By Ashley Osborne
Sunday night, The 68th Primetime Emmy awards honored the best of American TV from this past year. From the Emmy presenters to the actual award recipients, The 2016 Emmys were the most diverse and inclusive celebration entertainment has seen yet.
Anyone tuned into The Emmys was sure to notice the bold presence of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. We saw names like Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance and Rami Malek take Emmys for their lead and supporting acting roles. Jordan Peele and Michael Keegan-Key won awards for Outstanding Comedy Variety Series (and many more behind-the-screen) for “Key & Peele.” Regina King reached out to share a touching moment with fellow Black actress Taraji P. Henson (Cookie from Empire) as she gracefully walked to the stage to accept her award for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie” in American Crime. And although she didn’t receive the Emmy award, Tracee Ellis-Ross made history as the first Black woman in 30 years to be nominated for lead actress in a comedy series for Black-ish. Not one, but two female directors went home with Emmys; Susanne Bier for “The Night Manager” and Jill Soloway for “Transparent.”
Soloway accepted her award with a powerful speech that spoke to the world-changing impact of taking women, people of color, trans people and queer people, and putting them at the center of the story, making them subjects instead of objects. She ended her speech with an unforgettable closing statement,
Actor Jeffrey Tambor, who plays a trans character in Transparent, proclaimed that he hopes to be the last cisgender actor to win an Emmy award for playing a trans character. Leslie Jones addressed her experience with sexual assault and cyber bullying head-on, making light of it through a joke of course.
A majority of the award presenters we saw on our screens were women and/or people of color such as Constance Wu, Damon Wayans, Kerry Washington, Aziz Ansari, Laverne Cox, America Ferrera, Anthony Anderson and Leslie Jones. This year, 24.6% of the acting nominations went to non-white actors, an increase from last year’s ceremony. (That still falls behind the approximately 28.3% of speaking characters on television who were black, Latino, Asian or Middle Eastern in 2015, according to a USC Annenberg report released in 2016.)
Time Magazine’s “diversity roundup” of the Emmys breaks down the progress. While this on-screen representation was a monumental step forward for the entertainment industry, this momentum should continue building and create more intersectionality behind the camera. Many news recaps are showcasing the diversity of The Emmys, but the primetime awards show doesn’t highlight the winners from “other” categories.
One place where the Emmys are still lacking diversity and inclusivity is behind the screens in the directors' chairs and on production crews. Explore many of the non-primetime categories; there are few cases of minority team members winning an award. In 2015–16, women comprised 26% of creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography working on broadcast network, cable, and streaming programs. This represents an increase of 1 percentage point from 25% in 2014–15, and no change from 26% in 2012–13 (from the Boxed In 2015–16 report by Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, San Diego State University). In the 2015–16 season, 153 directors who had never worked in episodic television were hired by employers (studios, networks and executive producers) — 15% were ethnic minorities, and 23% were women (DGA Study: Women and Ethnic Minorities Continue to be Overlooked for Critical First Breaks in Television Directing). The study also revealed that 81% (619) of all first-time episodic directors during a seven-year span (2009–16) were male and only 19% (144) were female; 86% (656) were Caucasian while just 14% (107) were minority directors.
This data presents a huge wake-up call to the entertainment industry in the way that stories are being written and told, and also for the investment the industry is making in developing minority talent. Directors like Ava DuVernay and Jill Soloway make it a priority in their process to hire diverse production crews for Queen Sugar and Transparent, respectively.
At the 68th Emmy Awards, Aziz Ansari and writer Alan Yang accepted the Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series award for Master of None episode “Parents.” In his acceptance speech, Yang reminded us of the harsh truth that there are just as many Asian-Americans as there are Italian-Americans, yet they Italian-Americans have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky; Asian-Americans have no representation. He assured to all Asian-American parents watching that,
“If a couple of them [Asian-American parents], get cameras for their children instead of violins, we’ll be all good.”
While Yang delivered this bit of advice in a humorous tone, there is a lot of truth to his statement. The earlier people are exposed to storytelling professions in our entertainment and media industry, the sooner they explore interests and talents. What’s the best way to impress a young person? Through a combination of exposure from media representation and personal conversation.
But on the other hand, it’s appropriate to shed light on the fact that many industry executives are simply afraid of adding color to the old white canvas. But it’s time to do a very courageous thing called “getting over fears” for the sake of humanity. All people of all ethnicities, genders, abilities, sizes and ages deserve equality and truthful depiction, especially in America. Now more than ever, there’s a critical need for more representation in mixed media images. There’s a need to amplify more media that will inspire, inform and ultimately create the sparks of connectivity among people around the world. The storytellers of media are the authors of culture.
Looking back in history, this moment, The 68th Emmys, will be remembered, as a peak in the journey of the fight for equality. For those optimistic about change, rightfully so, but there is still a long way to go before our true cultural representation has been lifted.
America Ferrera appeared on stage to present an award, but there were no Latinos nominated for any category across the board; on-screen or off. Yang and Ansari were two of the few minorities to win an award for a role behind the camera of a television production. Shout-out to Will Smith for winning the Outstanding Comedy Series award as a Co-Executive producer for Veep. Other than them, Key and Peele, and Asian-American dance crew, Quest Crew, for Outstanding Choreography, television industry minorities making things happen behind the screen continue to appear on the Emmy award-winning list (and nominees) few and far between.
And it’s not that these minorities qualified for these jobs don’t exist. Hollywood has to do a better job at intentionally opening the doors and supporting development for minorities when it comes to hiring, storytelling and marketing our content. These stories matter, too.
To read more articles written by Ashley, check out her medium profile here.