Taraji P. Henson, star of the award-winning television series Empire, made a joke about penises in the name of pay equity during her Lucy Award acceptance speech. “If I do a job just as well as a man, people tune in every week, they see me [and] they root for me just like they root for him, why should my pay be less than his?” Henson asked before joking, “Is it because he has a penis? Because we live in a world now where I can have one attached. Just let me know if that’s what I need because I have them at home in all different colors!” She had the audience roaring with laughter. If only the solution to the pay gap were this simple….
Back in July 2016, Women in Film, a nonprofit with the mission of promoting female representation in television and film, hosted their annual Crystal + Lucy Awards. The awards honor women in television and film who champion the industry. Among the women celebrated at the ceremony were director Lesli Linka Glatter, actress Natalie Dormer, and top talent agent Hylda Queally. For her Golden Globe award-winning role as Cookie Lyon in Empire, Henson was honored with the Lucy Award for Excellence in Television.
The Lucy Award, named after Lucille Ball, is given to actresses whose work achieves a high level of ground-breaking complexity and resonates with fans across the country. Cookie Lyon does just that with 23 million viewers tuning into each episode and 400,000 tweets about the show per episode, according to the award presenter and CEO of FOX Television Group Dana Walden.
During Henson’s acceptance speech, she also mentioned her fears that her character would be deemed a villain (and she admits that Cookie acts like a villain sometimes). “I get this show Empire and this character Cookie scares the bejesus out of me because I’m thinking [the audience] is gonna hate her,” remembers Henson, “She beat one [son] with a broom, although he deserved it, and she went to prison for selling crack. Who’s gonna love her?”
Despite the terrible things Cookie has done on the show, Henson’s capacity to embrace the complexity of this character and “put the humanity into the ugliness in this person” makes the character more relatable and a focus of the show. Henson said, “Everything that [Cookie’s] gone through has made her who she is, and what human can’t identify with that?”
Moreover, she praised the practice of women supporting other women. “If we don’t support each other, who will?” asked Henson. “We have a bad rap sometimes in this industry – diva, difficult, catty. When all we’re doing is, in those moments when you call us being difficult, we’re fighting for what we deserve.”
Even in particularly competitive environments, Henson practices being supportive of other women when they succeed. She remembers losing an Emmy to Viola Davis and the media being surprised that the two hugged afterward. To Henson, the hug and the warm environment it helped to create should be standard procedure. “If she did good work, like, god damn, give her the f***ing award,” Henson said, “Give her the f***ing check.”
Almost a year ago, Henson already had solutions to the problems of dehumanizing those we don’t understand and competitive female environments. Since there’s been no vote on the Payment Fairness Act, her solution to pay inequality might be worth a try as well.
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