You Want the Power But Not the Pain: Some Notes for White Women Who Love Cookie – The Feminist Wire

You Want the Power But Not the Pain: Some Notes for White Women Who Love Cookie

By Desiree Adaway

1423085294_taraji-p-henson-467I am a woman that makes her living helping individuals, communities, and organizations have difficult conversations, specifically the most important conversation to have at this historical moment—the one about race, class, and gender. I help people have conversations about inequality, injustice, violence, and the effects on real people’s lives. The core of a difficult conversation is asking the hard questions. Hard questions may not lead to a definitive answer but having hard conversations unequivocally generates awareness about issues we prefer to ignore.

In light of the popularity of Empire, specifically the popularity of the drama among white viewers, I’d like to ask this hard question: What is up with white, upper middle class women’s obsession with Cookie?

I am an almost 50 year old black woman, and I have watched the show Empire. Once. I love how Lee Daniels and Taraji P. Henson have captured the attention of this country with a different type of story and style of storytelling. But the homophobic language, over the top drama, and rapping just don’t do it for me. Admittedly, I am not their demographic. And yet Cookie is a phenomenon among my white contemporaries.

Looking like Cookie has even become trendy. Publications like Bloomberg tell you “How to Dress Like Cookie From ‘Empire’ at Work, Every Day of the Week” and Glamour Magazine shows how to be Cookie for Halloween. Outlets which largely cater to white women, offer guides for looking like Cookie and conveying the spirit of the most popular female character on television, who knows how to be a Boss Bitch.


This white fascination, faux celebration of black characters gives the impression of awe, admiration, and anti-racism but actually feels very racist. Because the truth is this— “Cookies” are all around us, and those real life women are not celebrated at all.

In 2010, black women were more than three times as likely as white women to be incarcerated. So if white women want to meet Cookie, sadly she is easy to find. There are plenty of “Cookies” around them in real life that they pass on the street every day and never acknowledge. In fact many have met her and labeled her the “angry” black woman.

She has come to their places of employment trying to get hired. She has come to them praying to find housing for herself and her children. They have seen her in the grocery store using food stamps and judged her.

The reality is white women like the fantasy of Cookie but not the reality of her. They romanticize Cookie at the same time that institutional racism means that white women have HUGE social distance from actual women who share elements of Cookie’s story. You can love her from afar and never have to wonder how the life you live makes Cookie’s story possible.

66bb8df3882f9f2f92fee96d8eb2b342It appears that white women want to emulate her strength, her power, and her hustle, but they don’t want to acknowledge her pain, her struggle, and her strife. They don’t want her inability to vote or the constraints of probation. They admire her sass but not the anger that feeds it, and they often deny the persistence of the oppression that underlies who she is. Wanting to be like Cookie is the cultural appropriation of a lived experience, an insidious kind of Rachel Dolezal move.

More and more I see a certain class of people and mostly white folks invoking the struggles of others to show that they are “badasses.” They post her quotes on Facebook to describe their bad days. They call themselves Cookies. They need Cookie to be this stereotypical, over the top woman, devoid of pain and vulnerability, so they can breathe her fiery essence in. They need to ignore her feelings, while making use of her hunger and anger.

The white women who romanticize Cookie subscribe to a controlling image of black womanhood. At the core of their longing to be like Cookie is this stereotype of the strong black woman—she can take anything that comes at her and do it with a smile on her face. In helping white women identify with their badassness, she becomes a “magical Negro.”

But here’s the thing: We don’t get to enjoy the character of Cookie and not acknowledge the pain of everyday women of color fighting for economic, emotional and social survival You don’t get to take Cookie’s strength and not understand the oppression that births the experiences of real life Cookies.

A well-crafted character and story is a beautiful thing. They become friends in our hearts and mind. They open us to worlds we would never experience, but this is not the fantasy world of Harry Potter. There are real Cookies, people who white America does not hold in awe nor admire. Everyday, real Cookies are ostracized.

The challenge is this – we can watch Cookie or we can build real relationships with real Cookies.

IMG_5800Desiree Adaway. Leading difficult conversations on race, class + gender. Building resilient organizations at The Adaway Group. Writer. Speaker. Coach.


  1. Carrie

    October 22, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    I’m a 57-year-old white woman and while I don’t love Empire, I enjoy the relationship between Lucious and Cookie. I watch it every week. It’s not that I think of myself as a badass or anything like Cookie–17 years in prison, yikes. I also think that there’s too much murder and mayhem in this show that’s supposed to be about music. Just like I kind of liked Scandal but it was too over the top, and then the way they treated Norm Lewis in favor of that weaselly president. It was ridiculous. The thing is, I’m working class and have lived in a city where workers have been edged out of housing by gentrification. I ride the bus with a lot of black women, went to community college with a lot of older black women and found out how much we had in common, how easy it was to talk to them, and enjoyed their company much more than educated “progressive” white women. I’ve always liked “black” literature, black movies and art. (White literature is just called “literature,” weird.) I also am so sick of white-only movies and TV. They are so boring. I loved Cookie telling Lucious last week that she was going to run him over and his answer was “Say it again. Say it again.” It seemed realistic to me. The show should focus more on relationships and less on crime. I feel that if I don’t understand the struggle of black women completely, I am at least trying, not by watching Empire, but by paying attention to people who are different than myself and finding things in common. Poor whites and blacks have been pitted against each other because if we ever joined up we would be a very powerful force.

  2. Cassandra Jones

    October 23, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    I think women are in such awe of Cookie because of her strength, regardless of the color of her skin. I admire her because of her ‘can’t keep me down’ attitude; which many of us women wish we had. How many women out there have ever felt betrayed, let down or cheated by our men? Every single one of us. How many of us would have such strength to come back, again and again, after experiencing what Cookie did with Lucius? Not many. Women want to be like her simply because of who she is. I personally love to see Cookie fighting for what is right while at the same time, stopping Lucius from getting what he wants.
    I think what bothers me is that this article splits women apart. We all struggle with gender stereotypes. We are supposed to look and act a certain way; and any woman who acts with such strength as Cookie is labeled a bitch or is asked if it is that time of the month. Ever been called crazy? I have-usually when I’m right, too.
    I agree that we need to acknowledge the struggle that has hardened Cookie. I do, I think it is the best part about her; it is what made her. Also, watching the show makes Cookie human. We see her cry, in sadness and joy. We see her hug her boys like they are actually her own. We see the pain that Lucius has caused her and how bad it hurts. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see this with real life Cookies. And when people are different from us, we dehumanize them.

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  4. Stephanie Katz

    October 26, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    OK, so you watched the show. Once. Then you missed the following:
    1. Taraji P. Henson is an amazing and talented actor who takes a character whose dialogue can often be written bordering on charicature and turns her into a well-balanced character played with nuance and depth. Cookie is beloved because Taraji P. Henson can deliver lines like, “The name’s Cookie. Ask about me.” with Zing! one minute and deliver an angst ridden, heart-rending jail flashback scene in another.
    2. Cookie’s character has many facets. We also get to see her making mistakes, being abusive and being weak. It’s the fact that she does NOT always fit the strong black woman meme that makes her role even more interesting to watch.
    3. Cookie provides a counterpoint for the Lucius character who is very hard to like. Every other character is manipulated by him and acquiesces to his demands. That Cookie does not drives a good deal of the dramatic tension and keeps the scripts from getting stale. The show would be unwatchable without her.
    4. Whoever handles the makeup and wardrobe for her is on-point every episode. Not all of Cookie’s outfits are over the top. Outside of the show, Taraji P. Henson pretty much nails it in every photo op as well. The whole “Get the look” thing has been going on with shows since Dynasty back in the 80s.
    5. Yes, there are real Cookies, and much of Cookie is rendered quite real in the show. The effect that her jail time has had on her – shown both in flashback and in her PTSD responses to current story lines – gets woven regular into her scenes. The role is in no way, shape or form “devoid of pain and vulnerability.” She is in fact full of it.

    I like Cookie because she is a dynamic character performed by a talented actor. The entire show is tight, well-acted, quick-paced and endlessly entertaining. I will not be dressing like her or quoting her, but I will be watching every single episode of Empire.

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