Sassy, Bougie, Sexy

Empire’s female characters perpetuate stereotypes that exist in pop culture.

by Andrea Braxton

The TV show “Empire” has received excellent reviews so far. Fans love the drama, and critics are impressed by its presentation of certain aspects of black culture. The show wrestles with issues related to drugs, crime, the hip hop industry, sexuality, and family dynamics. It’s a groundbreaking show in many ways, but what has disappointed me is the show’s representation of women.

The four most prevalent women, Cookie, Anika, Tiana, and Rhonda, are entertaining characters, but each of them represents a stereotype. The show has challenged other stereotypes, such as what it means to be a gay black man, but it ignores the opportunity to do the same thing with its female characters. Instead, it relies on sexual or racial generalizations. These generalizations might seem harmless enough because the characters are fun to watch. Despite having stereotypical roles, the actors playing these four characters do a great job of delivering the drama that makes this show so fun. However, I had hoped that a show like “Empire” would try to make its women more complex.

Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson): The Sassy Black Woman

The sassy black woman is a common stereotype in movies, TV, and commercials. She’s Tyler Perry’s Madea—the character who tells it like it is, doesn’t take crap from anyone, and is completely confident in who she is. These would be admirable qualities, except that this stereotype is most often used for comic relief. It also means that she is expected to be able to handle everything on her own. Cookie is probably one of the loneliest characters on the show. Despite acting so strong, her tough nature has the tendency to alienate her from other characters.  Cookie embodies a lot of the aspects of this popular trope, and it’s not entirely a bad thing. She is a source of advice for her ex-husband Lucious, her son Jamal, and other characters in the show, and she stands up for herself and for those she loves. However, despite her intelligence and her talent for the music and business side of the hip hop industry, Cookie never strikes me as a main contender for running Empire Records because the sassy black woman rarely, if ever, gets to be the leader. Mercedes from “Glee” is a prime example of someone who has the talent but can’t quite get the leadership role. Cookie, like most of the characters that align with this stereotype, spends too much of her time cutting down other people, particularly other women, to pose a serious threat to Lucious and his plans.

Anika Gibbons (Grace Gealey): The Bougie Black Woman

The word “bougie” is a fancy word for “stuck up.” In many shows and films written for primarily black audiences, the bougie black woman is a source of tension (Taraji P. Henson in Think Like A Man) or she has to recognize that she needs to return to her roots (Gabrielle Union in Daddy’s Little Girls). Cookie labels Anika as bougie several times in the show, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she has an issue with her being only half-black (she takes issue with her son’s white wife on top of this being a common prejudice among some black people). She implies several times that a woman like Anika doesn’t have what it takes to support a hip-hop mogul like Lucious. Anika has a leadership position in the company and as Lucious gets sicker, she takes charge more often. However, she has the tendency to come across as smug and entitled, especially when Cookie is around. Anika could be presented as a confident and talented businesswoman, but she is more often reduced to petty catfights and bragging about being from a wealthy family. Anika isn’t perfect, so bouts of pettiness aren’t necessarily out of character. However, her bickering with Cookie is a much more common occurrence than a display of her business sense.

Tiana Brown (Serayah McNeill): The Sex Object

It’s easy to identify the sex object stereotype. Oftentimes, camera shots focus on her body rather than her face, and she serves no other purpose that to be desirable to male characters and to a male gaze in the TV audience. Tiana’s clothing, dancing, and singing are provocative, which is true of many female singers in the music industry. It’s not clear if she is homosexual or bisexual, but her sexuality is quickly presented as just another way for her to be more desirable to men. Cookie refers to her as a “freak,” and says that she can use that to make her more popular. Lucious’s youngest son, Hakeem, is dating her because he is attracted to her and because their relationship makes them more appealing to their fans. When Hakeem gets angry about Tiana’s “girlfriend,” Lucious describes the relationship as a benefit to him. He says, “Let’s look at this from a mathematical perspective. Your girlfriend’s got a girlfriend. Add that up: Two girlfriends.”

Rhonda Lyon (Kaitlin Doubleday): The Manipulative White Woman

In media geared toward black audiences, white women can often be portrayed as manipulative (think Kelly Pitts in “The Game”). Cookie seems to have a problem with Rhonda, who’s married to her oldest son, Andre. She refers to her several times as “that white girl,” and Andre has to defend their relationship. This is an accurate portrayal of how some black women view white women, so Cookie’s reaction to Rhonda isn’t surprising. However, it’s unfortunate that one of the two prominent white female characters in the show is portrayed in this light. Rhonda is intelligent and well educated, but it seems as if her only purpose is to come up with sneaky ideas so that Andre can inherit the company. Andre calls on her only when he needs help with his plans. The fans barely know anything about her personal life besides what Andre says. She’s a lot like the devil on his shoulder. Whenever she makes an appearance on the show, it is usually to fill her husband’s head with new plans to pit the younger brothers against each other.

Empire is dominated by men. A man runs the company. Three men are competing to run the company once he is gone. The women remain in supportive roles and fall into stereotypes. Even the addition of Raven Symone’s character last episode represents the “golddigging baby mama” stereotype. Granted, each of these stereotypes has the potential for drama and tense situations, which is what the fans crave. However, I wish this “revolutionary” show would create some revolutionary roles for its female characters.

(Photo by Chuck Hodes for Fox)

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Andrea Braxton graduated from the University of Missouri in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an English writing minor. She lives in Baltimore, MD and works as an editorial assistant for an educational publishing company. Andrea wrote recaps for TV shows for the VoxTalk blog, and if she could, she would watch TV all day. She’s addicted to Netflix and any show with a good cast and tons of drama. She has a publishing blog at