Some thank Jesus, others thank their accountants—and many end by being unceremoniously drowned out by music. Award show speeches, part entertaining train wreck (see: Kanye West), part gospel (see: Beyoncé), can make the night fly by, or slow to a glacial pace. (Sorry, sound techs, we know what you do is important, but do you have to bring six people up on stage?) Herewith, five women whose epic addresses not only kept us entertained, they also took on sexism, systemic racism and Internet trolls. #BowDown
Tina Fey, 2009 Best Actress TV Series, Musical or Comedy, Golden Globes
We can pinpoint the moment we knew Tina Fey was destined to be an awards show force—this 2009 speech in which she called out Internet haters. Not only was it a great joke, but the anonymous people she confronted were real—and Gawker even went to track them down. Score one for real women in the real world.
Halle Berry, 2002 Best Actress, Academy Awards
In 2002, Halle Berry became the first black woman to win an Oscar in a leading role, an accomplishment that hasn’t been repeated in that specific category. Her emotional but eloquent speech thanked women of the past and present, and included a network of fellow actresses and mentors from Jada Pinkett Smith to Oprah to Vivica A. Fox. When the teleprompter appeared to be counting down, Halle reminded them, “74 years!” Cool your jets, orchestra.
Mo’Nique, 2010 Best Performance By an Actress in a Supporting Role, Academy Awards
What made Mo’Nique’s speech so powerful was that she acknowledged the giant gold elephant in the room: she had refused to campaign or do promotional appearances for her role in Precious without monetary compensation, something that is frowned upon in Hollywood. She thanked the Academy for awarding her on merit, not politics, and paid tribute to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American Oscar winner. Her speech was equal parts proud and humble, and her willingness to take on the status quo continues: since her win, she’s continued to challenge studios’ unwritten rules, and has repeatedly told reporters that the role of Cookie on the hit series Empire was intended for her, before producer Lee Daniels informed her she had been blackballed from show business because of her uncooperative Oscar non-campaign. It seems her talent is larger than her reputation though; this year, she was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work in Bessie. (Irony alert: the award, which Mo’Nique did not win, was presented by Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard, who play Cookie and Lucious on Empire.)
Patricia Arquette, 2014 Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Academy Awards
How do you turn your 30-second acceptance speech into a feminist battle cry? Try: “It’s our time to have wage equality for once and for all.” This lit the crowd on fire, and Patricia Arquette’s breathy, passionate speech had JLo and Meryl Streep proudly cheering her on. Backstage, Arquette elaborated on her thoughts to subsequent backlash (some felt that her message was centered on white women, and exclusionary). Still, the energy of her speech, and the headlines that followed, sparked more conversation around wage equality.
Viola Davis, 2015 Outstanding Lead Actress, Emmy Awards
It’s stunning that Viola Davis is the first black woman to ever win this award. Her eloquent speech was the most important and emotional moment of the night; she took the stage and quoted Harriet Tubman, before summing up the problem with diverse representation in films and television: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” It could not be more obvious but more necessary to point out—and who better to do it than Viola? She’s a highly respected actress with a long career and a hit TV show, How To Get Away with Murder. It’s rare that award show history actually means something in a larger context, but as Taraji P. Henson, Davis’s fellow nominee, said the next day on Ellen, “Let’s just break this barrier down and keep on pushing.”
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