection to Jamal becomes very evident.
In this first episode of the series a flashback occurs in which young Jamal comes down stairs with an effeminate strut, dressed up in his mother's heels and a scarf wrapped over his hair. His father, Lucious, is enraged and snatches the boy up to take him outside and stuff him inside a trash can despite the boy's pleas and apologies.
Jamal's greatest support and family bond throughout the series is his mother, Cookie. In this scene Cookie is furious at Lucious' reaction—as a mother should be when her son gets taken to an alley and shoved in a trash can by his father—and chases after the two to rescue Jamal from his father's tyranny and abuse.
This scene is significant not only because it displays the harsh abuse and intolerance of non-normative behaviors in the black community that Jamal exists but we see the development of Jamal and Cookie's relationship. In "The Violence of Heteronormativity" this problem with violence being used to uphold rigid social norms is discussed, touching on how violence doesn't start with physical harm but also includes the verbal and emotional backlash experienced. It's "with different degrees of pain and suffering, this process of normalization is a site of violence in the lives of women, men, and transgenders" (Yep, p. 18)
let the mother of his three children, Cookie, take the blame for their drug dealing that funded the start up of their recording company. Empire begins with Cookie's release from prison after 17 years--of course, the first place she goes is to see her son, Jamal. This further enforces our opinion of the bond and support that these two characters will be for each other through the rest of the series.
We're shown a flashback of young Jamal visiting Cookie in prison. Jamal not only is the only one of Cookie's three sons to be sent back to visit her but we also are reassured about their relationship and Cookie's role in Jamal's struggle with sexuality. Cookie not only favors Jamal but recognizes he needs extra protection from the tough environment that Lucious has them in. When Cookie asks her young son how everything is going he says that he is being bullied but he can't tell his dad because then he would be told to fight back and he didn't want to do that. Leaning forward to press her hands against her son's hands through the glass of the visitation window she instructs him to listen to her carefully. Cookie confesses that she's the only one who knows this but that Jamal is "different" and will have to get used to being treated poorly.
Empire is written and produced by Lee Daniels with the intent to shed light on the added struggles that gay men face in the black community, drawing some scenes directly from his personal experiences, and to have a likable, gay protagonist in mainstream media. In "Queer Popular Culture" it's said that "television, movies, the Internet, music and fashion provide various normative discourses that simultaneously teach us and reinforce the division between the acceptable and unacceptable." (Peele, pg. 2). You would likely expect then that Daniels would work to abolish stereotypes through his powerful primetime hit drama, yet it seems that many of them are perpetuated through his main empowering advocate for Jamal, Cookie.
Cookie first enters into Jamal's loft, where he and his boyfriend live, and immediately looks around scrutinizing the place and commenting that "For a queen you don't keep a very clean place." Upon meeting Michael, his boyfriend, Cookie and pinches his cheeks commenting to Jamal that he never mentioned he was dating "a little Mexican." On top of making racist remarks, Cookie uses the "she" pronoun for Michael repeatedly. Feminizing Jamal's boyfriend in just about everything she says regarding him.
This feminization of Jamal and Michael because they are a gay couple, despite the fact that Jamal is nothing less than the typical picture of masculinity, is just one way that Empire fails to correct viewers' perspectives of gay men. The flashback scene discussed earlier where Jamal dresses up in his mother's clothes, which shocks the entire household and is enraged because it is supposed to be an indicator of his sexuality is problematic. Continue this idea of femininity and being "different" to the scene where Jamal visits Cookie in jail and this problem could arguably be seen again.
The use of language to attribute feminine-like qualities to the show's gay couple perpetuates the false stereotype that gay men are feminine and creates the assertion that gender identity is automatically involved in sexuality. As Pritchard and Bibbs say in "Queer Women of Color and Hip-Hop" the people already recognize "the entire culture and art form as misogynistic and homophobic." so this idea of what is being challenged should already be understood. To feminize a gay couple while making the heterosexual men (and women) the more masculine and characters enforce this misogynistic view. Jamal is just as masculine and gender normative as the other (heterosexual) characters, yet feminine expectations are attributed to him: such as when Cookie expected his loft to be cleaner since he's a "queen".
There are, however, empowering uses of language in Empire. Very few of the characters, and none of the males, will refer to Michael as Jamal's "boyfriend" or "partner" but rather his "friend". In fact, his family's choice of words (beside the derogatory slurs of "homo" and "fag") don't ever acknowledge his sexuality. This careful use of language is meant to demonstrate the show's point of how uncomfortable and unaccepting this black community, especially within the black entertainment industry, is of gay men.
Empire isn't intended to show a fantasy of an extraordinary situation of one gay man gaining acceptance in the problematic hip-hop industry or within a heterosexually-driven and praised community, but rather it is meant to put the real experiences in the mainstream media's spotlight. For the most part the series has done this, by sparking a conversation and at least directing attention to a problem, but the use of language that surrounds it's gay protagonist creates a troublesome message still.