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All my life I want money and power

Friday 24th April 2015

As we gather the tissues in preparation to say goodbye to Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway and the varied, complex women of ‘Mad Men’, where should we turn to next for a regular dose of ambitious career women?

Fox’s new series ‘Empire’ has come along at just the right time, introducing the world to the charming, ruthless force that is Cookie Lyon. The estranged leopard-print-clad matriarch of the Lyon family, Cookie has just returned after a 17-year stint in jail.

In her absence, her rapper turned business mogul (is he Jay-Z, or P Diddy?) ex-husband Lucious Lyon has built up their record label Empire Entertainment. Diagnosed with ALS and preparing for the company to go public on the stock exchange, Lucious must decide which of his three sons will continue his legacy.

Like Connie Britton’s ‘Nashville’ but centred on the hip-hop industry rather than country music, ‘Empire’ is the most delightful kind of soap opera indulgence. There’s illegitimate children, murders (plural!), attempted wife swapping and a cameo from Courtney Love as a washed-up starlet trying to make a come back.

Cookie Lyon is vulnerable, flawed and powerful. She isn’t after your respect, she just wants what’s hers after taking the fall for a drug deal that financed Lucious’ early career.

She has an acute business sense and an ear for talent. She isn’t afraid to let these opinions be known, especially with her youngest son Hakeem, who fills the role of “bad boy rapper” and who has enjoyed a comfortable life never needing to check a price tag. “Stop rapping like you from the streets, because you ain’t about that life”, she tells him.

As a New Zealand European woman who has not been to the States, I don’t feel like it is my place to discuss representations of race in Empire. But, you can’t really avoid it and naturally, there has been a lot of discussion around it. Encouraged by the success of shows with a predominantly black cast like ‘Scandal’ and ‘How to Get Away With Murder’, TV execs are now recognising the desire for wider representation of minority groups, particularly African-Americans.

But some have questioned if ‘Empire’ only serves to reinforce stereotypes of African-Americans. With artists like Kanye West and A$AP Rocky speaking out in support of LGBTQ members of the hip hop community such as Frank Ocean, the homophobia storyline feels a little stale.

As Cookie wrestles for control in the male-dominated music industry, Peggy and Joan are stuck in 1960-70s advertising. They grin and bear it while their male colleagues ignore their opinions and belittle their contributions to the empire of Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Price.

Over the course of seven seasons, while the mad men have steadily revealed themselves to be straight-up awful, the women have quietly transcended society’s expectations of them. As actress Elisabeth Moss says, Peggy “just keeps bumping her head up against this glass ceiling, not even recognising that it's there.”

In a pivotal scene of the first episode of the returning season, Peggy and Joan are reminded that while they’re facing the same challenges, they are trying to overcome them from different angles. A meeting with a pantyhose company where three chauvinistic men humiliate Joan prompts her to sigh, “I want to burn this place down.”

Peggy haughtily blames Joan’s clothing choices for the attention she attracts. Joan snaps, “What you’re saying is I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you. And that’s very, very true”, and the spell of sisterhood is broken. Peggy later lets loose by going on a blind date, and Joan purchases a new wardrobe from Dior, turning down the store discount.

In the early years of women’s lib, Peggy and Joan have resisted pressure to find a husband and leave the work force. This allows room for women like Megan Draper to have a number of career paths to choose from, long before “having it all” became a hot topic for the career women of the 1980’s.

Set in the male-dominated industries of hip hop music and 1960’s advertising where women typically occupy service roles, for the women of ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Empire’, they just want to work hard and be recognised for it, especially if that recognition involves cash.

Both Cookie and Joan have unapologetically made huge sacrifices to set up their family’s future, knowing their choices will be fodder for the office rumour mill for the rest of their careers. These women have ascended the ranks of the peers, always keeping one eye on the throne and it makes for thrilling television. Queens.

This content is brought to you with funding support from New Zealand On Air.

 



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