The 2017 Emmy Awards aired a week ago, and as the news turns away from this year’s ceremony, the prevailing theme of highlighting diversity will remain relevant for many award ceremonies to come.
Overall, this was a great year for diversity in television, as host Stephen Colbert was quick to point out during his opening monologue, stating “For the third year in a row, this is the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history” (2017). To further back up his claim, a montage later in the night showed clips from shows that told diverse and inclusive stories, including Master of None, The Handmaid's Tale, Atlanta, This is Us, and Insecure.
In an age of peak television, when there are more scripted shows out and available for streaming than ever before, there’s also a better opportunity for those who have not been previously represented on television to have their stories told. Some of this can be attributed to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, which rely less on ratings and therefore have more creative freedom. Other times, such as in the case of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Mindy Kalin’s The Mindy Project, stars who have already established themselves in other shows sometimes have to take matters into their own hands to create the shows that better reflect who they are and what they know.
Some of the winners from this diverse group of nominees have done exactly that. Donald Glover became the first black director to win an Emmy for comedy direction for his show Atlanta, and Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win for comedy writing for her episode on Master of None, “Thanksgiving,” which was based on her life growing up as a queer black woman. Other record-breaking winners included Riz Ahmed, the first man of Asian descent to win an acting prize; Sterling K. Brown, the first black actor to win best lead actor since 1998; and Reed Morano, who became the first woman to win for directing in 22 years.
Lena Waithe with her Emmy Award. Image from www.indiewire.com
These winners are rightfully being celebrated by the television industry and viewers alike, but some industry leaders are skeptical of the self-congratulatory manner in which this year’s diversity was covered, both during and after the show. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Shonda Rhimes said that “it feels embarrassing that we are still in a place in which we have to note these moments…I’m hoping that it’s not a trend. I’m hoping that people don’t feel satisfied because they saw a lot of people win, and then think that we’re done.”
It’s certainly true that there’s still a great deal of work to be done. Other critics of this year’s award ceremony pointed out that the pool of nominees and winners were completely devoid of Latino actors, directors, and producers. The only Latino American nominated for an Emmy this year was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was nominated for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for hosting Saturday Night Live last October (the award went to Alec Baldwin for his guest appearances on the same show).
As previously mentioned and as noted by Eliana Dockterman for TIME, the winners who broke records this year all won their awards for work “that dealt explicitly with issues of identity. Donald Glover, who won…for his show Atlanta, has said that he wanted to…share the black experience with the world. Lena Waithe…took home the trophy for an episode about her character coming out to her family.” While these are important stories that deserve to be told and should continue to be told, it should also be normal for marginalized actors to win awards for their talent alone, and not just on work that directly relates to their personal identities.
Of course, as television leads the charge in offering diverse stories and then celebrating those stories, it’s wonderful for marginalized groups to finally have a chance to share their points of view with the world. During her acceptance speech, Lena Waithe thanked Netflix and Universal “for creating a different playground for us to play on and shine,” and added that, “the things that make us different, those are our superpowers.”
Riz Ahmed accepting his Emmy Award. Image from www.eonline.com
While presenting the award for Best Actress in a Limited Series or Movie, Riz Ahmed called attention to the importance of giving women more opportunities to tell their stories, as “Time and again we see how the stories we tell are often skewed in favor of the male perspective. When this happens we miss out on an opportunity to let our best talent shine.”
Overall, the diversity in this year’s Emmy Awards is a wonderful step forward but, as Shonda Rhimes pointed out, the work isn’t over yet. Now that the Academy has rightfully celebrated the progress it’s made so far, it’s up to the entire television industry to keep up the momentum, because diverse television makes for really great television.
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