Let’s face it: many people—black, white or other—who met Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) on the street would steer clear, and fast. She curses friends and associates regularly, clears rooms on demand, and is cunningly ambitious when it comes to Empire, the family-owned record label she and her ex-husband co-founded with drug money.
“It was my $400,000 that started this bitch,” she barks at her ex-husband, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), during the series premiere of Fox’s Empire, this year’s runaway hit for network television. She’s been released from prison unexpectedly after seventeen years, and when her ex protests that he can’t give her half the company, her warning is classic Cookie: “You messin’ with the wrong bitch, Lucious.”
This image of tough, black womanhood (“sassy” is a word commonly heard in writer’s rooms) is one with which we’re already deeply familiar. It’s the predictable hand on hip, lips pursed, finger-in-the-air attitude that we’ve come to expect from mainstream culture. We know this Cookie well, if not personally, then from every TV or film screen around us. She’s 100 percent made in the ’hood (either a point of pride or a drawback, depending). All flash and ghetto verbiage, she struts out of dark-windowed SUVs in tiger-print mini-dresses, minks and stilettos.
Yet viewers, particularly black viewers, are all over this new “black Dynasty,” as the show has been dubbed. They’re showing up for real-time Wednesday night viewing (a major coup for Fox in the era of streaming), tweeting about it on social media, and comparing notes around the water cooler. Since the show has steadily increased viewers for seven consecutive weeks (nearly 15 million Americans are now watching), it’s safe to say that we can expect more history-making numbers for tonight’s season finale.
So why the fuss? What’s so special about the Lyon family—and about Cookie Lyon in particular? Why have so many black viewers, who make up 64 percent of Empire’s audience, tuned in week after week, surprising even industry veterans with chart-breaking ratings growth unlike any seen in more than twenty years of network television? Fox targeted black women in an effort to attract and cash in on the Real Housewives audience. Their strategy was a success apparently. According to Nielsen ratings, Cookie’s biggest fans are in chocolate cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia and St. Louis.
The way I see it, we come back to Empire week after week because Cookie Lyon is refreshingly (finally) so much more than the façade; so much more than the surface, stereotypical “angry black woman” that America thinks she already knows. If Henson played Cookie as just the stereotype, viewers would have tuned out long ago. Even those of us who avoid predictable narratives about thuggish rappers, gangstas and drug dealers can’t help but be captivated by the Lyons, and by Cookie in particular. Because for all our advances (thank you, Shonda Rhimes), Cookie is still, surprisingly a rare character for a black woman in primetime: a multidimensional, full-blown human being.