Cookie Lyon Presents: A Look at Black Women in Hollywood

The world was introduced to the Lyon family in 2015 when the show debuted on FOX Network to an unprecedented nine million people. Unprecedented, because a show of this caliber and design had never been shown to the world, and in the world of Hollywood, where there is little concern with taking risk in regard to content, Empire was a shock to the industry. As our markets for consumption continually evolve, there becomes more potential for stories with greater diversity to be told. The rise of video-on-demand and television, in particular, are helping to make stories like Empire a possibility for the first time in entertainment history. However, for all the lessons that could be learned from the success of Empire and other shows like it, there is always another side to the coin. The trouble with Empire doesn’t arise in its record breaking viewership or ensemble cast but in the less obvious themes and issues that reveal themselves throughout various moments within the show and the public reactions to these moments.

Critics of the show, like Pundit Boyce Watkins, have used words like “coonery” and “stereotypical” to describe the show. Watkins himself called the show a “ghettofied hood drama.” However, much of the shows criticism arises with a principal character on the show, Cookie Lyon, played by Taraji P. Henson, the fresh out matriarch who means business. With her flashy leopard prints, gaudy heels, and loud fingernails, many look at Cookie and immediately draw the conclusion that Cookie is simply ghetto and obnoxious, and yet another play on an overdone stereotype. As an established actor in Hollywood, even some of Henson’s long time fans denounced her for taking on the role because they felt that Empire ’s portrayal of Cookie Lyon did not reflect positively on black women some saying “It paints black women in a bad light.” While these considerations may seem over exaggerated, or even unreasonable, the concerns about the representation of the black image, particularly the black, female image, on television and on screen are grounded in deep seated ideas about race and gender.

With its predominantly African American cast, the show is already a stand out among the sea of other shows made up of predominantly white casts. The issue of race within Hollywood is a longstanding one and has echoing effects that manifest in every aspect of entertainment — from the writers room to the people in front of the camera, Hollywood has maintained a homogeneity that greatly influences the way that certain people are portrayed. To argue that

Cookie Lyon is a “stereotypical” character is not an exaggeration. Indeed, some of her characteristics bear a certain resemblance to traditionally established roles for women of color. In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, Donald Bogle analyzes some major archetypes of black people throughout the history of cinema.

“[The coon] appeared in a series of black films presenting the Negro as amusement object and black buffoon… Mammy is so closely related to the comic coons that she is sometimes relegated to their rank. Mammy is distinguished by her sex and fierce independence…”

DonaldBogle

Bogle’s explanation of these archetypes shed insight on why some people may have

found the character of Cookie Lyon a bit off putting — the character itself was a subtle reminder of something we’ve all seen before at some time or another. Cookie’s loud personality could also draw some resemblance to a more modern development in black archetypal characterization known as “the angry black woman.”

The harmful effects of these extreme images that portray black women become clear when we look at cinema as a “prosthesis of cognition.”

“What is perceived in the cinema image is not a psychological fact, but a phenomenological one. It is “reduced,’that, reality is bracketed out to a reality beyond itself, yet this transcendent reality is never given in the objects. As a consequence, it is a matter of total irrelevance whether the object given for perception in the cinema image actually exists.” (Buck-Morss, 46)

Susan Buck-Morss

Morss goes on to argue that because cinema is a “collective”/”mass” experience, the ideas and assumptions that underlie our cinematic images, whether deliberate or not, become the ideas and assumptions of the masses. The idea that Cookie “reflects badly” on the whole of black women is warranted considering this observation. In fact, black people who occupy predominantly white spaces, regardless of setting, often serve as a sort of litmus test by which other black people can then be measured. The argument is based on the very real idea that black people don’t exist independently of each other, and therefore, must always be on their best behavior in order to avoid reinforcing the stereotypes of black people that are already in place.

As the history of representation of black people within Hollywood has largely been composed of archetypal caricatures, the importance of bringing nuance and depth to the people of color on screen becomes greater. The longer an idea is allowed to persist within a public consciousness without opposition, the harder it is to revise and reform these ideas. “Exploring the character’s humanity sidesteps a lot of the pitfalls of stereotypes’’ (Hunt, NPR) Cookie certainly exhibits moments of reduced inhibition and compulsion, but it is the seemingly insignificant elements of Cookie’s character that start to bring her from the realm of stereotype into that of a relatable human being. Cookie, as a character possessing a certain personhood, is finely nuanced in her interactions with her family and others around her, and perhaps it is because Cookie’s character has such noticeable nuance that some audience members are thrown off by her. Perhaps, she is something we’ve never seen before on this large of a scale. The constant attempt to debunk traditional characterizations of black people is an ongoing one.

“In the early days when all the black characters were still portrayed by white actors in blackface, there was nothing but the old character types. They sat like square boxes on a shelf… Later, when real black actors played the roles and found themselves wedged into these categories, the history became one of actors battling against the types to create rich, stimulating, diverse characters.” (Bogle, 4)

The archetypes of black characterization are inherently abstract in nature, in that a character, as a fictional entity will take on whatever idea is projected on to it. To remove the cloak of abstraction from these concepts that have infiltrated our culture for so long, it is important to note the very real issues that inform them. There is no shortage of drama throughout Empire , but many of the episodes are embedded with occurrences of instances of racism and sexism. In many instances during the show, Cookie is often the only woman in a room full of men within the corporate setting of the Lyon family’s record company, Empire Records. In these particular scenes, audiences get to see another side of Cookie Lyon, a more calculating and menacing side that comes out when she makes it quite obvious that she does indeed belong in the room.

Hollywood is a notoriously male dominated industry, with most of the people holding high ranking positions being male. Within a male dominated culture, misogynistic ideas infiltrate every aspect of the work. There have been several recent instances of celebrities acknowledging and addressing everyday occurrences of sexism and misogyny that they deal with in their work space . In an interview with Elle magazine, Henson said,”Go to the movies — how many good scripts are you really seeing out there? How many good, meaty roles are there for women within those scripts?” Henson asked . “Right now, there are so many [television] shows on with strong, complicated, powerful, not-so-powerful, interesting human beings who are women. And I am thrilled to be playing one of them.”

Not only is Hollywood overwhelmingly male, but it’s also mostly white, and when there is no other group of people present to give an alternative perspective on certain issues, inherently racist sentiments and ideas are allowed to persist. One of the interesting dynamics of the Lyon family is their level of success within an industry that typically doesn’t produce minority moguls. It is a dynamic that has proven very interesting to follow. Cookie isn’t hesitant in expressing her views on racism when placed in situations that arise within the socially charged world of the music business, and she’s certainly not afraid to show her claws when necessary. In instances where Cookies’s merit can be understated might be understated by her more obvious characteristics, her attitude and confidence turns those assumptions on their head.

The plight of black women in Hollywood is characterized by the lack of acknowledgement of the role that intersectionality plays on a regular basis. Not only racism, but also misogyny work against black women in entertainment on personal and political levels.

“From its inception, intersectionality has had a longstanding interest in one particular intersection: the intersection of race and gender. To that end, intersectionality rejects the “Single axis framework’ often embraced by both feminist and antiracist scholars, instead analyzing… the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s … experiences’… subverts race/gender binaries in the service of theorizing identity in a more complex fashion. The destabilization of race/gender binaries is particularly important to enable robust analyses of cultural sites (or spectacles) that implicate both race and gender… Because intersectionality is attuned to subjects who ‘exist … within the overlapping margins of race and gender discourse and in the empty spaces between’, it is a tool particularly adept at capturing and theorizing the simultaneity of race and gender as social processes” (Nash, 2)

Narrow ideas of beauty, based upon misogynistic and racist assumptions, play a large role in the types of roles that women of color are offered and allowed to take. Misogynistic expectations placed on women’s bodies as well as the nuances of colorism put women of color under extreme scrutiny for the roles that they audition for. To be told that you are “too dark” or “not thin enough” is dehumanizing, but to work within an industry where these sorts of statements are made all too often places black, women actors in an extremely antagonistic relationship with the people who engineer the perception of our world.

“The 20th century collective, which constructs its identity on the basis of images is … a truly international community, as the producers and distributors of the first silent films were well aware. This is the political advantage of the cinema as a prosthesis of cognition. But if that collective is one of conformism rather than consensus, if uniformity replaces universality, it opens the door to tyranny. If “truths” are universal because they are experienced in common rather than perceived in common, then the cinematic prosthesis becomes an organ of power, and cognition becomes indoctrination.”

Susan Buck-Morss, “Cinema as a Prosthesis of Cognition”

Considering this, in relation to the standards of beauty placed upon women of color within Hollywood, it is easy to understand the dynamics of the mass consumerism of cosmetics within our culture. One can argue that the images shown to us on the silver screen, the television screen, and our cell phones greatly influence women’s perceptions of themselves.

“The Hollywood star, with a new, non ethnic name, and rhinoplasty surgery on nose and orthodontic surgery on teeth, fulfilled her mass function by obliterating the idiosyncratic irregularities of the natural body. The star was an article of mass consumption, whose multiplying image guaranteed the infinite reproduction of the same.” (Morss, 53)

As Empire prepares to enter its third season, it appears to be full steam ahead for the Lyon family. Several things have been made evident over the course of Empire ’s short life. Garnering an estimated audience of 12 million viewers, it appears that the ever expanding audience for television is interested in seeing stories from different perspectives. The dynamic that Empire has established is unprecedented in regard to plot, storyline, and characterizations, offering fairly rounded characters who move the plot forward in an interesting way. The myth that “black shows”, or shows that feature black actors, don’t translate well to wide audiences
surely falls under reconsideration, as the show gains much international acclaim. “Empire” challenges many more assumptions that are rooted in narrow-minded ideology, and the success of the show should prompt reconsideration of these ideas and assumptions among the audience and among executives within the industry.

The realization that audiences want to see more in the content that they consume is evidenced by the popularity of shows like “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” causing people in Hollywood to take serious notice of what people of color bring to the table as far as talent.

However, despite the undeniable talent, there are real, structural impediments to equalizing the portrayal of images of black women. Ava DuVernay dubbed it Hollywood’s “inclusion problem,” the result of having one group of people who ultimately determine the images, the worth, and perceptions of a global audience. “There’s a belonging problem in Hollywood… We’re hearing a lot about diversity, but I hate that word so much. I feel it’s a medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue,” she said. “It’s emotional for artists who are women and people of color to have less value placed on our worldview.”

One can certainly see the merit of those campaigns that directly call attention to the issues that people of color face within Hollywood, such as #Oscarssowhite. David Oyelowo, famously snubbed for his 2014 portrayal of Dr. King in “Selma” summed it up perfectly: “The reason why the Oscars are so important is because it is the zenith, it is the epitome,

It is the height of celebration of artistic endeavor within the filmmaking community. We grow up aspiring, dreaming, longing to be accepted into that august establishment because it is the height of excellence. I would like to walk away and say it doesn’t matter, but it does, because that acknowledgement changes the trajectory of your life, your career, and the culture of the world we live in.”

David Oyelowo, The Hollywood Reporter

In his opening monologue, Chris Rock stated that “Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is” — an excellent summation of the situation at hand within Hollywood, and in America. The argument that #Oscarssowhite raises is a valid one. In all of the controversy surrounding it, the core grievance is a collective disapproval of Hollywood’s consistent disregard for the contributions of people of color. The days of overt racism are, for the most part, a thing of the past. The greatest
impediment to the progress of people of color is not men riding around on horses in white hoods, but the systems and institutions in which we interact and the culture, at large. Racism now takes the form of the insidious, and without going unchecked, results in monstrous implications.

Of all the black women who’ve won Oscars over the past 20 years, their roles have all been disappointingly consistent — never winning for roles portraying empowered and independent women, but rather for roles as maids, slaves, or the “sidekick” to a more rounded main character. The most notable of these winners was Hattie McDaniel for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind”. Of course there are black actors working within Hollywood. Of course there are women working in Hollywood. But in the final analysis, the effects of structural racism have a way of manifesting themselves in the data. One only has to look closely.

The Academy’s consistent oversight of performances from people of color has been speculated by some to be the result of its majority white, male composition, which further demonstrates the homogeneity in perspective that plagues Hollywood and influences the images that we see. This year’s Oscar nominations snubbed a number of notable performances from films like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Creed,” and “Concussion.” In regards to “Straight Outta Compton,” one Academy member said in an interview that the movie “never had a chance” given the content of the film and a cast of virtually unknown actors. “Nobody can accuse the academy of being racist, but they can be accused of being out of touch… If we’re being honest, my bet is most Academy members didn’t see it… Straight Outta Compton is a masterpiece, probably the best biopic since Amadeus but many if not most of the Academy can’t fathom songs like ‘Fuck tha Police.’ I know many members who wouldn’t even see the film because it represented a culture that they detest or, more accurately, they assume they detest.” It is this assumption that allows the stories of minorities to continue to be overlooked and devalued.

What “Empire” has done is challenge this assumption and the implications of it. We haven’t seen a family this dynamic since the Cosby’s. It avoids slipping into the antiquated archetypes of early cinema, and shows rounded and dynamic character. Its significance cannot be understated in today’s social climate. Understanding the power of the screen in influencing perceptions, individual and collective; and then, realizing the significance of our images and the
power that they have; allows us to examine biases and ideologies that shape our daily lives. The microcosmic world of Hollywood is but a concentration of the the issues faced by America and the world at large. By considering all these things, one can begin to answer the most pressing questions and understand the reasoning behind the issues that have been raised in regard to the status of minorities within Hollywood the world at large.

The conversation over Cookie’s characterization is an interesting one. The opinions offered, from either side, are indicative of a subconscious, or perhaps not, effort to rationalize the images that have informed our past in terms of the present. What the differing opinions of Cookie reveal is the collective acknowledgement of the effect that images in the past have had on our perceptions of the present. There is no denying that images inform our culture in profound ways and we must understand that these images matter. It matters whether we hold Cookie up as a matriarch or mockery because these views tell deeper truths about our collective core values.

Written in 2017 undergraduate study, winner of University of Mississippi Essay Contest

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