An “Empire” Divided: Reimagining Cookie Lyon as a 21st Century Jezebel

cookie lyons

I just watched the latest episode of Fox’s breakout mid-season show “Empire” and as the show’s central character Cookie Lyon’s took the podium that was indeed acting as a Jezebel–Queen Jezebel that is.

The name Jezebel is the English transliteration from the Hebrew Bible of the wife of the Israelite King Ahab who married a non-Israelite woman.  The second story that includes Jezebel is of her taking a vineyard that her husband wanted from a local farmer.  She does it because he’s too impotent to do so for himself.  Jezebel gets such high recognition in the Hebrew Bible because the story of the well-respected prophet Elijah is intertwined as well.  She’s a baal worshipper–meaning she worships and follows other gods first.  In fact she was Phoenician according to most sources, and therefore did not subscribe to the tribal deity of the Israelites who was thought to be Jehovah, whom the Israelites referred to as Yahweh (YHWH).  Elijah runs up directly against her, and the omniscient narrative paints Jezebel as evil for two reasons: because she doesn’t worship Yahweh (a reference to the initial story found in 1 Kings 18)  and because she usurped her husband’s authority (1 Kings 21).  She’s murdered by her own court and then her corpse gets eaten by dogs, as if there was any question about whether or not she was to be seen as good or evil.

Somehow by the end of the Christian New Testament in the Holy Bible, Jezebel certainly has assumed some sexual characteristics being referred to as teaching or encouraging prostitution.  This sexualized image of Jezebel entered into Christian culture and has been a part of it for quite some time.  To be called “Jezebel” is automatically understood as having a negative sexual connotation.

Within the storied history of race relations and black culture in this country, Jezebel carried an even heavier burden in antiquity.  There was a Jezebel stereotype that existed that allowed for black women to be seen as overtly sexual and promiscuous beings.  It operated to the benefits of white racism, Jim Crow laws and supported the system of de facto segregation because it directly disempowered black women from having agency over their own bodies, let alone legal recourse in the face of rape and sexual assault at the hands of white men.  It allowed white men to sexually abuse black women because as a Jezebel, they were “always asking for it.”  The Jezebel stereotype was among the handful of archetypes that white dominant cultural thought helped create and perpetuate that are now seen as racist stereotypes (among others were Mammy and Sapphire for black women; Sambo and  Mandingo for black men).

Cookie Lyons challenges all these cultural images and ancient philosophical theologies.

Many have asserted that the likes of Mary Jane from BET’s “Being Mary Jane” and Olivia Pope from ABC’s “Scandal” and Annalise Keating from “How to Get Away with Murder” will be dominant images of the black woman for a new generation juxtaposed to Clair Huxtable, Vivian Banks or even Florida Evans to name a few.  Certainly, with an hour long drama, the audience has a different way to engage the dimensions of these 21st century women that the platform that a cookie-cutter sit-com provided for most of their predecessors, I think it bears mentioning that Cookie Lyon deserves a place on that stage.

If nothing else, Cookie stands in a ghetto-istic defiance of the brokenness portrayed by Annalise, Olivia and Mary Jane respectively.  Granted, this is the result of Lee Daniels who operates in stereotypes like a artisan in paint, but Cookie doesn’t exactly don the tragic “strong black woman” motif to do so either.  Cookie does what Queen Jezebel does in the Hebrew Bible: takes on the role of power.  Jezebel sets in motion the governmental power-play that establishes theological rule for all the land.  She holds all the cards in her hand and has no problem stepping in when her husband doesn’t do the job.  She is the HNIC in the northern empire of Israel.  Cookie is also the head of her “Empire” as well.

Aside from the fact that I have generally liked Taraji P. Henson’s acting ever since “Baby Boy,” I think she is doing a great job of letting Cookie be her own trailblazer.  Most of us aren’t watching the show and saying that Cookie reminds us of any other actor or role that is etched in our minds like that of black matriarchs of the past.  But Cookie actually falls in that line, she’s the mother of three grown boys all of which have their numerous issues and distinct challenges.  What makes Cookie different, what allows her to be a 21st century Jezebel is that she doesn’t embrace her brokenness.

Mary Jane and Olivia hold to some of the same models of black respectability that Cookie clearly doesn’t.  I think it would be hard to imagine either of them walking into a board meeting revealing a bustier and garter straps only to turn around, slap their own butt and walk out the door.  Even more than Cookie’s prison stint, she also doesn’t fit the respectably image of a cosmopolitan black woman who’s not afraid to try something new.  That is to say, knowing Lee Daniels, I doubt we’ll see Cookie having a non-black romantic interest.

I would argue that the images of Mary Jane, Olivia and certainly Annalise are that which embrace the brokenness.  Mary Jane is so broken she actually was freezing sperm unbeknownst to her male partner and Olivia is so broken, for a strong majority of the show she was caught between “jam in Vermont” and “sun on the beach.”  And finally aided by the help of Cicely Tyson, we see just how and why Annalise is broken.  Perhaps it is unfair since the show hasn’t been on for long, but it is clear the ways in which Mary Jane, Olivia and Annalise have been broken and broken by not just the men in their lives, but also by their parents.  Cookie defies that to the point of actually doing a long bid for the man in her life–and she comes back more powerful than ever.

The stories of Mary Jane, Olivia and Annalise (or is it Anna Mae), are real stories and they shouldn’t be relegated to the margins in favor of Cookie’s, but at the same time Cookie’s shouldn’t either.  The story of the former women seem to be about those that embrace and attempt to live up to the notion of being a “strong black woman” and all the problems that that can entail.  While those three women occupy seats of power, ultimately their stories are stories of strength and how to be strong in their personal lives.  But not Cookie, hers is a story of power not just power when it comes to her “empire” but also exerting and naming power in her own life–the power to determine her own destiny.

Cookie stands as an interesting counter-narrative.  I think Cookie is a lot more accessible in ways that the other aren’t.  She’s common, and not in a bad way.  She doesn’t have the formal training.  She doesn’t at all engage in the respectability politics in public that the others do.  While we may have a family member or two who are Mary Jane, we all have a few cousins who are Cookie.  She bypasses all of the approved and acceptable ways to assume power, and does so in her own style and dares someone to challenge her.  And her assistant Porsha acts as the Id to her SuperEgo solidifying her place of resisting some of the norms.

The counter-narrative of power also embraces the fact that she is a mother.  Mary Jane, Olivia and Annalise are all without kids.  It bears noting that even still there are slivers in which dominant cultures tell women that they are not fully woman unless they give birth, there’s also a strain of thought that says if women choose to have children they need to stay at home to raise them and not try and mount a career.  Granted Cookie was in jail almost ALL of Hakeem’s life and some of those dynamics aren’t at play here, Cookie has been portrayed as having a mother’s heart–like when she rescued Jamal from the grips of an abusive Lucious putting him in a garbage can as a young child.

Cookie is Queen Jezebel, and for all the right reasons.  The 19th century archetype of Jezebel doesn’t have nearly the same traction it once did, and is seen as a negative stereotype now, but because the the 6th century BCE royalty, Cookie embodies a new kind of Jezebel archetype.  One that has power not just in public places, but more importantly, in their personal life.  As often as we can point out about the public ways in which black bodies and black Selves operate, I can’t help but wonder are we so vigorous in applying that same strictness to our personal lives.  Achieving personal wholeness is something that can’t be understated.  Each progressive episode with Mary Jane, Olivia and Annalise uncover more and more ways in which these women aren’t whole and how they operate very much from their hurt places.  Cookie, at least up until this point, seems to be aware of the hurt, but she has chosen to take agency of it in very different ways than her other prime time prima donnas.  This doesn’t mean Cookie isn’t hurt, or isn’t operating from a hurt place either–that’s clear between her relationship with her youngest and how broken Hakeem is as well–but her ability to have power of herself in these situations is what makes the difference; taking agency means having power over your Self.

Frankly, I like the story of Queen Jezebel in the Hebrew Bible.  I like it because it’s an in media res story of an underdog named Elijah who faces a eucatastrophe on Mt. Carmel, but moreso that Jezebel functions as a false antagonist; she is a subversive anti-hero.  The writers of the Hebrew Bible had one main objective: to tell the story that there was on only one deity and that was Yahweh.  Jezebel was nothing more than a convenient nemesis in telling that story, and they were able to display the cultural norms of patriarchy; it was a veritable two-birds with one stone as far as reinforcing cultural and theological beliefs of the day.  However, to not see Jezebel operating as a form of political and social resistance (hence the reason the story has her killed so viciously by dogs) is to miss a major part of the story.  But it’s a counter-narrative story.  Just as easily as people can read the story of it through the eyes of Elijah, that telling truth in the name of God can get you hunted down by the powers-that-be, it also a story of how being a woman usurping power in a patriarchal society can literally get you killed.

For me, the story of “Empire” doesn’t attempt to show what it means to be a black woman with the same intentionality of “Being Mary Jane,” or in the same way that conversations surrounding “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” have been appropriated.  And that’s some of the beauty of Cookie’s character.  She just is.  “Empire” is not about the power dynamic between the genders, and I doubt the creators and writers would highlight it as a central theme to the show if ever interviewed.  In fact, there is no agenda.   And the relationships with Cookie’s sister and to her children all seem real enough to most people.  Jezebel was married to a king in a divided empire, and Cookie is fighting for her piece of an “empire” divided as well, and that seems believable.  Well, believable enough for prime time, and I guess that’s all that matters in the end.  At the end of the day, all of these shows are out for ratings, and boy do we make sure they get them.

 

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2 thoughts on “An “Empire” Divided: Reimagining Cookie Lyon as a 21st Century Jezebel

  1. Thanks for this post. It piqued by curiosity about the Empire drama with music, so I explored.

    After watching about 4 or 5 of the most recent episodes of Empire, Cookie Lyon is not a 21st century (Old Testament biblical) Queen Jezebel. She is, as you point out, a ‘Jezebel’ of the christianist 18th century (and 19th – 21st) version of black women as over sexualized black objects to be used, denigrated, and discarded.

    The Cookie Lyon character is more, IMO, the unnamed New Testament woman at the well. That unnamed woman attains a ‘redeemed’ position to speak truth to power. The Empire Cookie speaks truth to power as part of her perceived modern day Jezebel-defined character personally.

    Jezebel and the unnamed woman at the well, two different characters: Queen Jezebel seeks power by treachery, the woman at the well speaks truth to (and with) power.

    Always uppity and radical, keep writing.

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