Last week's premiere of the Fox's Empire was hailed by critics for a pro-LGBT storyline, which follows gay musician Jamal (Jussie Smollett) as he sets out to prove his worth to his antigay father, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the CEO of a hip-hop label.
The musical drama, which was cocreated by Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels' The Butler), is partly inspired by events from the out filmmaker's past and is clearly sympathetic to LGBT causes. One of the most moving scenes from the pilot was a flashback in which a young Jamal is shoved into a garbage can by his father for wearing his mother's heels in front of guests. The scene is juxtaposed with a present-day performance of a song Jamal wrote about wanting acceptance from his dad.
But one word uttered in the pilot has raised a few eyebrows among viewers. Jamal's mother, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), used an antigay slur in response to the homophobia of her ex-husband, whose bias blinds him to his son's talent and ability to one day run his company.
"I want to show you a faggot really can run this company," she tells Lucious before setting out to become Jamal's champion.
Defending the word's use to The New York Times, Daniels said that the character of Cookie, as a supporter of her son and a fellow victim of Lucious (he divorced her while she was in prison for stealing the startup money for his company), has an authority to say the f word.
"I think Cookie has earned the right to use it," he said, though the Times noted that he "expected pushback."
Several news outlets did report on the use of the word. However, much of the reaction was positive. The media blog 2Paragraphs stated that Cookie employed it as "a badge of honor" that brought the network to "a place Fox hasn't gone before."
That "place" isn't defined by 2Paragraphs, but Slate, which published a lengthy response to Empire's use of the f word, said its use brought the show into a place of honesty about the struggles that gay entertainers and gay people in general face in homophobic environments.
In this context, Cookie did not intend the word as a slur, but rather as "a provocation, a declaration of fearlessness, a display of swagger," according to Slate.
"The word seems very much the one Cookie would use in that moment, even if most network TV would never permit her to," Slate states. "Cookie, like Empire, doesn't care about being polite or politically correct so much as being honest and fierce. She has cast in her lot with Jamal. The only way she can best Lucious and prove her own musical acumen is to make Jamal a star, and it's exactly because she is operating in a homophobic environment that her triumph will be so sweet."
But should context, noble intentions, and the authority of a gay cocreator give network television permission to broadcast slurs that demean minorities?
GLAAD, an organization that monitors LGBT issues in the media, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. (It is worth noting that the Empire cast worked with GLAAD last year to record an antibullying PSA, and Lee Daniels was recently interviewed by the group in its All Access video series.) However, the group lists the f word under its "terms to avoid" in its Media Reference Guide, classifying it under defamatory language "that should not be used except in a direct quote that reveals the bias of the person quoted."
While GLAAD has not raised any flags over the usage of the f word in Empire, it has done so historically for shows that were as equally well-meaning. In 2009 the group criticized South Park for an episode in which the main characters decided to change the definition of the word. Instead of a slur against gay people, the Comedy Central show redefined the term to describe rude motorcyclists, and the characters used it repeatedly as a form of satire.
At the time, GLAAD gave credit to South Park for using "edgy humor to provide commentary on current issues." But the organization maintained that the f word is "harmful and derogatory to the LGBT community," classifying it as "a hateful slur that is often part of the harassment, bullying and violence that gay people" and "an epithet that has real consequences for real people's lives."
The LGBT organization also has attempted to stamp out the word from the real-world speech of public figures, notably in the case of Alec Baldwin, who has employed it as an insult to paparazzi. And there have been real-world consequences. Several weeks after Baldwin called a photographer a "cocksucking faggot" in 2013, his new MSNBC show was dropped, and he credited the cancellation to the influence of GLAAD. (He also denied he used the word.)
The Logo reality competition, which pits primarily gay drag performers against one another in a race to become "America's Next Drag Superstar," aired a challenge titled "Female vs. Shemale," where contestants had to guess the gender of a person based upon close-up photographs of body parts. A debate ensued, in which defenders of the show cited RuPaul's status as a gender-bending pioneer, as well as the queer team that produced the show, as proof of authority to use words like "shemale" and "tranny." Ultimately, GLAAD did not side with this argument, and worked with the show to excise the offending language from future broadcasts.
Regardless of GLAAD's classification, the use of "faggot" on Fox's Empire has indeed brought television to a new place -- one that recognizes that words like these have the power to offend as well as the ability to shine a spotlight on hate.
While many LGBT viewers and their allies will argue that the f word should remain taboo on television for the reasons stated by GLAAD in its manual, there are also many who will disagree. The general nonreaction to its use on Empire points to a new era in television, when finally, most American viewers understand how words used in the name of homophobia can be filled with venom. But in the right hands, those same words can reclaim that poison and transform it into a cure.