There’s a hot new show on network television, and it’s a trailblazer. The Fox drama Empire- which follows the exploits of Lucious Lyon, his record label, and his family- is obliterating viewership records every single week. It is also stretching the minds of those viewers by taking a queer as fuck approach with its portrayals of sex and relationships in the Lyon family’s world.
The show has featured at least 4 central queer characters of color. AzMarie Livingston plays the role of Hakeem’s masculine-of-center bestie. Hakeem and Camilla got us exploring the dynamics of a relationship with a significant age difference. Then there’s Andre and Rhonda, who are decidedly kinky and also have an open marriage.
All of this alternative-ness leaves me wanting more! So much so that sometimes, I’m disappointed when Empire doesn’t take advantage of an opportunity to further buck the hegemony, or show oppressed peoples thriving. But, a girl can dream. Here are some plot lines that I switched around in my head to make Empire even queer, inclusive, and representative of different types of relationships:
When Tiana was cool with Hakeem’s other girlfriend
What happened: Young musical stars Hakeem and Tiana have a blossoming romantic relationship, and one that is very popular with their fanbase and the people in their lives. Hakeem’s dad Lucious invites Tiana over for dinner to formally introduce her to the family, and pre-teens across the country make websites declaring their love for the couple, known as ‘Takeem.’
Things take an uncertain turn when Hakeem skips a dinner with his mom and Tiana. Tiana drops by his apartment later that evening and finds him hot tub snuggling with another woman. Hakeem is scared of what Tiana will say when he sees her at rehearsal the next day, but when he apologizes she tells him “it’s cool.” Shocked, Hakeem asks for confirmation that Tiana is ok with him having another girlfriend. Tiana looks at him like he is silly and gets back to practicing. They blow the crowd away during their joint Teen Choice Awards performance, and exchange lovey dovey sentiments on the ride home.
What I wanted to happen next: Over dinner the next day, Hakeem reaffirms his feelings for Tiana, but says he wants to also continue seeing his girlfriend Camilla. Tiana is quiet for a moment, then reveals that she also has another romantic relationship- a girlfriend named India. Hakeem and Tiana eventually decide that a polyamorous relationship would be best for them- but it has to be based on honesty and transparency. They spend a day having an initial conversation about emotional needs, boundaries, safe sex, and the communication strategies they will use moving forward. Over the next few episodes, we watch them figure out a rhythm and begin rebuilding trust between each other.
What actually happened next: Hakeem’s conniving ass brother Andre takes pictures of Tiana cuddling on a couch with her girlfriend, India. Hakeem finds out about India when Andre leaks the pictures on the internet. Hakeem is hurt, embarrassed, and angry, and refuses to work with Tiana on the music video they are supposed to shoot that day. Hakeem and Tiana have a shouting match in the studio, ending with Tiana accusing Hakeem of being hypocritical and shouting “You have a sidepiece too!” The music video gets shot only because Hakeem’s father tells him that if Tiana has a girlfriend, that means Hakeem “has two girlfriends.” Takeem breaks up shortly thereafter. Womp womp.
When Becky flirted with Malcolm at the elevator
What happened: Becky and Malcolm are two critical employees at Empire Music. Becky, played by Gabourey Sidibe, is a bomb ass Executive Assistant who effortlessly and stylishly keeps the life of Empire’s CEO, Lucious, together. Even when he doesn’t want her to. Malcolm is the new guy at Empire, hired to overhaul the company’s security program and protect Empire from the competition. Both characters are super busy, but they share a moment together when Malcolm comes to fix a stuck elevator for Becky. Becky is giving him some serious seduction, when the elevator doors open and to reveal a small child standing inside- Lola, who has apparently just been abandoned by her mother.
What I wanted to happen next: Becky and Malcolm find Lola’s daddy, Jamal, place her safely in his care, then immediately resume their flirtation. Over the next few episodes we watch their attraction develop until they eventually get together, forming a power duo that keeps the wheels of Empire greased and running smoothly. A dark skinned, plus size woman is portrayed as a legitimate object of love and sexual desire on national television and I cry as I watch it all go down on my Roku.
What actually happened: Turns out Malcolm is actually in love with Cookie, played by my boo Taraji P. Henson. That’s cool too I guess.
When Jamal told Ryan that he wanted to raise Lola
*SPOILER ALERT FOR MOST RECENT EPISODE*
What happened: Jamal has a new boo, Ryan, a filmmaker with a sexy accent. Ryan has a great frohawk, and has so far inspired Jamal to do several things- such as turn his dad’s White Party and into his own personal Coming Out Party, and shoot a steamy video where Jamal pretends he is D’Angelo. At the same time, Jamal has been dealing with the arrival of Lola, a little girl who may or may not be his daughter. Since the disappearance of her mother, Lola has been parented by Jamal’s dad Lucious. While Jamal and Ryan are discussing the adorable pop song Jamal wrote about his love for Lola, Jamal tells Ryan that he has decided he wants to parent Lola himself. Ryan thinks that’s really great, but makes it clear that he has no interest in being a parent at any time in the future.
What I wanted to happen next: Not much. Jamal and Ryan discuss what it could look like if in the future they decide to co-habitate, but not co-parent. Jamal thinks about his parenting options, which could include being a single parent, co-parenting with his mom and/or dad, or something else entirely. Other than that, Jamal and Ryan continue being an attractive and talented romantic couple.
What actually happened: Jamal and Ryan got mad tense and awkward, then Jamal put on a resigned “well that’s that, then” face; the relationship was automatically and irrevocably doomed because Ryan would never want to adopt Lola. It turns out that Lucious was sleeping with Jamal’s ex-wife and Lola is probably Jamal’s half sister anyway, so. It’s all good.
Anybody else re-write queerness, liberation, inclusion, or alternative family structures into Empire (or another awesome show)? Tell me in the comments!