The ‘Empire’ that Cookie Built

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Empire, set in the high stakes world of hip hop, may seem like a testosterone-filled battlefield. As patriarch Lucius Lyon (Terrence Howard) tries to decide which one of his three sons will inherit Empire Records from him, plans hit a snag in the form of his former wife, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson). Having just been released from prison after 17 years inside, Cookie’s presence provides a challenge to Lucius that he hasn’t had to face in almost two decades, as she threatens the future of Empire just as it is on the verge of going public.

While the show appears to set Cookie up as the main antagonist of the piece, in reality, she is the heart, soul and driving force of the show. And while Howard is set up as the star of the show within the first couple of episodes, Henson firmly establishes herself as the reason to watch and what’s more, Cookie is afforded all the perks of being the central protagonist.

On the one hand, Cookie has the benefit of being the driving female force of the show. There are several other fairly prominent female characters, but all of them are subordinate, supporting characters who exist largely as pawns in a larger game. Cookie, however, is a player. She embodies all the usual soap opera stereotypes of the jaded ex-wife, the psycho girlfriend, and the sacrificial mother, but also rises above them.

Cookie calls attention to these roles that women are usually shoehorned into by embodying them all simultaneously.

In her own fascinating way, Cookie calls attention to these roles that women are usually shoehorned into by embodying them all simultaneously, even when they contradict one another. She shatters the mold by being a real human being with her own personal desires, drives and history within the accepted cultural framework of the genre. Is she out to get back at her ex-husband? Absolutely. Does she have irrational hatred for the woman that he left her for? Yes. Does she feel an overwhelming guilt for abandoning her sons while in prison, leaving her desperate to make amends? Sure. But none of her actions are done under the traditional banner of “Because that’s what women do.” Instead, Cookie is motivated by what motivates most people.

Cookie wants to take up her rightful place within the company she helped to build. She wants to secure her legacy. It’s her Empire too, after all. But like society so often does to women, her contribution has been marginalized, as Lucius left her to rot behind bars while he took control of their company. Cookie doesn’t take his betrayal lying down and she fights to regain what’s hers. This is something we get to see from male characters all the time, but it’s rare to get a look at this dynamic from a woman’s perspective. It’s a revenge fantasy, but Cookie is not out to destroy Lucius. She’s there to build her own legacy, to rise above all those who tried to take everything she had away from her.

Whatever her past, Cookie demands respect. She is smart, confident and driven able to go toe-to-toe with the biggest, most difficult personalities in the hip hop world, male or female. When others can’t do the job, Cookie steps in. The show makes sure to constantly remind us that without Cookie, Lucius Lyon would never have risen to the top of the music world. She made him, and as a result, she is instrumental in securing the future of Empire Records.

Like many aspects of the show, Cookie represents something bigger than herself and serves to call attention to the discrepancy of representation that exists within Western culture. It is significant that the show’s most dynamic character is also its most prominent female one. It makes the viewers crave more, similarly engaging characters. Fortunately, as the show progresses, other women have stepped up to the plate too. Clearly showrunner Lee Daniels knows that we live in a world where often the most marginalized are the ones who are the most relatable and have the most interesting stories to tell.

Cookie has joined the ever growing ranks of great female roles that television has been providing us with and I, for one, am excited to see where she takes us next.

Empire‘s Season 1 finale airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on FOX (in America) and City/OMNI (in Canada).

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