Young Hollywood

Do the Emmy Awards Hate Kids?

It’s been a year of astounding performances by young actors—though you won’t see Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men), Max Burkholder (Parenthood), or any  others winning awards Sunday. Kevin Fallon wonders why

Ron Jaffe/AMC

This year’s Emmy nominees are old. That’s no surprise—they’re always old.

But as Sunday night’s Emmy Awards approach and the fury that first struck when this year’s nominees were announced and some favorites were snubbed starts flaring anew, it’s hard not to notice one glaring thing about this year’s contenders. Looking back, it seems to be part of a larger trend.

More than any other awards-giving group, the Emmys seem to really hate kids.

Some stats: the average age of this year’s nominees is 45. Only three of the 50 nominees are under age 30 (Girls’ Lena Dunham and Adam Driver, and Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke). Only five more are in their 30s. That means 84 percent of the nominees are age 40 or older. Neither Best Actor category has a nominee under age 40.

That’s not to say nominees shouldn’t be old. All (OK, most) of this year’s nominees deserve their nods. But no matter how good child actors are—heck, not even child actors, just actors under the age of 25—in their respective shows, the odds are stacked against them.

So Kiernan Shipka can continue to deliver startlingly mature performances as Sally, the barometer through which we gauge Don Draper’s meltdown on Mad Men. We can all gaze slack-jawed each week at Max Burkholder on Parenthood as he struggles with autism—and for that matter weep through every single scene Mae Whitman performs on the show. Those Modern Family kids? Expect them to become pros at clapping politely for their perennially nominated adult costars.

From Glee to Breaking Bad to The Middle to Shameless to Homeland to Awkward, child actors (or at least slightly older actors playing younger characters) on TV this season have played characters overcoming bullying, substance abuse, coming to terms with their sexuality, suffocating parents, absent parents, dying parents, sexual awakenings, and PTSD.

The material screams Emmy bait. But none will have a shot at being rewarded Sunday night—and they may never get nominations they deserve, no matter how good they are.

In 1984, Roxana Zal was 14 when she won an Emmy for her performance in the TV movie Something About Amelia, becoming the youngest actor ever to win a Primetime Emmy. That’s not to say many performers have had the opportunity to steal her title.

The last time an actor under age 18 was nominated for an Emmy was in 2001, when Frankie Muniz was nominated for Best Actor in a Comedy for Malcolm in the Middle. To find the last example before than, go back another decade to Claire Danes, who was 16 when she received her nod in 1995 for My So-Called Life.

Other past teenage nominees can be measured by the handful: Sara Gilbert was 18 when she was nominated in 1993 for Roseanne. Fred Savage was 13 in 1989 when he got his Wonder Years nod. Melissa Sue Anderson was 16 in 1978 when she contended for Little House on the Prairie (Melissa Gilbert never competed as Laura Ingalls, shockingly), and Patty Duke was 18 in 1964 when she was nominated for The Patty Duke Show.

The young Modern Family brood could, theoretically, find hope in the small Emmys success of the Huxtable kids during the Cosby Show run. Malcolm Jamal-Warner was 16 when he was nominated for playing Theo. Keshia Knight-Pulliam pulled out a nod at just age 6 for her precocious turn as Rudy. The same year, 19-year-old Lisa Bonet, who played Denise, was nominated. While Modern Family star Sarah Hyland, who plays oldest daughter Hayley Dunphy, is not technically a minor at 22, she might take comfort in the Huxtables.

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Compare this year’s Emmy nominees with those of the Critics’ Choice Awards. Hyland scored the Best Supporting Actress nod for Modern Family, not costars Julie Bowen or Sofia Vergara. Suburgatory’s Carly Chaikin, 23, and The Middle’s Eden Sher, 21, both scored nods for playing teenage girls in the same category. Sher won.

Last year, Emmy Rossum, then 26, was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress in a Drama for her sensational turn in Shameless, while Ashley Rickards, then 20, scored the equivalent nod in the comedy category for playing a, well, awkward teen in Awkward. Both are ingénues who are continually snubbed by the Emmys.

This year at the Emmys, cases could feasibly have been made for Glee’s Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, and Naya Rivera; Parenthood’s Burkholder and Whitman; Mad Men’s Shipka; Shameless’s Rossum and Cameron Monaghan; Homeland’s Morgan Saylor; Modern Family’s Hyland, Nolan Gould, and Rico Rodriguez; The Middle’s Sher; and Suburgatory’s Chaikin and Jane Levy. None were nominated, though their age group is acknowledged with surprising frequency by the Academy Awards.

The voting body for the Academy Awards is routinely dismissed as “old, white, and male”—and therefore out of touch and uncool. But just last year, then-22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress. Nine-year-old Quevenzhané Wallis was nominated against her. Lawrence was 20 when she received her first nomination in 2010, three years after Ellen Page and five years after Keira Knightley received their first nominations at the same age. Keisha Castle-Hughes competed for Best Actress at age 13 for Whale Rider in 2003.

The supporting categories are ripe with young nominees. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), Saorsie Ronan (Atonement), and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) were all under age 14 when they were nominated for Best Supporting Actress this past decade. Haley Joel Osment was just 11 when he was nominated for The Sixth Sense. Justin Henry was the youngest nominee ever at age 8 in 1979, for Kramer vs. Kramer.

It’s the Oscars that so often get the bad rap for being snooty, stuffy, and older-skewing, but that show seems to have no qualms about rewarding excellent performances by young talent. (The list of young actors to be nominated or win goes on here.) But it’s the Emmys that are living up to the reputation.

So it seems that for now, the only thing to do is assure the child actors routinely snubbed by the Emmys that there’s hope. Neil Patrick Harris may never have scored a nod when he was on Doogie Howser, M.D., but now look at him. Not only is he an eight-time nominee and three-time Emmy winner, on Sunday night he’s hosting the whole show.