Empire’s Latinx Problem

In its first season Empire broke records, ratings and Internet engagement by the end of its first full season run. The premiere episode was Fox’s highest rated series in three years and it tied with ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder as the highest rated new show of the 2015 television season. This monstrous phenomenon has been contributed to the star power of Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) at the helm and stars Terrence Howard (Iron Man, Hustle & Flow, and The Butler) and Taraji P. Henson (Person of Interest, Hustle & Flow, and various Tyler Perry films) as the power couple Lucious and Cookie Lyon. Another aspect that made this stand out from other dramas was the new music every week, produced by music mogul Timbaland. The cherry on top of this promising show was the majority black cast on a primetime television show.

With issues of representation getting more mainstream attention, Empire directly answers the call by giving audiences a cast of complex black characters created by a black man. We see Lucious struggle with his mentally ill mother’s suicide and his history in the violent world of drug dealing. At the beginning of the series, Cookie has finally finished her jail sentence for a drug dealing charge that she took on for Lucious so that he could manage the Empire record company. Her main conflict of the first season is reconnecting with her grown up children because she missed their childhood while she was in jail. Jamal struggles with coming out as gay to his homophobic father and Andre deals with depression and bipolar disorder while working day and night as the CFO of Empire. This show was praised for not only tackling touchy subjects like homophobia and the stigma of mental illness amongst African Americans but also handling them with the nuance and understanding usually afforded to white characters.

In a couple of articles published on the Latina.com website, hip-hop journalists comment on the lack of Latinos in a show about the hip-hop industry that, in reality, boasts multi-ethnic participation. Empire’s team must have heard the outcry and in an attempt to remain innovative, the second season tried it’s hand at latinx representation. In a show that has a pretty good track record with handling black characters, one would hope that the same would be applied to its latinx characters as well. Sadly, The second season, while plagued with other problems, only presented largely one-dimensional and stereotypical latinx characters.

To give context to the stereotypes discussed in this article, here are some of the most common stereotypes of Latinx people in media. The Spicy Latina is light skinned with dark brown hair and a curvaceous body. She’s loud, opinionated and has a short temper. Most importantly, she’s sexy and seductive to the point of hypersexualization. Another stereotype that is portrayed of Latina women is the pious Latina because of the historically significant majority Catholic population in South America. She’s almost the opposite of her spicy sister: conservative, plain, attends mass regularly, and family-oriented. The male iteration of the Spicy Latina is the Latin Lover. He’s slightly tan, handsome, suave and also hyper-sexualized. Latino men are also portrayed more as members of violent gangs when they show up in media at all. These stereotypes are in no way mutually exclusive and multiple can exist in the same character.

The first Latinx character to play a role in season 2 is Valentina Galindo played by pop singer Becky G. We first meet her in an audition for Hakeem’s Latina girl group project. When she realizes this isn’t an audition for a solo act, she goes into an angry rant completely in Spanish (without subtitles), tells Hakeem off in English and then storms off. This elicits a “She crazy” from Hakeem after she’s gone. She’s introduced immediately as loud, opinionated and “too hot to handle”: the cornerstones of the spicy Latina stereotype. In her next scene in the same episode, she is in a bubbly hot tub with Hakeem, presumably naked, having little conversation before moving into a full on make out session. This is only the second time she appears and she has managed to check off one more box on the spicy Latina stereotype list: hyper sexuality. Her character is then by Lucious in a power play against Hakeem and Cookie, never to be seen again, rendering her arc and her character as ultimately useless.

The next Latinx character to have a major part to play in the plot was Laz Delgado played by Adam Rodriguez (He also starred as Taraji P. Henson’s love interest in Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself). Cookie brings in Laz Delgado, a concert promoter; to help her put together a kickoff concert for her new record label, Lyon Dynasty. When a string of crimes, including the kidnapping of her son, hits her record company, Delgado seduces Cookie into hiring the people that committed the crimes to ensure her protection. This initial sexual advance turns into a three-day sex marathon between the two and during their various make-out sessions it is revealed to the audience that he has the same tattoo as the gang responsible for the crimes. When Lucious finally reveals Delgado’s connections, Cookie is devastated. In a gross merging of the Latin Lover and Gangster stereotypes, this character uses his irresistible sexuality to take advantage of Cookie’s emotional vulnerability and extort money from her record label.

Laura Calleros, played by Jamila Velazquez, has the longest storyline and the most influential role of the three. After watching Laura sing in a bar, Hakeem recruits her to fill the open spot in his girl group. Hakeem has a history of being a ladies man but when he tries to come onto her at a party she pushes him away and tells him “she’s not that kind of girl”. Because of her insertion into Hakeem’s storyline, she’s portrayed as the “good girl” in comparison to other women that he’s been with. Not only is she shy and humble but also she tells him she’s a virgin in the middle of a make out session. They only have sex after they first exchange “I love you”s. The camera tastefully pans up to a crucifix on the wall above her bed to emphasize the inherent contradiction of having sex before marriage and her Catholic faith, even though this is never shown to be an issue for her character. Laura only serves to be a practically angelic girl whose influence changes Hakeem for the better. Her worries of her music career vanish when Hakeem proposes to her and they begin planning their wedding. Her Catholic faith is implied in her more conservative values and her docile personality.

These stereotypical characters and their shallow characterization are a problem because they are the first Latinx characters to have recurring roles. Empire’s mega popularity and diverse black representation makes it a good place to start for showing positive and complex representation of Latinx and other underrepresented groups. In a show that’s shown that it’s cognizant of racial issues, the writing should reflect this consciousness in all its characters. The bar has been set higher and weak characterization that falls into tired tropes are no longer acceptable.

Author: Danielle Fraser

Editor: Han Angus

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