Everything Old Is New Again: Race and Gender Stereotypes in the Fox Series 'Empire'

03/18/2015 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

The audacious series Empire developed by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong is the highest-rated show in the Fox lineup this television season. These ratings are coupled with relatively positive reviews of the show that have appeared in Variety, Entertainment Weekly, and The Hollywood Reporter. Empire is a musical-drama and soap opera that focuses on a black business tycoon who runs a hip hop music conglomerate called Empire Entertainment. Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, a former drug dealer turned founder and CEO of Empire Entertainment, and Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, his loud-talking wife and mother of his three sons, are the stars of the show. Trai Byers plays the oldest son Andre "Dre" Lyon who suffers from bi-polar disorder. Dre has a scheming white wife named Rhonda Lyon (Kaitlin Doubleday), and he is also the CFO of Empire Entertainment. The role of Jamal Lyon, the "black-sheep" gay singer-songwriter son of the Lyons, is played by Jussie Smollett, and Bryshere Y. Gray stars as the aspiring hip hop artist and youngest son Hakeem.

The plot develops around the intrigue that takes place among the relatives, business associates, and acquaintances of Lucious Lyon in their quest to take control of Empire Entertainment upon learning that Lucious has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. This show is rife with exaggerated race and gender stereotypes. In fact, it seems at least on the surface to be not much more than a tangled tale of coons, bucks, toms, career criminals, jezebels, and sapphires or other variations of the stereotypes that Donald Bogle identified in his now seminal work Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (1973). Everything old is new again in the television industry when it comes to representations of African Americans and women in Empire.

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia identifies some of the classic stereotypes that have been associated with African Americans in United States history and culture to include: the sapphire or "angry black woman," tom, coon, and the black brute. These caricatures identified by the Jim Crow Museum are among the stereotypes found in Empire. Lucious is the quintessential black buck (among many on this show), and Cookie is a typical hot-tempered sapphire type, while Camilla, Hakeem's more experienced woman of the world, seductress and love-interest, might be understood as a promiscuous jezebel. The brute character illustrates black men as "innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal." Lucious is a brute to his family in that he harshly places his young son Jamal into a trash can for his effeminate ways (Jamal tries on a dress in his youth) to teach him a lesson about how to "man-up;" refuses to attend a therapy session with his son Dre; and apparently, as per last week's episode, sleeps with his own daughter-in-law.

Scholars have long argued that women in U.S. media are often represented through the lens of a male gaze: either as pristine virgins who deplore sex or as promiscuous women who are using sex as a weapon to conspire against men. The leading women characters of this series including Cookie, as aforementioned, Camilla, Anika, Rhonda, and Tasha can easily be sorted into one type: calculating, promiscuous women conspiring against men. In contrast, it is pertinent to mention here that one of the major characters of the show is openly gay and another regular character, Tiana Brown, is bisexual, and these characters are in some ways progressive.

Empire is not exactly an epic failure for several reasons. First, Daniels should be commended for taking on what are considered major taboo subjects in the African American community: mental illness and homosexuality. There has been a noticeable absence of sustained engagement with mental illness as a serious issue in cultural productions about African Americans. This is in part due to the fact that the subject of mental illness is seen for some as a challenge to more positive notions of strength and resilience in black life. Daniels courageously tackles this subject in Empire. A recent study by the Pew Research Center entitled "Public Sees Religion's Influence Waning" reveals that African Americans tend to be more conservative than the larger population on issues related to homosexuality and gay rights with 77 percent of black Protestants indicating that homosexuality is a "sin" while only 42 percent of blacks support gay marriage (as compared to 53 percent of whites who support gay marriage). Jamal is likely one of the more complex black gay characters in the history of American television. This character is in part reflective of Daniel's own biography as an openly gay black man. Second, this show has a predominantly black cast employing a host of African Americans in front of and behind the camera. Several prominent African American directors including John Singleton and Sanaa Hamri have directed episodes of Empire, while the show also includes reoccurring roles occupied by some leading black actors in Hollywood today including Malik Yoba, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Raven-Symone. Further, Howard and Henson give respectable performances.

To be fair, Daniels has touted the show as the black version of Dynasty and that's just what Empire is: a somewhat campy over-the-top, evening melodrama with a musical twist. Currently, the show seems largely defined by trite dialogue, a simple plot line, and a host of dysfunctional characters or "types," with some scenes of unnecessary violence. It is too soon to tell if the show will evolve beyond black bucks and sapphires and develop into insightful television as it moves beyond its first season.