"We watch it and we call it entertainment and everything's ok, as long as somebody's gettin paid"--India Arie
On January 7, 2015 a hit new show blazed onto America's televisions screens capturing the attention of millions and becoming FOX's highest ranking debut in years. The show, about a drug-dealer turned music mogul, features an ensemble of highly talented African American actors and guest stars some of the hottest names in the entertainment business. I caught a glimpse of the show a few weeks ago, and while I certainly understand the show's almost hypnotic appeal, I had difficulty stomaching the drama's amoral worldview and excessive stereotypes.
As a person who does not regularly watch television, I often feel like an alien during those rare times I actually catch a peek at a popular show. I grapple with genuinely wanting a show to be moral, and clean, and fresh, as well as entertaining, only to be seriously disillusioned when it unloads a barrage of bad language, flaunts all kinds of sexual impropriety, and regurgitates the same lame stereotypes. This disillusionment is especially acute when it comes to media that showcase the talents of people who look like me. On the one hand, I am old enough to remember when it was pretty rare for a show starring an all black cast to gain the same attention and prominence as a comparable white show. There has never been a level playing field between black media and white media, but now entertainment starring and even produced by black people is on the rise; and it has major crossover appeal.
Each week my Facebook news feed explodes with status updates about hit shows like Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, The Haves and the Have Nots, Being Mary Jane, and of course, Empire. All these shows prominently feature beautiful, talented, and alluring black characters, and yet not one has much to offer in the way of morality. What we are seeing is an empire of media about black people in powerful roles; media not just targeted to blacks, but to mainstream audiences. For the first time there are several televisions shows depicting black attorneys, black music tycoons, black millionaires, and other black professionals, and yet as seductive as it is for me to see these images on the screen, I remain conflicted. I cannot in good conscience consume media that contradicts everything I claim to stand for. In other words, this new empire of popular black shows is not my kind of empire.
Just to summarize my brief experience watching Empire, in only a few clips I witnessed a gorgeous black woman viciously attack another gorgeous black woman (the black women are aggressors stereotype), a gay man nearly toss another man off a high-rise building (because, of course, the only way to portray masculinity according to television is through violence (stereotype)), a black woman cursing out a black man (ghetto black woman stereotype), and worst of all, the star of the drama, Lucious Lyon, posing the question to his son, "lets see who's more powerful-- your God or your dad?" Did you catch that? A character whose name means light blaspheming against God--much too reminiscent of another character whose name means light and who is described as a lion (1 Peter 1:8) blaspheming against God (Isaish 14). To quote the author from Plugged In, a Christian webzine that publishes reviews on popular media, "Empire ...asks viewers to drink down a tall glass of sex, language and violence—practically must-have requisites for prestige dramas these days."
And as if Empire's language problem is not bad enough, star of the show, Terrance Howard would like to add more profanity to it in the form of a racial slur! According to Howard, the only way to challenge bigotry is to use the words derived from bigots themselves--thus mainstreaming racially charged words!
Ultimately, media makers would not produce this kind of content if folk, yes, even Christian folk, did not consume it by the millions. If we want to see better content on television, and more fair depictions of black people, we cannot continue to support the status quo. Yes, every time you turn on your TV you are essentially cosigning to the values and worldviews presented in that media. This blind assent to morally questionable content has psychological and spiritual ramifications. You are what you watch! The next time you pick up your remote control or log onto your computer remember the words of the psalmist who courageously declared, "I will set no wicked thing before my eyes" (Psalms 101:3)--not even a seductively packaged, but ultimately Godless Empire!