While opening the Emmys, Kenan Thompson pointed out that this year’s awards have the most diverse range of nominees in its 70-year history. This leads him to conclude that we’ve solved it, and he and Kate McKinnon burst into song.
The song included the line “You’re welcome Asian people, we gave you that one show” and mentioned the fact that Sandra Oh is the first Asian woman to be nominated for a lead actress Emmy. Kenan follows this with, “You see? There were none. Now there’s one. We’re done!”
The whole musical number is like this: tongue-in-cheek, teasing the Emmys for taking so long to reach these diversity milestones, while also poking fun at people who ‘harp on’ about diversity (see: “Checking every box, it’s the ‘One of Each’ dancers!”).
Towards the number’s end, Kenan receives a phone call informing him that he’s spoken too soon, and that we actually haven’t solved it. And considering which nominees actually won awards, the mysterious caller was correct: while the nominees are more diverse, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Television Academy considers those diverse nominees to be winners.
Across 12 acting categories with 77 nominees between them, 23 nominations went to people of colour. Of those 23 nominees, just 3 won: Regina King for Seven Seconds, Darren Criss for American Crime Story and Thandie Newton for Westworld. (Note: Darren Criss has said he doesn’t identify as Asian-American because he “looks more Caucasian”, but he is both white and Filipino.)
Instead of making history by making Sandra Oh the first woman of Asian descent to win a Lead Actress Emmy, the Academy played it safe and gave the award to Claire Foy for The Crown. And instead of making Issa Rae or Tracee Ellis Ross the first black woman to win Lead Actress in a Comedy Series since 1981, they gave the award to Rachel Brosnahan.
The fourth person of colour to win a major award was RuPaul, for Outstanding Reality Competition Series.
The range of people chosen to present awards was more diverse than the Emmys’ winners circle, which is pretty bleak. And many people have pointed out that not only did people of colour lose to white winners, they lost to white stars starring in overwhelmingly white casts. This criticism holds up when you consider how white the casts of The Crown, Barry, Godless, The Americans, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and Game of Thrones are.
This year’s Emmys was the most diverse the show has ever been, but that isn’t necessarily a win; if anything, it’s a condemnation of just how bad previous years were in terms of diversity.
23 nominees being people of colour out of 77 means that fewer than 30% of acting nominees were people of colour, while 3 out of 12 winners being people of colour means 25% of this year’s acting winners were people of colour.
In regards to other areas of diversity, things weren’t much better. There were six LGTBQ nominees across the 12 acting categories: Tituss Burgess, Kate McKinnon, Lily Tomlin, Sarah Paulson, Evan Rachel Wood and Ricky Martin. None of them won, but at least RuPaul and Queer Eye did, I guess!
Peter Dinklage is one of the few actors with disabilities to have received an Emmy, and Born This Way, a docuseries about seven adults living with Down Syndrome, was nominated for three awards.
Awards aren’t the be-all and end-all of diversity, but they do give us an idea of what the Television Academy considers worthy, and what institutions deem worthy is a large component of diversity – if the powers that be don’t deem your project worthy, you won’t get funding, support, award nominations, or critical attention.
This has been a consistent problem for marginalised creators in Hollywood, and only now are they really seeing an increase in institutional support. Evidently, that support doesn’t extend to giving them awards. I guess the Academy expects them to just feel honoured to be nominated.