Rolling Out

‘Empire’: What the Lyon family can teach you about your family relationships


“How can you watch that crap?” a colleague asked me. Her word choice revealed her disdain, rather than her curiosity. She wasn’t really asking about my interest in Empire, she scorned me for watching. I’ve been asked similar questions about related issues, in both social settings and professional circles. Whether responding to questions or critiques about writing an article on the therapeutic benefits of hip-hop, studying professional athletes and their families for doctoral research, or being a family therapist on a reality television show, my response always echoes my personal values and professional spirit. It’s rather simple: I like stories. I am curious. I try not to judge. I recognize themes and patterns. I focus on strengths. And, in the case of Empire, it’s thought-provoking, entertaining drama about family dynamics.

So, what draws me, as a family therapist, as well as an average of 10 million viewers to watch the Lyon family? Perhaps we are drawn to the multiple elements of culture that demand our attention such as music, art and fashion. Or, maybe we tune in because it pulls on our heartstrings by highlighting marital woes, sibling rivalry, family business struggles, entitlement issues, power and privilege, mental illness, substance abuse, legal troubles, medical concerns and grief. Our interest may lie in the uncovering of societal ills that plague our communities like homophobia, colorism, gender inequality and racism. While critics of the show may choose to focus on perceptions of ghetto and gangster, others might admit that Empire resonates with them because they see a little of themselves and their families. Let’s keep it real, some of us have controlling, conniving, jealous or outright trifling family members! They may not be drug dealers-turned-music moguls, but we can relate to the human quality of the characters. We connect to their search for meaning, relevance and purpose.

Whether you study the show from a place of consciousness or simply like Lucious and Cookie’s hustle, consider these factors related to personal growth and family interaction:

– How does your family show loyalty, trust and respect?

– Do you feel free to be you in your family? How do family expectations influence your feelings and behaviors?

– How does your family deal with disagreements and disappointments?

– Which family legacies and traditions fit with your personal values and interests? How does the family respond when folks want to do something against the grain?

– What is the impact of money, power or both in your family and relationships?

– Do you and your family members tip toe around problems, ignore them altogether or confront from a place of love and concern?

– How does your level of personal or work-related stress impact your relationship with family (and vice versa)?

– When you feel stressed, depressed or worried, do you and your family reach out for help?

– How do family members support each other in times of need and demonstrate love and appreciation?

So, this is what I see as a marriage and family therapist (MFT), I look beyond the glamour, behind the music and between the scenes to see what’s going well and what families want to work on together to create a better Empire.

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