The Unbearable Whiteness of the Emmys

It would appear awards shows are back to their worst habits

The Unbearable Whiteness of the Emmys
Image:Rich Fury (Getty Images)

As the first presenter at the Emmy Awards on Sunday night, a barefaced Seth Rogen walked out onto the stage and fired off a string of almost-jokes about the audacity of the attendees gathered under a tent, wearing designer clothing and celebrating their professional achievements in the face of the pandemic: “Let me start by saying there is way too many of us in this little room. What are we doing?” Rogen gave the impression that he’d rather be at home, as if nothing about the night that unfolded was going to be particularly momentous. After a few more barbs about the safety of the event, Rogen did what he was there to do: kick off Hollywood’s big attempt at a return to normalcy by handing Hannah Waddingham of Ted Lasso an Emmy. It was the first award for Lasso, which dominated its categories, and served as the setup for a night that felt distressingly normal—for its lack of diversity.

With so many strong contenders nominated this year and an uptick in diversity among last year’s winners—after years of controversy about the whiteness of award shows—it seemed reasonable to hope for a more diverse slate of winners. I Will Destroy You, a powerful and finely-wrought depiction of sexual assault and its aftermath, was nominated five times but won only once, when Michaela Coel made history as the first Black woman to win for outstanding writing.

In her speech, Coel dedicated her award to survivors of sexual assault, but also succinctly described what it must feel like to be not white in Hollywood: “In a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible, for visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success,” she said. As a commentary on the Emmys’ attempt at visibility—wherein many of the nominees were not white, but the winners themselves were—it is cutting, but only if you’re paying attention.

Of the two shows that won the most awards on Sunday, Ted Lasso feels emotionally similar to Modern Family, a long-running network sitcom that won 22 Emmy Awards over the course of its 11-year run. It’s easy to watch and makes the viewer feel good. Much like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which walked away with a few big awards in 2019, the shows are very white and not at all challenging, easy to consume. The Crown, which handily swept most of its nominations, is cut from the similar cloth as awards-show favorite Game of Thrones: a sweeping melodrama with an enormous budget, lavishly specific costumes, and a plot that necessitates the long-view. Though Game of Thrones is set in a land where dragons are real and sorcery exists, both shows are rooted in the reverential worship of ancient relics, and that sort of drama is irresistible to awards season voters. In particular, The Crown is a careful consideration of the problems of a bunch of white people anointed to the top of a very white social hierarchy by virtue of their bloodline.

Frankly, it is exhausting to continue to think about the lack of diversity in the winners of awards season, because it’s exhausting to be disappointed year after year. Shows like the critically-acclaimed Lovecraft Country, which merged Lovecraft-ian horrors with the real-life terror of racism in the Jim Crow south, are passed over in favor of the same old stories that now feel a little bit like they were made in a factory designed to create winners. Mare of Easttown, another limited series that swept the categories it was nominated in, is refreshing in that it focused on a blue-collar community and allowed Kate Winslet to talk about hoagies and Wawa, but still centers the age-old awards fodder of the spectacle of dead girls, as seen in other critical darlings like the first season of True Detective.

I May Destroy You is similar to 2019’s award-show darling, Fleabag. Both are British TV shows saved by streaming platforms and both concern themselves with the interior lives of women in various states of personal and professional disarray. The difference is that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character is an asshole, and the resulting show is mordant and funny in equal measure, whereas Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is the equivalent of a 12-episode punch in the gut that explores every possible angle of the aftermath of sexual assault. In 2019, Waller-Bridge won three Emmys, including outstanding lead actress and outstanding comedy series. In contrast, Coel won a single award, and the other two analogous awards this year went to Kate Winslet and The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix show loosely about chess, feminism, and wallpaper. Expecting more than one win for a show like I May Destroy You, which centers a Black woman’s experience and deals with issues of race, class, and sexual assault, shouldn’t feel like misguided optimism, but unfortunately, the Emmy’s proved themselves nearly irrelevant by awarding easy-to-watch mediocrity instead of the tough stuff.

Determining what is or isn’t “good” when it comes to awards is largely meaningless, because these awards are decided by a group of paying industry professionals, each with their own agendas, individual tastes, and motivations. But while sounding the cry once more for diversity in an awards show setting might feel futile, it remains very necessary. Diversifying Hollywood and the stories that people are allowed to tell, in the ways that they want to tell it, is not an overnight process, and dismantling the structures that privilege some over the others takes more time than anyone is willing to admit. But being nominated and then winning an award for good hard work is still recognition in some sense—it’s the idea that others understand what you’re trying to say and that something about it resonated. Coel’s win is still a win, but she deserved more than the Emmys are capable of giving right now. Maybe this time, they’ll start to learn their lesson.

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