The queer women character death toll rises with “Empire”

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Caution: Spoilers ahead. Do not watch if you haven’t seen tonight’s episode of Empire.

Tonight’s episode of Empire, written by out showrunner Ilene Chaiken, ended with yet two more deaths of queer women television. In the final moments of “A Rose by Any Other Name,” Lucious finds Camilla (Naomi Campbell) murdering her wife Mimi (usually by Marisa Tomei, who does not appear in the episode. In her place, a lifeless body in a bathtub). Lucious then forces Camilla to kill herself or he threatens to turn her in to the police. After detailing the horrors of prison and reminding her she’ll have to face Mimi’s entire family in court, she drinks the rest of the poison she slipped into her wife’s drink.

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A few weeks ago, I was on a conference call with Ilene Chaiken, where I asked about the trope of killing of lesbian characters. At the time, I hadn’t watched the screener for this episode, but was asking because of her history with offing Dana and Jenny on The L Word. Her response:

“We hold ourselves to a rigorous mission of being true to all our characters and treating LGBT characters no differently than characters who fall anywhere else on the spectrum of sexual orientation. I would certainly not say to you that we’d never kill a gay character, but we certainly aren’t going to kill a gay character in the way that gay characters have been killed on television shows historically.”

It’s been incredibly disappointing to see Empire, a show that was so progressive in its first season with multiple LGBT characters and storylines, fall into the same tropes and traps that series lacking LGBT leadership do.  Despite the fact Camilla and Mimi were done in in a different way from others, the lack of care for queer women characters remains. In life, Mimi and Camilla were insufferable women often referred to as bitches or other nasty epithets in reference to lesbianism. (In next week’s episode, Cookie refers to Cookie as a “carpetmuncher” at her funeral.) 

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And it’s not just the death trope that the show is guilty of. Earlier in tonight’s episode, Camilla made it very clear she was using Mimi for her money, waiting for her to die so she could be left the Empire shares and take over the business with her lover, Hakeem. She’s a manipulative, lying, scheming bisexual character, although “bisexual” is never used and is rarely brought up unless it’s being used to accuse Jamal of not being gay anymore. Meanwhile, Tiana’s bisexuality has all but disappeared, as her girlfriend is nowhere to be found and Tiana is instead singing songs about dancing in the club while boys can watch (“Look at my body/Don’t I look sexy?”). Her entire performance is for the male gaze, and her Season 2 arc is all about her jealousy of Hakeem’s interest in Laura as she goes on tour with Ménage a Trois.

Mimi herself has flirted with bisexuality in the past, despite identifying as a lesbian, willing to jump into bed with Lucious and a beautiful woman. Yet this episode she is said to be “possessive,” “overprotective” and “jealous,” dumping her Empire stocks as soon as she sees the sex tape Hakeem made of him with Camilla, complete with post-coital conversation about how Mimi isn’t “sick enough” for Camilla’s liking. Soon after, both women are dead.

In that same conference call with Ilene, she spoke about how she finds the creating of queer characters on the show “the greatest challenge and ultimately, I think, I hope the thing that makes it work, that we can take these big swings and at the same time tell stories and portray characters with nuance and insight. We do work really hard to find a way to make both of those things live within the same world of the show and feel like they’re a part of the same world,” she continued. 

But in this world, it is the queer women who are lacking any sort of nuance, used once again as props and  villains, underdeveloped problems writers solve by killing them off to move story forward for other major characters. 

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“One of the greatest opportunities in doing this show is portraying those character nuances, those complexities of character, not simply telling the story of a gay character and saying that’s all there is to him,” Ilene said, specifically referencing Jamal. “But talking about sexuality as a complex thing that’s unique to every individual.”

And while that may be true for Jamal, the queer women do not get the same treatment. Until Empire creates a three-dimensional queer women characters that can exist without being a stereotype and ending up dead, it doesn’t deserve the accolades it once received for being queer and feminist friendly. 

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