“The only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity.” And so Jimmy Kimmel opened the Emmy Awards, offering a tongue-in-cheek critique on how self-congratulatory the television industry has become for its well-timed rewarding of a diverse slate of performers and creators.
Airing a little more than half a year after the Oscars, which famously embarrassed Hollywood while exposing our culture’s institutionalized racial biases, failed to nominate a single actor of color for the second year in a row, the Emmy Awards arrived Sunday night with a record number of diverse nominees.
Eighteen of the nominees for acting awards this year were people of color, and for the first time in the show’s 68-year history, performers of color were nominated in every leading acting category.
“The Emmys are so diverse this year, the Oscars are now telling people we are one of their closest friends,” Kimmel continued to joke, taking the piss out of the otherwise very serious conversation that’s lit up the zeitgeist over the deplorable state of diversity in media over the last few years.
Whatever the word you prefer—diversity, normalization (Shonda’s favorite), inclusivity (Ava DuVernay’s preference), or representation (my pick)—the fact that we’re even at a stage where a white guy in a suit is poking fun at the debate insinuates how important the discussion is.
Should we be past the point where we chart progress in awards milestones? That is, the firsts, the records, the groundbreaking achievements? Yes. But in acknowledging them and celebrating them, hopefuly we make room for progress. And Sunday night at the Emmys? Progress was made.
Sure, it was funny when Kimmel, during his opening monologue, had nominees of color reach out to a white nominee to thank them for their bravery. (It’s hard to nail this tone of joke, and we must give Kimmel credit for getting it right on the head.)
But it was funny and important when Alan Yang, from Tawainese parents, alongside Aziz Ansari, whose parents are from India, accepted their award for Best Writing in a Comedy Series.
“There’s 17 million Asian Americans in this country and there’s 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong,” Yang said, shaming all of our opportunity blindspots and institutionalized cultural (even if unintended) reductivism and, yes, racism in only five seconds.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Yang said, with one final plea: “Asian parents out there, do me a favor, just a couple of you. Give your kids cameras instead of violins.”
It’s worth noting that the Master of None episode that Yang and Ansari won for, “Parents,” deals with how our current generation embraces our roots and histories, acknowledges our cultural failings, and reckons with how to do better both for the people before us and ourselves. Yang’s is a searing, spot-on joke that packages that entire conversation in one self-aware, pleadingly progressive sound byte.
The speech was so effective that Kimmel, again excelling in his role, joked, “Now there’s almost too much diversity in this show.”
He’s kidding, of course. But in more ways than one, this was the most diverse Emmy Awards I can remember.
We can easily point to Regina King’s win for American Crime—her second consecutive victory, in addition to her career as an in-demand TV director being spotlighted for her work as the announcer narrating her journey to the podium—and certainly to Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, and the rousing success of The People v. O.J. Simpson teams’ night at the Emmys.
But it wasn’t just racial diversity that was being celebrated.
“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the People v. O.J. Simpson episode that shocked us into reevaluating our gender biases and sexist attitudes, won for writing. Sarah Paulson also won for playing Marcia Clark on the series. It took home valuable, important time out of her speech to personally apologize to Clark for being “superficial and careless in my judgment” of her, a person whose crusade for justice was reduced to a perm, romance rumors, and misogynistic digs about the roles of working mothers.
Paulson’s speech was, in a way, an attempt at absolution on behalf of all of us.
It’s certainly worth noting, too, that the first two directing awards handed out during the ceremony went to female directors—Jill Soloway for Transparent and Susanne Bier for The Night Manager—at a time when it was just revealed that only 17 percent of TV episodes in the last season were directed by women (and only 19 percent helmed by ethnic minorities, male or female).
It requires action—active action (you might call it activism)—to remedy that disparity in opportunity. Ava DuVernay, who holds our lightning rod for inclusivity in Hollywood, is attempting to solve the problem in her own, individual way by giving all of the directing gigs on her series, Queen Sugar, to women. (She says, too, that after those breaks they’re all highly in demand now.) But giving trophies to the women doing great work is certainly a helluva a way to accomplish this active action, too.
In that same vein, we might consider Jill Soloway’s speech for her Transparent win as active action. (OK, activism.) “Topple the patriarchy!” Soloway commanded, concluding a stirring speech about the importance of giving opportunity to voices that have long been silenced. Suffice it to say it’s the first time that’s been chanted at the Emmy Awards. Certainly it’s the first time that’s been a hashtag.
Jeffrey Tambor, who won his second Emmy for playing trans character Maura Pfefferman on Transparent, ended his speech with a call to creators to hire trans actors. It’s a call that was echoed later in the night by Laverne Cox, the first openly transgender performer to be nominated for an acting Emmy.
“Give them auditions. Give them a story,” Tambor said, concluding, “I would not be unhappy if I was the last cisgender male to pay a transgender character on television.” His statement comes as that very action is causing a stir in the LGBT community. Mark Ruffalo, producing a film about a trans woman, has hired actor Matt Bomer as the star, to much controversy, and as such has great power.
The film’s voices and stories that won on Sunday night, though they may not necessarily champion “diversity,” won too.
“The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity,” Viola Davis beautifully said last year when she became the first black actress to win the Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away With Murder.
In baby steps, opportunity is coming… and so is recognition. And with recognition, hopefully more opportunity.
The recognition came in the form of a standing ovation for Sterling K. Brown, and in bombastic enthusiasm we all whooped along to as Courtney B. Vance thanked his wife, Angela Bassett, during his acceptance speech. In came in the reward for The People v. O.J. Simpson, which brought mass-appeal nuance to a cultural and racial debate that lacked any nuance two decades ago.
Hell, Fargo pulled off won the finest second season of a show in recent memory but still lost to People v. O.J. Simpson because of how viscerally the series hit on a cultural moment. And the categories that lacked this sort of vitality, this diversity, seemed to be genuinely embarrassed by that fact, as Kimmel joked while mocking the whiteness of the Variety Series nominees, of which he was one.
We celebrate the milestones, yes. Like Rami Malek, breaking a 16-year streak of white actors winning Best Actor in a Drama Series. Are we giving ourselves a bit too much of a pat on the back? Perhaps. I mean, is there anything whiter than Grease Live! beating Beyoncé’s Lemonade for an Emmy Award?
But let’s face it, a good pat on the back is as good as a pat on the rear on the way to progress. Self-congratulation is a necessary stop on the path to normalization. A 1400-word story about diversity at the Emmy Awards is a stepping stone on the way to a TV reporter not taking copious notes during an awards telecast every time a person of color wins. Because, soon, it shouldn’t be news.
That, we should say, is the biggest victory of Sunday night’s Emmy telecast.