Empire has a famously complicated relationship with love, sex, and sex scenes. Remember that bloody, shattered glass-filled showdown between Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), and a Louisville slugger in season 3? Howard recently told Refinery29 during a round table interview the scene was “the closest thing to [Cookie and Lucious] making love.” He added, “I don’t even think they could have reached that climax making love physically.” So, that is where Empire is coming from when it comes to relationships. That means it should be no surprise the musical FOX soap introduced a brand-new, bizarre, almost-sex scene in Wednesday night’s “Full Circle,” when Andre Lyon (Trai Byers) gets frisky with a woman he’s just met at the bar. But, the reason the scene is problematic probably isn’t obvious — the issue here is how terribly the instalment deals with human sexuality.
At the top of “Circle,” viewers see Andre run into an unexpected beautiful Black woman (Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris) at the bar. The mystery woman will later be identified as new Empire addition Pamela Rose. Andre and Pamela banter back and forth for a few seconds — “So, what are you drinking?” “Whatever you’re buying” — before the camera cuts to them hooking up in a bathroom. Pamela pushes Andre on a chair, climbs on top of him, and giggles when he throws her against the marble sink.
Clearly the Empire newbie is a sexual woman who knows what she wants. Considering how comfortable Pamela is with exploring her sexuality in this moment, it’s likely this isn’t her first rodeo. And, all of this is normal. Women meet new men at bars all the time, feel an immediate sexual attraction, and decide to take them into the nearest bathroom stall for some alone time. There’s nothing odd or shameful about this.
Things get weird, however, when Andre fails to perform the way Pamela apparently expects. At the end of the pair’s very quick, and light, foreplay, Andre pushes his new lady friend up against the sink from behind, and it’s intimated she pulls her underwear down. Yet nothing goes anywhere when Andre starts thrusting. Yes, erectile dysfunction is awkward to experience, but it happens. In fact, it happens to all men in some degree. So, hypothetically, because Andre and Pamela are both adults, they could talk through the unexpected, but commonplace, issue. Instead, Pamela stares in shock at Andre’s crotch area and says, “Looks like it’s not our night.” When Andre explains his doctor has him on new medication, Pamela starts walking out of the bathroom, advising, “Tell him he just cost you the best piece of ass you would've ever had.”
This is a mind-blowingly frustrating interaction. Pamela is unquestionably established as a sexually empowered woman who started flirting with Andre because she thought he was hot the moment she laid eyes on him. This means she would probably want to continue their hookup, even if penetrative sex wasn’t immediately on the table, or sink in this case, after about seven seconds of foreplay. If Andre’s penis wasn’t up to the task of getting her off in that moment, would a woman as straightforward as Pamela really not even ask if her partner was interested in going down on her? She would seriously rather say something snarky and run out of a bathroom than explore the possibility of getting oral sex? While we’ve only known Pamela for about a minute, this choice already seems out of character for her. It’s possible we could blame this problem on who wrote the episode, as it was penned by two white men: first-time Empire scribe Craig Brewer, and longtime team member Eric Haywood. Hustle & Flow director Brewer also helmed the episode.
Questionable characterisation aside, there is another huge issue lurking in this weird exchange: the underlying implication penetrative sex is the only type of sex. By Pamela ditching Andre the moment his member isn’t up to the job, it suggests a hard penis is what makes sex, well, sex; anything else that falls under the wide umbrella of human sexuality isn’t even worth discussing. That’s an alarmingly limited way for Empire to look at sex and relate it back to its audience. As I said, oral sex is a thing. If Pamela was really and truly only jonesing for some penetrative sex — and absolutely nothing else — couldn’t she have asked Andre if the beginnings of a blow job could fix his sexual hiccup? That way, everyone gets what they want. Because foreplay that lasts more than 10 seconds is also a thing.
It seems the reason Andre and Pamela don’t actually get past first base is because it’s revealed the oldest Lyon son’s new love interest is actually the NYPD liaison working on his father Lucious’ attempted murder case. You know, the one Andre is secretly implicated in because he led the plot to kill his father, which ended with a car bomb nearly doing the job in Las Vegas. Yeah, that murder investigation. If Pamela and Andre had actually slept together, the police officer would have been forced to recuse herself from the case, and where’s the sexy fun in that?
To further make the new Empire pairing even more uncomfortable and unnecessarily judgemental, Andre asks Pamela with a sarcastic smile, “May I ask you a question, detective? Do you often have sex with strangers in bars?” This is not said as a positive inquiry. So, when it comes to the already long list of Andre’s crimes, let’s add slut-shaming to the record. While it would be better if everyone in this situation stopped dragging each other for their sexuality, Andre probably deserves the barb Pamela throws in his face. “We didn’t have sex,” she tosses back. “Because you couldn’t get it up.”
Welcome to Empire, Pamela. May you soon have better sex and more realistic conversations.
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