a note on empire

I do not know how to write about TV. And, frankly, I know too many people who write about TV so excellently that venturing into the territory makes me feel presumptuous and silly. It’s 2:30 in the morning, I can’t sleep, and I have thinkings. Call this a weak disclaimer. Also, Tavia wrote something that made me think. So, blame him.

Lee Daniels’s Empire highlights transformation: flashbacks to the past chart the distinction between the past and the present. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the drug runner, is now a music mogul; Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) the cross-dressing son is now a firmly cis gay man; Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), once apprehensive and uncertain, now strides boldly across the world. In fact, as soon as Cookie returns home from jail, Jamal insists that she needs to acquire a new wardrobe and weave. On a more basic level, the young(er) people in the flashbacks have now grown older.

Perhaps the only character who remains unreconstructed, firmly tethered to the past, is Bunkie/Bunky Campbell (Antoine McKay) (both spellings are used on multiple websites), Cookie’s cousin, who Lucious kills in the very first episode. The Bunkie/Bunky of the past wore a heavy gold chain—the past being 17 years ago; the Bunky/Bunkie of the present wears the same gold chain. The Bunkie/Bunky of the past was heavyset, so is the Bunkie/Bunky of the present. The Bunky/Bunkie of the past wore sweats, so does the Bunkie/Bunky of the present.

(IMDB lists the name as Bunkie, but there’s something significant about a “minor” character, so “minor” that many websites are unwilling to verify the proper spelling of his name. This is one way minoritization happens.)

In a past we have not seen—and might not see—Bunky/Bunkie “raised” Cookie’s kids while she was in prison. The quotation marks are because I’m using his words, not because I doubt them.

Bunkie/Bunky must die.

He must die because he incarnates a masculinity that the show is not very interested in pursuing. After all, part of the show’s ongoing conceit is that every character “has balls.” The three sons must prove their masculinity to their father—they must plot and scheme, their faces must harden with resolution, they must insist, “I am a man.” Care work is absent from this definition of masculinity, at least the kind of care work associated with Bunky/Bunkie.

In fact, the character who most closely resembles Bunky/Bunkie is Lucious’s assistant, Becky (Gabourey Sidibe). So far (I’m only three episodes in), she’s the only one who knows about Lucious’s diagnosis, the only one who seems to care about his health; she is openly affectionate with Jamal, and keeps flashing him heart signs; in a show that sometimes runs brittle with cutting remarks, she incarnates a rare and welcome tenderness. Of all the characters in the show, she most closely resembles Bunkie/Bunky, in her physical appearance, her temperament, and, perhaps, whatever ethical compass might exist. I’m extrapolating, of course: we see so little of Bunkie/Bunky that it’s difficult to understand who he was. And while we know he “raised” the boys, their very truncated reactions to his death make him a disposable figure—a care worker whose work is done, who can be forgotten, whose death might be used to advance plot points based on scandal and vengeance, but whose death matters very little.

Of course the show focuses on power struggles, but something does not sit right with me about how easily Bunkie/Bunky is forgotten. Even though the incomparable Gladys Knight sings at his funeral, grief is not allowed to interrupt the show. And, so, because Tavia made me think in this way (I’m still blaming him), I’d think about how Bunkie/Bunky queers the show.

As the show opens, he is an uncomfortable reminder of a past Lucious would prefer to forget. As an unacknowledged care provider, he incarnates a gendered position that the cis-focused show shies away from. In fact, despite all the mentions of “sissy” and “faggot” in the show, very little about Smollet’s character is “sweet” in that way. Also, We know that Bunkie/Bunky embodies a failed masculinity because, to invoke Essex Hemphill, he does not know how to take what he wants. Lucious infantilizes him: “I can’t give you more money because you’ll gamble it all away.” The man who raised Lucious’s children cannot be acknowledged as an adult.

It’s not clear what effect, if any, Bunky/Bunkie had on any of the three sons. This might be because the show is still unfolding. Perhaps that aspect might be developed.

Because I’m from Kenya, I suspect the show might not be very interested in how care providers shape characters. In a country where the middle, upper-middle, and upper classes are routinely raised by ayahs and nannies, these women (almost always women) are rarely acknowledged as having a formative influence. Too often, they are supposed to provide care and to care, to feed, clothe, wash, play with, clean up after, and to love, protect, and cherish their charges. Simultaneously, their positions are often precarious and, too often, children learn from their parents that care workers are simply there to pick up after them. From their parents, children learn that one should demand care from care workers—I’ve seen way too many exhausted care providers cleaning after entitled children as parents berate the care providers for being “lazy” or “careless” or “stupid.”

I might be reacting to my own reactions to Bunkie/Bunky: he is supposed to be vestigial, out of place, out of time, and we learn too little about him to mourn him. That’s one reaction. The more I think about him, the more I wonder about the common feminist and queer rhetorics about ungrievable bodies, about disposable bodies, about unacknowledged and uncompensated care workers and care providers (worker and provider are related, but not the same). Thinking with Cathy Cohen, I’d ask about the kind of deviant body this gold chain wearing care provider incarnates, about the kind of lifeworld he inhabits and represents. I’d ask why he must die for this show to proceed.

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