Character Study: Cookie Lyon from TV’s Empire (it’s the bad that makes her so good!)

Like 17 million other people, I’ve been watching Empire.

And in keeping with the prevailing opinion, I think it’s a great show.

When I told my sister I was watching it, she expressed surprise.  Not an unexpected reaction given most of what I watch is either fantasy, sci-fi, historical, or about science and nature.

However, Empire, at its core over the first season, is a succession drama, which I always love and happen to be writing myself in a historical setting.  As well, I have a prior history with stories about record companies thanks to the 1985 movie Krush Groovewhich my sister and I watched together and both enjoyed.

Empire is the story of multimillionaire record company mogul and former gangster-turned-bestselling-recording-artist Lucious Lyon.

Upon discovering that he’s terminally ill with only a few years left to live, Lucious decides he must choose an heir from among his three very different sons to someday take over Empire Records, which is soon to go public on the New York Stock Exchange.

Much of the action of the first season relates to the machinations of the three sons and their various supporters as they all endeavour to display their suitability for the job.  At the same time, Lucious himself grows ever more desperate and despicable in his efforts to ensure his legacy and battle enemies both internal and external to the family-run business.

But succession dynamics aren’t the only reason I love the show; the characters are great as well, particularly Cookie Lyon – Lucious’s estranged wife and mother of his three sons – who is equal parts brash, demanding, accomplished, compassionate, and naïve.

That is to say, a complex, well-rounded female character.

One tough Cookie

Cookie begins the series having just been released from jail following a 17-year sentence for drug trafficking.

She and Lucious did this together in the rough inner city neighbourhood where they grew up and later started raising their family.  However Cookie was clearly something of the brains behind the operation, both in that she’s the only one who was jailed and also because she repeatedly claims that Empire Records was founded with $400,000 of her drug money, which she immediately sets about trying to reclaim after her release from jail.

These two facts about Cookie – her criminal past and her jail time – make her a fascinating character of the sort not many female TV characters are permitted to embody.  Cookie wasn’t just a gangster’s wife hanging out in the background like some sex-up chick from a hip-hop video; she was a gangster in her own right.

Cookie quoteRegardless of one’s thoughts on drugs and criminal activity, there’s no question that male characters are often both criminals and heroic (e.g. Walter White, Dexter, Tony Soprano) while female characters are generally expected to be more lawful, likeable, and appropriately repentant of any wrongdoing they commit, which Cookie most assuredly isn’t.

As well, the fact that Cookie is portrayed as a talented and gifted music producer and the one responsible for helping launch Lucious’s career is very interesting and unexpected.

Lucious is said to have had music in his soul, yet he regularly relied on Cookie to help give his songs that little extra something.  As well, it was Cookie who had the original vision to create their own record company, and is responsible for producing a number of Platinum albums prior to her incarceration.

Cookie continues to prove herself indispensible to the running of Empire Records as she manages her son Jamal (an up-and-coming R&B singer) and a handful of other key artists others deem difficult to work with or to have image problems in the media.

She wasn’t just given her job back to shut her up about the drug money, but rather because she’s a genuine asset – well-known in the music industry as a whole and repeatedly shown demonstrating knowledge, skills, and grit that few others possess.

Soft at the center

Cookie can work with difficult people because she can be difficult herself. Cookie Lyon is no manic pixie dream girl and we can all thank heaven for that.

She’s an over-the-top diva: loud, pushy, impatient, unfiltered, and self-possessed with no qualms about barging in on board meetings, rolling up in violent ghettos, or butting into conversations to offer her esteemed opinion whether it’s solicited or not.

She isn’t politically correct:  she makes racial comments about her son Jamal’s Latino boyfriend, calling him “Dora” (the Explorer) and “La Cucaracha” (Spanish for “the cockroach”, after the famous song).

She calls Jamal himself a “sissy” for claiming he cares more about his music itself than fame or wealth, and refers to bipolar disorder and its treatment as “white people problems”.

She calls Lucious’s girlfriend, Anika, of whom she’s clearly jealous, “Boo Boo Kitty” (an on-the-fly epithet created by the phenomenal actress Taraji P. Henson, who plays Cookie) as well as “fake-ass Halle Berry”, and “yellow” in reference to Anika being biracial.

She calls her assistant, Porsha, stupid, and according to Porsha, says the same of everyone else since “that’s what she do”.  Finally, she claims to have liked Lucious better when he was a thug and less concerned about his image within white society.

Cookie and JamalThese shortcomings make a lot of sense for Cookie’s character, who doubtless received little formal education and then spent so long behind bars.  They also serve to make the character, frankly, human.

We can all be jerks sometimes, so it’s refreshing to see a woman on TV released from the boring shackles of good girl perfection.  “Bad” girls don’t usually fare so well in fiction, but in this case, even more so than Lucious – the ostensible star of the show – Cookie is a heroic figure.

Besides, there’s a softer side to Cookie as well.  She is fiercely loyal to her family: to Lucious, who it’s revealed is the only man she’s ever been with sexually (a virtually unheard of representation of black women, who are typically portrayed as promiscuous and unfaithful), and particularly to her children.  She laments the years she spent locked up while they were young and needed her.

Regardless of how she may occasionally tease Jamal about being gay, she’s fully accepting of his sexuality (as opposed to Lucious, who is vehemently opposed to it).  As well, she’s desperate to build a relationship with her youngest son, Hakeem, who resents her previous absence and now wants as little to do with her as possible.

She genuinely cares about the artists she represents and goes out of her way to help them when they get in trouble. She also continues to believe in Empire Records and supports Lucious in whatever needs doing to see the company thrive, even though he abandoned her while she was in jail without ever saying goodbye and eventually shacked up with Anika.

Cookie is an incredible character – a true powerhouse – who’s likely to grow even more complex opposite Lucious as he continues further down his dark path.

Have you seen Empire?  Who is your favourite character?  What is your favourite song from the show?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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7 thoughts on “Character Study: Cookie Lyon from TV’s Empire (it’s the bad that makes her so good!)

  1. I love the hell out of Empire. It’s Shakespeare meets “Dallas” as told by Suge Knight.

    I don’t know how anyone’s favorite character cannot be Cookie. Your description of her is quite apt. I find myself thinking she’s a pretty bad person who I nevertheless root for and whom I feel bad for when her plans go awry. Getting out of prison after 17 years, she’s still the same street hustler as before trying to adapt to a world where all the people she knew have moved on to bigger and better things. She’s probably the most complex character on TV right now (notwithstanding the clones on Orphan Black), and Taraji P. Henson is perfect.

    Having worked in music stores and been in bands and interacted with people from nightclubs and record companies for many years, I can say the show is about as authentic as James Bond movies, but I’m 100% down with alternate realities, provided they stay true to themselves.

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    • I knew you’d be a fan of this show! In my reply to Alicia I referred to it as a black Game of Thrones without all the senseless nudity and sexual violence, the main stake being a record company instead of the Iron Throne, significantly fewer (though not zero) killings, and original hip-hop and R&B music.

      I think Cookie personifies a desire we all possess to know and own our sense of importance and to not put up with anyone’s BS. She has all the best lines and has probably never experienced d’esprit de l’escalier in her life. I think my next favourite character is Jamal, but it’s cool to have so many black characters who are all different from each other. You don’t get that much variety across shows that only have their one token black character.

      What’s your favourite song from the show? Mine’s “Good Enough” with “Conqueror” as a close second.

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      • Oddly enough, given my experiences, I am absolute rubbish at remembering song titles. I have albums I love that I’ve listened to over 100 times and couldn’t tell you what half the songs are called. I’d have to revisit the season to answer that question.

        Jamal is a good character, but he’s pretty much has to be the one you root for by default. Every one else is either crazy, dangerous, or conniving. As minor characters go, you’ve got to love Porsha. In a weird way, she’s the audience surrogate, especially when she makes those hysterical face expressions in response to all the melodrama going on around her. Like, “Oh come on. What have I got myself into here?”

        This may sound funny coming from a dude, but I agree that there’s too much gratuitous nudity in TV shows these days. I’m hardly a prude, but I find it exploitative and it makes me reluctant to watch GoT. This is somewhat tangential, and stop me if we talked about this already, but: I read an interesting book by black feminist professor Stephanie Dunn called “Baad Bitches” in which she discusses the complexity black American women deal with in seeking female role models in movies. She talks about how her aunts and older female relatives were all inspired by Pam Grier back in the 1970s, yet who in revisiting those films tend to experience a great deal of conflict and emotional discomfort by how Grier was represented. Although Grier was in a lot of ways the first black female movie star, most of her films were produced by white men, and she was treated very exploitatively in terms of gratuitous nudity, graphic rape scenes, etc., not to mention the repeated plot device of her gaining access to the villain by posing as a prostitute (and the resultant “catfight in lingerie” that inevitably breaks out between the escorts). With Empire and Cookie, we have a character who is in control, doesn’t take s***, and for all her questionable acts, never exploits herself, and she is in charge of her own sexuality. As we’ve discussed before, I’m all for story-relevant events, whether it’s violence or nudity or whatever (provided the actors are not being coerced), but there really aren’t that many artistically justifiable reasons to strip a non-speaking character and have her parade around the set simply to titillate and lend eye candy to the proceedings.

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      • I’m actually not that good at song titles either … or even lyrics a lot of the time either beyond the main line from the chorus. Where it not for azlyrics.com, I’d easily end up one of those callers on a morning radio show offering up some gem like Everytime you go away/You take a piece of meat with you. In the case of the Empire song titles, I looked them up on iTunes and then proceeded to buy the album (a lot of the songs are on the show’s YouTube channel as well).

        I’m so over GoT for a multitude of reasons besides just the gratuitous rape and nudity, but those are definitely contributing factors. I’m especially sick of all the “that’s they way it was back then” justifications, because I’ve studied enough about the medieval times to be able to recognize how history is being subordinated to the kinks and perversions of screenwriters and showrunners. Plus which historical era did the dragons occur in again?

        That’s an interesting point about Pam Grier; it kind of like how Nichelle Nichols was on Star Trek but didn’t have a hugely significant role and actually considered quitting the show until MLK talked her out of it. Both these actresses were nonetheless very important to black people and to the cause of gaining us more mainstream visibility. As you point out, with Cookie, we’ve clearly come a long way, although of course there’s always more that can be done.

        Oh yes, Porsha = ❤

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