Empire’s Gabourey Sidibe’s character Becky finally got that good good. You know, that leg around his waist, can’t get up to go to work, working all the walls sex with a fine man. Twitter and Instagram exploded last week with reactions, predictably fat-shaming the talented actress.
With her classic wisdom and wit, the Oscar-nominated Sidibe responded: “I, a plus sized, dark-skinned woman, had a love scene on primetime television. I had the most fun ever filming that scene … I felt sexy and beautiful and I felt like I was doing a good job.”
Not only has Sidibe done a great job, she made television history. A voluptuous dark-skinned woman having a (quite natural) steamy interlude on primetime television is a feat that should be celebrated, not derided.
Empire has had many milestones, including the array of ways black women make their own sexual choices. This includes sex with younger men, kinky sex, interracial sex and lesbian sex. Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), Camilla (Naomi Campbell), Tiana (Serayah McNeill) and Anika (Grace Gealy) are characters who allow millions of viewers to see black women loving and being loved in creative ways. And in a year when the news has had too many reports of black females brutalized, seeing reflections of the fact we are lovable—kinks and all—provides much-needed affirmation.
But so far, one kind of love has remained unimaginable for Empire’s black women characters: the sexual and romantic love of another black woman. The opportunity for the portrayal of a black-women-loving-black-women was squandered when the show paired the sultry bisexual character Tiana with a white girlfriend.
Empire’s writers and producers join those of the new forensic crime drama, Rosewood starring Morris Chestnut. The main character’s sister, Pippy (Gabrielle Dennis) also has a white girlfriend, Tara (Anna Konkle). Amanita (Frema Agyeman) from the Netflix original series Sense8 does, too. The trend of depicting white women as the only possible love interest of black characters limits the scope of how black women’s sexuality is explored on television and prevents a representation of radical black self-love for women as it certainly exists in the real world.
Primetime shows give us white men loving each other (Modern Family), and Empire has also given us black men loving each other—go ahead, Jamal and Ryan! But so far, primetime television can only imagine black women’s love being directed to someone different from themselves, toward black (or white) men or white women. It’s as if writers can’t associate love and sexuality with black women enough to imagine desire circulating among sisters. As if, by ourselves, black women don’t have enough loveableness to make sex and relationships possible, to add up to a couple we need to get some from someone else.
Why can’t Cookie and Anika stop circling around Lucious and fall into bed together? Why can’t Tiana’s next girlfriend be a beautiful black woman? Black women’s sexual lives are complex and include the love of another good black woman. Why not show it all?
The past two years have brought to television representations of black women’s lives and loves that never would have been possible even 10 years ago. But we need to keep asking for more and more and more because that’s the only way we’re going to get it! Just like Becky on this week’s Empire, we can recognize that when we get a little something good—that’s the best time to ask for something even better.
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, a Public Voices Fellow, and Matt Richardson are associate professors of African and African Diaspora Studies and Affiliate Faculty of the Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.