The new hit show Empire is three weeks away from the last show of its first season and has already stirred up some intense discussion, particularly in the Black community. The show is made of all the things a good drama is made of: sex, drugs and mayhem but of particular interest to me is the characterization of Lucious Lyon's (Terrance Howard) middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and the treatment of Lucious as homophobic. This interplay between Jamal and Lucious allows the audience to see the coping mechanisms Jamal employs in order to survive in an oppressive society. Not only does Jamal have to deal with the homophobia of his father, but he also has to face the perceived repercussions of coming out as a gay man in the entertainment industry. These are things every gay and lesbian person, no matter race, can identify with.
As the author of, Black Queer Identity Matrix, a book that deconstructs the matrix in which lesbian and gay people of color live and the strategies employed in negotiating ones sexual identity in public discourse, I found the reaction of media commentator and political analyst, Dr. Boyce Watkins severely problematic and troubling, especially within the context of a persistent discourse that says the Black community is homophobic.
After the first episode Dr. Boyce Watkins publicly articulated his dislike for the show on the basis of the usual, yet valid criticism of Black-oriented shows that project historically stereotypical images of the Black community as coons and thugs. Empire can be said to perpetuate stereotypes in which the Black community in particular must be sensitive towards. Though Dr. Watkins expressed his dislike for the show early on I find his comments particularly worthy of analysis here because in one of the most recent episodes of Empire, Jamal comes out to his father, which is a critical moment that every gay man and lesbian can relate to in some way. Dr. Watkins's comments are of particular interest because one of his main gripes with the show is the inclusion of a gay character which, for Dr. Watkins, is an attempt to "emasculate the Black male." For Dr. Watkins, Black heterosexual men who are not promoting a gay agenda do not do as well in Hollywood. For one, this assertion is absolutely absurd. If Dr. Watkins was at all versed in media representations of minorities he would know how faulty this statement is.
Dr. Watkins has failed to acknowledge that his critique falls flat when one recognizes that hegemonic Black masculinity is the dominant (not only, but dominant) representation of Black masculinity in virtually all forms of media, especially mediated forms created by African Americans. From comic strips to movies created by African Americans, critical media scholars have consistently written about Black hegemonic masculinity as the continuous bombardment of Black men who are represented as hyper-masculine, aggressive, heterosexual men who enjoy sexual access to women. Mass mediated forms of communication have rarely carved out room for a Black masculinity that falls outside of these constructs. In fact, the depiction of Black men as heterosexual, hyper-sexual and aggressive trace back to early racist representations of Blacks in America and continues to persist today. People like Dr. Watkins know this, but conveniently ignore history to suit their objectives in which heterosexist values are buried under the cloak of a concern for the Black community. In which the irony lies in these same critics taking issue when the Black community is described as homophobic.
Across scholarship that seeks to advocate for progressive and varied representations of Black masculinity, one rejoices in the visibility of a gay Black man such as the character of Jamal. Jamal provides a counter discourse, Jamal is not effeminate and he is not emasculated (being gay, does not mean you are emasculated) and Jamal speaks to the variety of representations that LGBTQ of color critical media scholars, such as myself, have been asking for. If Dr. Watkins had it his way, there would be no representations of Black men on TV that deviated from stringent notions of masculinity and a traditional family structure. This is simply unrealistic today.
In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association's Board of Trustees removed homosexuality from its official diagnostic manual, as homosexuality was once widely accepted as a mental disorder. Dr. Watkins invokes this history and attempts to re-stigmatize homosexuality in his review by articulating that Lee Daniels has a "mental illness." These are the types of accusations and attacks that are all too familiar for gay men and lesbians. Perhaps, Empire does provide Lee Daniels a platform to express and illuminate some of the abuses and ridicule he suffered as a Black gay child, in the same way, dare I say, hip hop illuminated the social and economic injustices in Black communities in the '80s and '90s.
Dr. Watkins views on the "feminizing" of Black men and the "gay agenda" he charges Lee Daniels with perpetuating represents the same type of narrow minded thinking that relegated giants like Bayard Rustin to the margins during the Civil Rights Movement. Never mind that Lee Daniels has several films that do not depict gay men at all, including Precious, The Butler, Monsters Ball and the list goes on.
We have one show on network TV, out of less than a handful that have ever depicted a gay, Black man with his own storyline, and suddenly we are at the point where we are "not respecting the necessity of strong masculine Black men who love Black women"? Give me a break! As an intellectual, as a lesbian female and member of the Black community, rhetoric such as this must be checked and challenged.