Spoiler Warning: This piece includes spoilers from Empire Season 2: Episode 9
If you have not watched this episode of Empire you need to watch it. It was amazing. Go do that now before you finish reading this article, or at least read a recap of the whole episode because this is more of an Empire appreciation/analysis post. That said, I have given you sufficient warning if you don’t want to read spoilers.
Before I get into the meat and potatoes of this analysis, can we just acknowledge the epicness that was that kiss between Skye Summers (Alicia Keys) and Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett)?! It was the perfect end to their performance of the song “Powerful”. It really took the whole episode into a completely different space, for multiple interesting social reasons that, but it also just felt like the perfect climax to all of the tension in the episode. It was a beautifully executed scene and I drank up every moment of it.
Now on to the very interesting social stuff.
One of the reasons I love Empire is because it sees potential controversy and instead of skirting around it like lesser shows would do, it runs straight into it and embraces it, a move that usually allows for some pretty dynamic TV moments.
Take the kiss for instance. When the kiss happened I screamed bloody murder throughout my house. Then I shot up out of my bed, squealed and did a straight floor drop like I was in a freaking dance battle (No lie. And I have never done this before). And it wasn’t because I don’t think that that it would be possible for a moment like that to transpire in real life, but it was because I honestly didn’t think that they would promote the idea that human sexuality is more complicated than being just gay, straight or bi. It was an incredibly bold choice to allow a gay character, whose fight to live in his truth has been so central to his storyline, to realise that that truth may not be as simple as he may have thought. There are many people, who despite all proof to the contrary, still believe that sexuality is a binary. This is evidenced by the widespread existence of bi-erasure which, very simply put, is when people imply that bisexual people don’t exist and are actually just “confused people who need to pick a side”. As expected, as soon as the kiss was over the bi-erasing opinions started to appear en masse on twitter.
“Jamal has to pick a side”
“So now Jamal is straight?”
“Alicia Keys can turn any man straight”.
And so on.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect that they were going to announce that Jamal was actually bi (Talk about a plot twist. That would have been wild right?!). I just hoped that they would use it as an opportunity to challenge people’s understanding of human sexuality. I know it may seem like I was asking a lot of Empire, but like I said before, Empire doesn’t often shy away from tackling controversial issues. A girl can dream, right?
Unfortunately, the episode ended with the kiss and we had to wait until the following week to see how they would handle the topic. I’m not going to go too far into the details of the next episode because that would be a different article altogether, but I will say that I think they handled it really well. Jamal is still gay, and while he cares deeply for Skye he admits he will never feel for her the way that he felt for ex (Michael, a gorgeous white-passing latino man). He seems to imply that while he is a gay man who is attracted to men, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is completely repulsed by all women.
He suggests that sexuality, like many other aspects of humanity, is a lot more nuanced than the inferences often made into some of the labels we use to describe ourselves. I, for one, am very glad that this was the view his character held in the show. There are way too many different people in the world with a variety of experiences, beliefs, and identities for people to expect that all of these people can fit into a few neat, little boxes. If a popular prime time show like Empire can admit this maybe we aren’t too far off from having better, more nuanced representation of marginalised people on TV.