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Light-Skin vs Dark-Skin Power Divide Upheld in Runaway Hit TV Show 'Empire'

This year's biggest show perpetuates colorism and contributes to the psychological damage of many black people

"Colorism" in power politics as depicted in media has been complained about for decades: Therefore, might we assume  the colorism as depicted in "Empire" was done on purpose?
"Colorism" in power politics as depicted in media has been complained about for decades: Therefore, might we assume
the colorism as depicted in "Empire" was done on purpose?

By Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
I was not amused by “Empire” when it first hit the collective media consciousness a few months ago. Mostly, I was irritated by co-creator Lee Daniels and the cultural dysfunction that clings to his work. The black women are shackled with the approved stereotypes of poverty or subservience, abrasiveness and hypersexuality, with a heavy dose of bitchiness toward other women thrown in for good measure. On “Empire,” the poverty is exchanged for crass materialism, but Taraji P. Henson's nuanced performance manages to save her character Cookie from being a comfortable stereotype.

Let's be real: “Empire” is basically the Taraji Show and the humanity that she pours into Cookie's loud, street-savvy persona won me over. The show is trashy, flashy and serves up memorable music. It's entertaining and soapy like a good nighttime drama should be. But that does not change the fact that as it ascends to the top of TV ratings, “Empire”’s skin-color dynamics continue to contribute to the psychological damage of many black people.

With old school, brutal racism (not the “microaggression” kind) allowing consequence-free murders to plague this country, it may seem petty to be concerned about colorism. But all the excitement and success that surrounds “Empire” cannot erase the reality that it's a glossy showcase for internalized racism. Just looking at the publicity photos of the lead characters, all flashing light, tawny skin, is like viewing an ad for a 20th-century paper bag party. The series has been called out for a cast that features only light-skinned people in the significant, powerful roles and relegating dark-skinned people to subservient, minor roles, but let's examine the details and fallout for this kind of imagery. (Obviously, spoilers ahead.)

There are only three consistent characters with dark skin on “Empire.” Gabourey Sidibe's character, Becky, is assistant to Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). She's also plus-sized and saddled with a mop of garish, platinum-blonde weave that clashes ridiculously with her ebony skin. Becky is smart and quick-witted, but Lucious treats her like a mindless lackey, constantly screaming at her, and in one cringe-worthy scene, throwing a barrage of gumballs at her to show his displeasure.

Porsha, played by Ta'Rhonda Jones, is Cookie's assistant and she's also handled with disrespect. Cookie routinely yells at her and commands her to shut up, and in one memorable moment, sends her to retrieve the shoe she hurled at Lucious. Then there's Malik Yoba's character, Vernon, who has helped Lucious build his empire, but is given none of the acknowledgment or respect such a role typically earns. Vernon is conniving and struggles with an addiction. Like most black characters in action and horror films, he was killed off in the season finale.

None of these characters enjoy any of the power or perks the main characters claim. They are relegated to the sidelines and are mostly presented in an unflattering light. The other side of this is the equally damaging portrayal of Grace Gealey as Anika, the “tragic mulatto.” Anika is biracial and even lighter-skinned than the other cast members. She's conniving, insecure and haughty. She wears pearls. She's a debutante. She plays such a tired, limiting stereotype it's almost a relief when Cookie hauls off and punches her in the face during the finale. (A scene that instantly became a Vine classic.)If “Empire” and other shows reflected a more balanced range of skin tones, these portrayals wouldn't be so problematic.

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