As I watched the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards last Sunday evening, I had to take several deep breaths to calm myself down from the excitement of it all. Though we are living in a media landscape with many more diverse characters and actors on television than ever before, when it comes to many award shows, these representations are often sidelined by productions created by and starring white, cisgender men, with the occasional featured actress who sometimes does not say enough to pass the Bechdel test.
If you think I’m taking a dig at the Oscars, you’re absolutely right. But this year’s Emmy Awards distinguished itself from the Oscars in more ways than one. 18 actors of color were nominated between the lead and featured actor categories, which is eighteen more than the Oscars and seven more than last year’s Emmy Awards. LGBT people and characters were also quite represented among the nominees. Of the combined fourteen series nominated for Best Drama and Best Comedy, ten featured LGBT characters, while the Oscars conveniently left out groundbreaking LGBT films such as Carol and The Danish Girl.
The diverse actors and shows at the Emmy Awards were not just merely nominated, but also were heavily represented within the winner’s circle. In fact, almost every winner was connected to diversity in its own way. For example, The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which was directed by out director Ryan Murphy, took home nine awards, and two of those awards went to talented actors of color, Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown. Other prominent artists of color such as Regina King and Aziz Ansari also took home awards for acting and writing, respectively.
Award winners were diverse in other area besides race. Especially when compared with the Oscars list of Best Pictures, which featured mostly male-driven films, the Emmys performed much better. Both Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany and Veep actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus won for their roles on predominantly female-driven shows. In addition, all of the lead and supporting comedic acting awards went to female characters, though two of them were played by men, which is problematic in its own way. But Jeffrey Tambor acknowledged what we were all hoping he’d say, when he accepted his award for Transparent: “I would very much like to be the last cisgender male playing a transgender female. I think we are there now.”
On a related note, the representation of queer women amongst the winners was higher than I can ever remember. Out actress Kate McKinnon took home her first Emmy trophy, for her comedic performance on Saturday Night Live, and Sarah Paulson won for her dramatic portrayal of Marcia Clark on The People V. OJ Simpson. Queer director of Transparent, Jill Soloway was also honored with an award for directing, and took that opportunity to tell viewers to “topple the patriarchy.” She also remarked, “This TV show allows me to take my dreams about unlikeable Jewish people, queer folk, trans folk, and make them the heroes.”
Though the Emmy Awards was clearly diverse in many arenas, there is obviously still much work to be done. According to a recent intersectional study by GLAAD, there are few television shows that feature minorities such as disabled people; in fact, the percentage of regular characters with disabilities on television has shrunk from 1.4 percent to 0.9 percent. Likewise, in 2015, there were no transgender characters on primetime broadcast television.
In addition, at the Emmy Awards, men dominated many of the writing and directing awards. While Jill Soloway and Susanne Bier won for directing in the comedy and limited series categories, in both cases, they were the only females nominated, which certainly skews whose voice is being heard. Arguably, the more females we have behind the scenes in creative writing and directing, the more women’s lived experiences will be projected across the nation for everyone to understand.
Aside from television, it is worth re-articulating that in many ways, the film industry is far behind when it comes to diversity. On black representation, Viola Davis once said, “The problem is not with the Oscars, the problem is with the Hollywood movie-making system…[who produce few black films],” and the same thing might be said about other minorities such as women and transgender people, who are less likely to be cast in lead roles. LGBT people, too, are rarely included in movies, unless they are a minor character or a gross stereotype.
Yet whatever the obstacles, it is important for these opportunities to exist, so that minorities can feel adequately and positively represented in media. While the impact of media representation may seem limited, this diverse representation can actually be a real step in combating the racism, sexism, and homophobia running rampant in our country.