The Unicorn Scale: Empire

9/8/2017

Empire (2015) is something like King Lear meets Dynasty, but with hip hop. In preparation for Season 4, which premieres at the end of this month, I spent a few days binging on this magic. Basically, this is the story of a hip hop dynasty led by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). He thinks he’s dying and decides to have his three sons compete to see which will inherit his empire. His ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), is freshly out of jail and intent on rebuilding her relationship with her sons, holding her family together, and ending up on top. They all spend hours upon hours manipulating, backstabbing, and making music. I could go on and on, but really any attempt to describe the plot will just make me sound like a crazy person. Needless to say, I enjoyed the binging, am in love with most of the characters, and want to steal Cookie Lyon’s entire wardrobe. I can’t wait for September 27th.

There aren’t a lot of bi characters on television, those that do exist are frequently evil or dead. There are, of course, a few exceptions (thank you, Torchwood), but for the most part it’s hard to find much quality bi representation on television. I was delighted to find that amid all of the insanity, there were, not one, but four (maybe 5) bi characters! And they’re all alive and some of them aren’t evil!

We’ve established that I love this show, but The Unicorn Scale is all about looking at how the media is representing bi folks, so let’s dive in. If you are worried about spoilers, stop reading now, there are many, many spoilers.

What I Like:

I talk a lot about the burden of representation. If your show has hundreds of episodes, dozens of characters, countless story arcs and one bi character, well then, yeah, representation matters. You’re one bi character better not be a two-timing, double-crossing, cheating, lying, opportunist that suddenly dies. When you have a whole slew of bi characters in a show where everyone gets ridiculously complicated storylines, then sure, let a few of them be morally ambiguous, because you are also showing that there is such a thing as a moral bi person (gasp!).

Jamal and Skye getting all flirty

One of those moral bi characters is Jamal, Lucious’ middle son (Jussie Smollett). He spends much of the first season coming out as gay in the face of his father’s virulent homophobia. Happily, he does come out and quickly becomes a successful recording artist. It’s a pretty well done arc and I spend most of the first season assuming that Jamal is gay. There is an incident where his ex-wife appears with their daughter in season 1, but I was willing to believe that the marriage was simply done to make his father happy and that Jamal really is gay. When it turns out that the child is really Lucious’ it seems to confirm that him and his wife weren’t having a ton of sex.

Then season 2 hits and Jamal sleeps with Skye Summers (Alicia Keyes). Lucious decides that Jamal is “cured” and spreads the news, which put Jamal in hot water with his fans and promoter. Many bi men can empathize with what happens next. Jamal is described as having “betrayed” the “gay cause.” By sleeping with a woman, he has invalidated his coming out and is destroying the hard work of so many gay rights activists that went before him. His mother also puts enormous pressure on him to “pick a damn team.” He is pressured from all sides to deny any attraction to women in order to save his career and to support gay rights.

Jamal and Skye talk it out, and they agree that their night together “was beautiful,” she goes on to say, “I know that you wouldn’t feel about a woman the way you feel about [Michael].” It seems that theirs was a one night stand, but I appreciate that Jamal still acknowledges that it was real and that his attraction was real. Although there is a lot of turmoil around him and his relationship with Skye, Jamal seems completely comfortable with his experience with Skye.

Tiana introduces her girlfriend, India, to her boyfriend, Hakeem

Then there’s Tiana (Serayah McNeill), one of Empire’s more successful artists. When Hakeem (Lucious’ youngest son played by Bryshere Y. Gray) sees her in the studio he is instantly drawn to her. They quickly hook up and start a relationship-ish, but Tiana walks in on him with his other girlfriend, Camilla (Naomi Campbell). Rather than screaming or crying, Tiana simply turns around and walks out. It turns out that she doesn’t really care about Hakeem and Camilla; the two agree to have a public relationship to help promote both of their careers. Then Tiana goes home to her girlfriend, India (Elizabeth Whitson), and surprise, she’s bi! Like Jamal, Tiana isn’t torn or destroyed by doubt. She knows she’s attracted to women and men. She doesn’t obsess, she doesn’t talk about it, she just is. She does hide her sexuality to protect her career, which isn’t ideal, but she certainly wouldn’t be the first artist to do this. Maybe season 4 will have her coming out arc.

After the affair between Camilla and Hakeem ends she goes on to marry a lady, but more on Camilla in the next section.

What I Didn’t Like:

Just say the word. Why can’t any of these characters just say, “I’m bi”? When Cookie asks Jamal if he’s “one of them wishy washy confused bi-sexuals” He laughs nervously and responds “whatever… No. Sexuality is fluid, you have straight and gay and bi and everything.” Then Cookie implies that she’s slept with a woman. Jamal goes on to say, “Just because I’ve had sex with two women in my entire life doesn’t mean that I’m straight or bi or anything, I’m still a gay brother looking for a man.”

Gag me. Seriously. He basically said he’s sometimes attracted to and sleeps with women and he’s often attracted to and sleeps with men, but he’s gay. Bisexuality doesn’t mean that you have exactly the same degree of attraction to both men and women, nor does it mean that you’ve had the same number of male and female partners, nor does it even mean you have the same type of attraction. I don’t understand why the writers wouldn’t just let this bi man say, “yes, I’m bi.” I can’t imagine that in a show with “it turns out my daughter is my sister” story arc, saying that a character is bi would be that crazy.

Jamal almost kind of sort of redeems the whole debacle with his next performance, which is basically a giant screw you to everyone asking him to define himself. He gyrates around on stage with male and female dancers singing about sleeping with whoever he darn well feels like sleeping with. I just wish he’d have said the big scary “B word.”

Same with Tiana. I am happy that her relationships are relatively low drama, low drama for the universe of Empire. She is clearly attracted to Hakeem as well as her girlfriends and doesn’t seem at all confused by that fact, but she never uses the word bi.

The incomparable (but evil) Camilla

Lastly, a brief word on Camilla, the classic depraved bisexual (who also never calls herself bi). Her willingness to sleep with men and women is indicative of her willingness to do anything. Marry a woman in order to take over a music empire? Why not? Murder said wife? Check. Sexually manipulate everyone else? Absolutely. She’s heartless, manipulative, and utterly amoral. Camilla has no apparent motivations other than to be evil. This is a type of bi character that we see all too often, a disproportionate number of bi characters in fiction are super evil and it’s sad to see this stereotype rear its ugly head again.

However, within the context of other bi characters, Camilla is less troubling to me. She is an evil and manipulative bi woman surrounded by evil and manipulative straight people; kind and moral straight people; evil and manipulative bi people; and kind and moral bi people. She exists in the context of a world where people of all orientations can be both good and evil. How novel.

The Rating:

Why couldn’t they just say the stinking word? Why dance around it so endlessly, it would have been so simple to take all these wonderful bi characters with rich stories that don’t just revolve around their sexuality and just have them admit they were bi. Still I appreciate the number of bi characters and the diversity of their experiences. Hopefully season 4 will finally let some of them come out as bi.

Talia Squires
Talia Squires is the editor in chief for bi.org. Talia has a degree in German Literature from Bryn Mawr College and a Master's in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She's obsessed with good food, fantastic wine, and trashy television. She lives in LA with her husband and fluffy Lhasa Apso.