Diversity Was a Hot Topic at the 2019 Emmys—but Not in the Way We Wanted

And, TBH, we’re tired of accepting the bare minimum

Katherine Singh
(Photo: Getty Images; Illustration: Joel Louzado)

While the 2019 Emmy Awards stepped out of its comfort zone in some aspects, such as running the show without an official host, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, it would appear the show—and the industry—is happy to stay white quite the same.

Taking to the stage early in the night to accept awards, actresses Patricia Arquette and Michelle Williams reaffirmed their statuses as our #WCE by taking the opportunity to highlight communities and issues not often afforded the spotlight.

While accepting her award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for The Act, a clearly emotional Arquette commented on the 2016 death of her sister, trans activist Alexis Arquette, and stressed the importance of supporting the transgender community. “In my heart, I’m so sad,” said Arquette. “I lost my sister Alexis. And that trans people are still being persecuted. And I’m in mourning every day of my life, Alexis. And I will be for the rest of my life, for you, until we change the world so that trans people are not persecuted.”

“Give them jobs,” she continued. “They’re human beings. Let’s give them jobs. Let’s get rid of the bias that we have everywhere.”

Later in the evening, Williams talked about pay inequity while accepting her Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series award for Fosse/Verdon, saying that the award was “an acknowledgment of what is possible when a woman is trusted to discern her own needs, feels safe enough to voice them and respected enough that they’ll be heard.” Williams went on to talk about all the requests she made while filming, requests that were met with a “yes.” “Thank you, FX and to Fox 21 Studios, for supporting me completely and paying me equally,” she said.

But, before we could roast Williams on the fact that, as a white woman, she is inherently privileged, she brought the bigger argument home, stating: “Next time a woman, and especially a woman of colour—because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white male counterpart—tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her. Believe her, because one day she might stand in front of you and say ‘thank you’ for allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment, not in spite of it.”

To which we were like:

There’s no doubt that these women are queens. But while it was amazing that these actors took the time to spotlight important issues (something minority communities often have to do when given the mic), the bigger issue is that those communities weren’t on the stage to speak for themselves. Having Arquette and Williams speak out on behalf of the Black and LGBTQ communities only further highlighted that these demographics were lacking from the Emmys stage and in the nominations, and that’s an (ongoing and tiring) issue.

The Emmys saw an overall decline this year in diversity

Despite some great shows featuring diverse talent both on- and off-screen (hello, Ava DuVernay), when the nominees were announced in mid-July, only 24 actors of colour were on the list in major categories.

This is especially disappointing considering the fact that the 2018 Emmy Awards saw a record-breaking 38 nominations for people of colour and members of the LGBTQ community in lead, supporting or guest roles. (Although this *didn’t* translate into historic wins.) The Hollywood diversity needle *appeared* to be moving, if only at a snail’s pace. But still—we were excited!

If anything, this year’s show made it seem like the needle is at a complete standstill because the lack of diversity was *super* evident. Less than halfway through the broadcast, much of Twitter was reacting to the faces onstage in a similar way: with a weary sigh.

As category after category brought the same demographics onto the stage and minority actors, directors and writers were continuously overlooked, it was hard not to feel disappointed.

But as disheartening as it was to see creatives from minority communities continually smile and clap as their peers took to the stage, it also felt like a big misunderstanding. Because people online were rooting for them and were pissed off when they lost. So what was the deal?

There’s a discrepancy between what’s culturally significant and what’s awarded—and maybe this needs to change

The fact remains that there continues to be a big discrepancy between what’s culturally significant and what’s deemed “award-worthy.” This awards season alone has seen four popular shows seemingly overlooked—despite their impact on society and TV as a whole.

Missing among the homages to now finished shows, like Veep and Game of Thrones, was Orange is the New Black, a show that not only focused on women, made a case for diverse casting and promoted transgender and minority voices on-screen but also revolutionized the way we watch TV—as one of the first shows to be dropped all at once on Netflix, it kicked off binge-watching as we now know it.

The show, which said farewell in July by launching the IRL Poussey Washington fund to help incarcerated women, wasn’t mentioned at all. And while actress Laverne Cox did (rightfully) earn a nomination, the transgender actress and activist was largely left to the side, able to make an important statement on trans rights only via her red-carpet look.

Less than a week earlier, on September 14, Beyoncé’s iconic AF documentary Homecoming was shut out at the annual Creative Arts Emmy Awards, losing in all six of the categories it was nominated in. The film, which documented the months-long lead-up to Bey’s historic 2018 Coachella performances (as the first Black woman to headline the fest), was a true force—a love letter to historically Black colleges and Black women and a meditation on motherhood. As Vice writer Taylor Hosking wrote, “Homecoming gives audiences insight into how the most famous performer of a generation created a career-defining show about the freeing legacy of Black American music.” It was nothing short of amazing. And it lost to James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. Which—no shade, Corden—is basically a mounted webcam in an SUV. That’s it.

And, finally, let’s talk about Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. The limited series, which lost out in most of the categories it was nominated in (shout-out to Jharrel Jerome!), has been noted for righting the racist narrative around the persecution of the Central Park Five. It shed light not only on the injustice of that particular case but also on injustices in the criminal justice system as a whole, so the attendance of the now “Exonerated Five” at the awards show was pretty important. But, as writer Ernest Owens pointed out on Twitter, you wouldn’t think that had any significance. “At this rate, this award show would have you thinking that When They See Us, Pose, and Beyoncé’s Homecoming didn’t impact television this year.”

As entertainment correspondent Chris Witherspoon tweeted: “When They See Us was game-changing, event TV. A piece of work that will be discussed for decades to come.”

Yes, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Chernobyl are awesome shows, but there’s something to be said for shows that prompt important conversations, bring voiceless stories to light and cause you to pause and reflect on your own place in the world. Sometimes awards shows should be about more than just rewarding good entertainment.

So, maybe it’s time to change up the judging criteria. Or, as journalist and former FLARE senior editor Ishani Nath pointed out, maybe “We really need to rethink what awards *actually* mean.” We need to consider who’s giving these awards—and what they mean in a broader context.

Related:

Diversity at the Emmys Means Actually Awarding—Not Just Nominating—POCs
Please Allow Us to Debunk Every Ridiculous Justification for Paying Women Less
Gwendoline Christie’s Emmy Nom Is a Reminder That You a Bad Bitch

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