Imagine if Cookie Lyon actually ran the music industry. Just imagine. Everything would be at least 50% more fabulous, leopard print fedoras would become the standard industry uniform and there would be no more Andy Coppings spouting their uneducated views on women in the music industry. Yes, if there were more Cookies the world would be a more straight talking but never the less more efficiently run place.
In fact, alongside its diverse writing room, Cookie has been named as one of the reasons that the new FOX soap opera series, Empire, has become such a big hit and also why Cookie is everyone’s new favourite character.
The show tackles greed, triumph, family ties, homophobia and all that is entailed by the serpent pit that is the music industry. As the second series starts in the US we take a look at the business mind of one of the most original characters on TV right now, Cookie Lyon, the estranged matriarch who has spent 17 years in prison and is back to get a piece of the empire she helped build.
Cookie is a complicated character and seems to be every black female stereotype mashed into a rotating series of animal print outfits but perhaps it is those contradictory character traits that make her so likeable. In the same breath she can display an overwhelming rush of maternal love for her sons and treat them to the same harsh tongue she uses to put down her worst enemies.
Known for her sharp retorts, emotional honesty and straight talking there is certainly little to hide about Cookie. She has a clear glass plate of a personality, coloured in with flecks of her past and nightmares. Her rebuttals such as “Shut up Dora”, “Bye Felicia” and “Boo boo kitty” have become legendary and only get better when Cookie is thrown against the wall. When arguing with her son Hakeem’s older girlfriend Camilla, played by the ever-radiant Naomi Campbell, Cookie responds to Camilla’s barb about not being one of her jail mates with the memorable line “I wish you were, you look like you’ve got a long tongue.”
We have yet to see anyone try and mansplain to Cookie; perhaps that is because even the mere thought of it would be something no man on earth would have the guts to follow through with. Either way we’ll have the popcorn on standby for the moment that perfect disaster happens.
The harsher elements of her personality could be described as flaws but perhaps they could be better described as necessary armour; the result of nearly two decades locked away from the world and her loved ones. The fact that she still keeps it together and manages to focus on building a new life for herself seems impossible, but Cookie Lyon doesn’t believe in impossible.
As someone who is interested in the music business I found one of the most impressive aspects of the show to be the portrayal of Cookie’s business savvy and intelligence. In fact many of the female characters in Empire are portrayed as being both as business minded and scheming as the male characters. In a world where black women are rarely represented in the music industry, let alone in fictional portrayals of the music industry, words cannot express how refreshing it is to see an array of black women on the popular TV show working in the music industry and succeeding.
Cookie showcases technical knowledge of song writing, producing and managing often being the only person with the right knowledge who can make the right decision. As rarely as women are given the music nerd hat to wear on screen it is even rarer that we see a black woman taking on this role.
Despite being amazing at her job Cookie does not suffer the same fate as other TV heroines who have to deal with the eternal struggle between a career and a tumultuous private life (Scandal’s Olivia Pope has worn that trope out for everyone now). Cookie has nothing to be ashamed of and she knows it. She literally works hard and plays hard and is never embarrassed. It is perhaps this trait that makes her so good at her job. She has the skills, experience and determination to deal with any situation whether it’s winning a drinking contest in the hood or dealing with Lucious in the boardroom.
Most of the weakness on display on Empire is shown by central character Lucious. His insatiable addiction to greed and inability to make a decision about who he wants to be with make him the most emotionally unstable character on the show. It is relieving that for once a black woman is not the go to unstable character in a TV series.
In terms of representations of black womanhood the show has it all. It balances almost cartoon-esque video girls with the confidence of characters such as Hakeem’s love interests, Camilla and Tiana. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is that it does not aim to demean or dismiss any particular type of womanhood. From video girl to business woman everyone can rise or fall.
In fact, not following the cookie cutter model laid out for women is seen as a good thing in Empire’s world. In one of the early episodes Hakeem’s girlfriend Tiana has an affair with a woman but according to Cookie this doesn’t ruin her career; it’s only another part of her and therefore a sellable aspect. “You’s a freak” as Cookie decreed. Showing this honest, defiant version of black womanhood on a family network in the US, which is not known for its open mindedness towards sexuality or depictions of black womanhood in anything other than a negative light, is brave, forward thinking and just what this generation needs. The validation that we are enough, we can just be and we don’t have to fit in.
Ultimately, Cookie’s business mind, popularity and ability to stay strong without falling into the trap of being the typical “strong black woman” show the many guises in which black women can exist and be portrayed. TV executives watch this space and take note; we aren’t going to stand for just one Cookie on our screens.
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Stephanie Phillips is a journalist and blogger who runs her own blog about women in music called Don’t Dance Her Down Boys and contributes to feminist blog The F-Word. She is the singer and guitarist in Black feminist punk band Big Joanie. You can follow her on Twitter @stephanopolus.
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