Empire did its part to keep the Bury YourGays/Dead Lesbian Syndrome trope going this week by killing off Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei) and her wife Camilla Marks-Whiteman (Naomi Campbell)--the power lesbians who were bent on usurping Lucious' (Terrence Howard) Empire from the inside out.
Their demises coincide with months of outrage that's had TV geeks and LGBT watchdogs furiously typing tweets and think pieces about the death of lesbian/bi-sexual women on shows including The 100, The Magicians, and The Walking Dead. The problem, critics say, is that gay people, particularly women, are being killed in a way that reduces their humanity and presents them as inconsequential or comical clichés to be snuffed out like flies. (You can read more on the topic here and here.)
Of course, both Lee Daniels and executive producer Ilene Chaiken, co-creator/writer of The L Word, are both smart, influential gay pioneers, so we can safely assume that Mimi and Camilla's deaths aren't reflective of some deep-seated gay angst in the Empire writer's room.
That said, their deaths could be seen as more coal for the fire. Let's face it: Mimi wasn't a terribly compelling character. Her sole purpose was to wrest control away from Lucious in a slithery, seductive model of manipulation that sometimes felt like a one-dimensional man-hating boogeyman. Same for Camilla, who gets a pass because, well, she's Naomi Campbell, whose bad-bitch persona is her brand and gives the show good camp. Otherwise though, she's pretty much an evil ice queen using gay and hetero sex to bring down a family: basically, the religious right's shining example of gay perversion in a great wig and, ironically, a loathsome stereotype to LGBT activists too. It definitely doesn't help that Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) disdainfully refers to Camilla in last week's episode as a "half-lesbian bitch" and this week, Lucious suggests giving the two a "couple of dildos" as a wedding gift. There's enough here for a university level pop culture course.
But is the ire warranted? For one, we don't know that Camilla is truly dead. She swallows what's supposed to be poison in a somewhat bizarre scene where Lucious walks in on her after she's killed Mimi. He didn't shoot her, and Camilla has mysteriously resurfaced before. This is Empire we're talking about: everybody is fair game for beat downs, insults, getting shot, melodramatic tumbles down the stairs and on and on. It's not only a soap opera, but one that's working to regain its footing. Killing off characters keeps things lively. Already this season Frank Gathers (Chris Rock) was killed, as was Rhonda's (Kaitlin Doubleday) unborn baby, and we've yet to see Xzibit show up as Lucious 'rival. Many more people, gay, straight, whatever, will likely see their demise before it's all over.
Still, Mimi and Camilla were prop characters to begin with, and they were wiped out as opposed to given more depth, more compelling backstory, more thought. And it's worth noting too that, yes, Empire does takes on a real, complex and provocative gay issue with empathy and care, but through a man's point of view.
Tonight we were reminded again how Jamal's dalliance with Sky Summers (Alicia Keys) has put him at odds with Jameson Winthrop, (William Fichtner), the powerful gay producer who can take Jamal's career to the next level. As Jameson pressures Jamal (Jussie Smollett) to assert that he's gay, rather than "sexually fluid" as Jamal described it, we get a glimpse into the coercion entertainers (and common folk) face to fit into a neat box for other people's comfort. When Jamal is ambushed by gay fans wielding multi-colored flip-flops, and bastardizing his brother's song "Drip Drop" to call him a "flip-flop" sell-out, it feels poignant. (Ridiculous, but poignant.) Jamal is a full human being free to do whatever he chooses, and he's rightfully confused and hurt that his own community is lambasting him for living how he pleases.
That insistence to "pick a team," even within the LGBT community, is very real and a glaring paradox often lost in the dialogue about "equality." Still though, it's the man here who gets the thoughtful exploration while the women get cartoonishly shoved out of the picture. In the end, we are left respecting the idea that there's no "right" way to be a gay man, yet apparently still clueless about how to best extend that same respect to gay women.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox.