When "Empire" premiered earlier this year, the general consensus among fans and critics was that Taraji P. Henson's performance as Cookie Lyon was easily the best part of the show. Cookie had the flyest outfits, the most memorable moments, and the best one-liners: "Call me a bitch again, bitch."
But there were also many people who weighed in on another aspect of her character: Cookie Lyon was labelled television's new feminist icon.
There's this urge in the current pop cultural landscape to declare celebrities, fictional characters, books, movies, TV shows and so on as either "feminist" or "un-feminist." It's an understandable compulsion -- in a time when social justice issues are constantly up for national discussion, we look more and more to movies, television, and celebrities as a kind of barometer for how much progress we're actually making. But it's also a slightly dangerous urge, dangerous because in naming something feminist or un-feminist there's the potential to miss out on nuance, to oversimplify.
So what makes Cookie Lyon feminist, or at the very least a more positive representation of womanhood? There are a lot of obvious markers: her independence, her hunger and ambition, her unapologetic expression of her sexuality. Cookie, for lack of a better word, is tough. She doesn't take shit from anyone, not even from the man she loves, Lucious Lyon.
So many of the current conversations and running jokes about Cookie focus on this aspect of her -- the loud, brash, and defiant Cookie. Earlier this week, Jimmy Fallon released a fairly funny "Empire" parody in which a major punchline is Henson making a cameo, as Cookie, in which she curses out and then beats up a "Cookie wannabe" -- it's a gag we've also seen on "SNL," the BET Awards, even "Sesame Street."
But what makes Cookie a feminist hero are the complexities, contradictions, and weaknesses that we don't give much attention when praising her. One of the most striking things about last night's season two premiere of "Empire," where Cookie and sons Hakeem and Andre try to steal the company away from Luscious, is how being a mother plays into her character.
Cookie is ruthless and shrewd, yes, but when she tells potential investor Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei), "I'm doing this for me sons," there's a sense that the statement isn't solely for the sake of impressing Whiteman. For all her posturing, Cookie really does love her sons, she is invested in their futures, even as she pursues her own personal desires for power and dominance. This, perhaps, is the one thing that separates her from Luscious.
It's what motivates Cookie to do the things she does that's the most fascinating thing about her character, that makes her so compelling even amid bad dialogue and ridiculous plot-twists. Her motivations operate on many levels -- she's trying to take back Empire because she feels she deserves it, it was her seed money that started the company, her vision it was based on. Regaining control of the company is ultimately more important than regaining the affections of a man who let her rot in jail for 20 years. And yet at the same time she also believes that the company is the one thing that can actually hold her family together (even as it tears it apart in reality). She's strong, but in those moments when she's talking to Lucious one-on-one, or being rejected by her favorite son Jamal, we also see a vulnerability, a desire to be accepted, that makes her human.
Which leads to another declaration: it's the women on "Empire" who are the most intriguing, who have the most potential to unveil different shades of their characters that no one was expecting.
In just the first season, Anika "Boo Boo Kitty" (Grace Gealey) and Andre's wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) went from being stock villain characters to characters navigating a myriad of emotions and motivations. There is no black or white for any of the female characters on "Empire," but shades of gray that stop us before they can be dismissed merely as "sluts," "bitches" or "gold diggers."
We need more human portrayals of women on TV, always. What good is a badass if she can't be flawed? From just the premiere, it looks like the upcoming season of "Empire" plans to further interrogate those flaws in Cookie, and indeed all the female characters on the show. None of them are perfectly feminist, but sometimes being perfectly anything isn't the point.
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