Diversity Aboveground: An Empire and a Rogue

Why is “Empire” everyone’s new favorite show? Could it be the strong women? Maybe it’s the diverse cast? Perhaps the classic themes presented in a new way? Of course, the music certainly doesn’t hurt. This was the ninth straight week that the ratings have improved on the previous week. It’s almost unheard of in this Internet age.

Empire is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. Instead of overseeing a realm, King Lear has been changed into Lucious Lyon whose Empire is a music company focusing on Hip-hop. The other kings and dukes have become the competing CEOs of other music companies. Since Lucious is not the old, feeble ruler of the play, his need to pass on his position has been hastened by a diagnosis of ALS. The daughters have been gender – swapped into sons, but considering the tragic ends of the original characters, that’s probably for the best. The series has a much slower pace than the original play so the disinheriting of “Cordelia” didn’t occur until the penultimate episode of this season.

In Shakespeare’s original work, the daughters of King Lear were strong but ultimately, overshadowed by the other male characters. This is not the case with “Empire”. The female characters demand attention and don’t allow anyone to tell them what to do, whether it’s the matriarch, Cookie, or the youngest, a tiny tot named Lola. A recent episode even had Cookie reassuring another woman that she had been “strong” to leave her daughter when her daughter’s life would be threatened by keeping her. However, there are some negative aspects that are too common in real life. The women spend a lot of their shared conversations beating each other down and for the vast majority of times, it’s about men. It could do better for the Bechdel test.

The Lyons Family

“Empire” started as an idea by Danny Strong. Being Caucasian, he enlisted the help of Lee Daniels. They had worked together before on a feature film, The Butler. Daniels was able to add more of an African American perspective and the show does explore issues that are particularly important to their race. Due to general mistrust in the health-care system, lower incomes and other factors, African Americans have much higher instances of serious diseases than other races. This makes Lucious’ battle with ALS all the more important for network television so viewers can empathize his plight with their own or gain the courage to see a doctor to manage their own health before severe problems occur. The same is true of mental illness. Lucious’ oldest son, Andre, has a diagnosed Bipolar disorder. Unlike previous portrayals on television, being Bipolar doesn’t define him. Between his ability to seem “normal” when taking his medication as prescribed and his inability to see anything he might deem “imperfection” in his son, Lucious has a hard time dealing with his son’s mental illness or as he calls it at one point, “white people’s problems”. His ignorance extends to the sexuality of his middle son, Jamal. Homosexuality is linked to mental illness as another “imperfection” in his mind. Again, Lucious’ homophobia is a common trait within the African American community although that is improving as demonstrated by Cookie and many of the other main characters. While his love scenes have been fewer and less explicit than his heterosexual counterparts, Jamal has been allowed to have multiple partners and have his sexuality treated as just one of the multiple facets of his character.

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With the success of “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” where the lead actresses are African Americans, you would think more diverse casts would be the logical step. It’s a pity that “Empire” is a rarity. Of the broadcast networks, only “Empire”, “Black-ish”, “Cristela” and “Jane the Virgin” have casts with just 1-3 Caucasians in them. NBC and CBS don’t have any shows fitting that bill at all.

“Empire” has been renewed for a second season which might happen as soon as October, but it will keep the shorter season format of twelve episodes or so. The soundtrack is available now but only the MP3 version includes all the songs featured on the episodes. The season finale of “Empire” will be March 18, 8 PM EST on Fox.

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Felicity Jones

While the original ideas for a Star Wars stand-alone film would be about Yoda, Boba Fett or Han Solo, it’s now been confirmed that this spin-off will center around…a woman!

Felicity Jones will star in Star Wars: Rogue One. This is good way to combat Star Wars’ cinematic problem with females. In the original trilogy, the rebellion’s only females seemed to be Leia Organa and Mon Mothma. Otherwise, females were seen as slaves or entertainment. The prequels weren’t much better with all of Padme Amadala’s intelligence and bravery reduced to being known as Anakin Skywalker’s baby mama. At least, it did introduce the female bounty hunters, Zam Wessell and Aurra Sing, as well as female Jedi and pilots. However, the greatest gift of the prequels was that it led to the 2008 television series, “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”. While it gets less respect than the films for being on television or being animated or having very rare appearances by Jar Jar, take your pick…this series is the first non-novel media from Star Wars to pass the Bechdel Test. There were entire episodes based solely around a female character, including one setting up the back-story of Sy Snootles! The focus of the series until the last season was on Anakin’s padawan, Ahsoka Tano, who wasn’t perfect but was strong, smart and full of integrity. She was an excellent role model for the girls watching the show and her fanbase showed at Star Wars Weekends with girls wearing her shirts, having their face painted orange or waving her doll around. Ahsoka TanoAs such, it seemed like a let down when the new series, Star Wars Rebels, premiered and was once again, centered around a male. As the season went on, it was a relief to see some of the familiar format return with a focus on the female characters as well and an occasional passing of the Bechdel Test. Plus, just as it seemed too focused on Ezra once again, a familiar face showed up.

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The reason that Star Wars: The Clone Wars is so important to these new films is that it premiered seven years ago. That’s almost a whole generation of children that are more familiar with Ahsoka Tano than Han Solo and they’re not going to accept a return to the old format of women being second class citizens in the films. Even Leia, despite her intelligence and weapons skills, spent most of her time being the damsel in distress. Thus, it’s only right that the first spin-off star a woman. Who will she play? Who knows? Some reports claim it’ll be a heist film and perhaps she’ll be a bounty hunter. However, “Rogue One” sounds more like a call sign for a squadron member. Female pilots have been largely ignored in the Star Wars media. Perhaps it will end up having multiple meanings as she’s a pilot who becomes a bounty hunter, or a rogue one.

Star Wars: Rogue One will be released in theaters on December 16, 2016.

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What do you want from the new Star Wars films?

Next week’s column will be about why Marvel needs Miles Morales and Peggy Carter in their Marvel Cinematic Universe.

 

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