Story at a glance

  • Several prominent BIPOC and LGBTQ+ actors won historic primetime Emmy Awards.
  • The Television Academy made several changes to its nomination process this year in the name of inclusivity.
  • Still, there were no Latinx or disabled nominees, and BIPOC representation among winners was limited.

This year's Primetime Emmy Awards show was full of firsts: not the least of which was the first to be held without a live audience due to a global pandemic. 

Actress Zendaya became the youngest person to win Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series for her role as Rue, a 17-year-old with an addiction to drugs in a same-sex relationship with a transgender woman. The HBO show is inarguably groundbreaking — holding the record for most visible penises shown in a single scene on TV — and diverse in its portrayal of gender and sexual identities. 

But it’s also been criticized for a lack of racial diversity, Zendaya being one of just two Black main characters. Her Emmy win also made her just the second Black actress to win for the lead in a drama series, following Viola Davis, who won for her role on “How to Get Away With Murder,” in 2015. The actress, who has been a vocal advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement, gave a nod to protesters demonstrating against police violence and racism in her acceptance speech. 


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"I know this feels like a really weird time to be celebrating, but I just want to say that there is hope in the young people out there," Zendaya said. "I know that our TV show doesn’t always feel like a great example of that, but there is hope in the young people, and I just want to say to all my peers out there doing the work in the streets: I see you, I admire you, I thank you.."

The national racial reckoning has not spared the entertainment industry, and the reality of 2020 bubbled just under the virtual backdrop of the show. Actress Regina King wore a t-shirt with the face of Breonna Taylor — the 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who was shot and killed by Louisville Metro Police Department officers in March — as she accepted her award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie category for her role on HBO's "Watchmen," a show which burst onto the scene with a depiction of the Tulsa Race Riots last year. Her shirt read "Say her name," while Uzo Aduba, who won Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for "Mrs. America," wore a shirt emblazoned with Taylor's name.

It wasn’t all subtle. Laverne Cox, who has broken barriers as a Black transgender woman, was censored midway through saying, “I am living proof of the American dream that anyone in this country can lose the Emmy four years in the same category and yet somehow end up on this stage presenting an award to someone who probably didn't effing vote for me.” 

Cox had lost her fourth Emmy earlier in the evening before presenting the award for Writing in a Drama Series. The Television Academy later posted the full sound of her presentation online.

"What happens to an American dream deferred? Does it shrivel up like a raisin in the sun? Stick to the script Laverne, stick to the script," she joked, riffing off of two prominent Black writers and noting the discrepancy between diversity in nominees and winners.  


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In July, the Television Academy announced rules changes to "allow for more inclusiveness," including expanding the number of nominees per category for comedy and drama series and for all other series on a sliding scale. Canadian series “Schitt’s Creek” swept the comedy category with seven wins, adding up to a total of nine Emmy awards, the most ever for a comedy in a single year. 

Catherine O’Hara, 66, won the first acting Emmy of her career for her role as Moira Rose, the eccentric ex-soap-star, whose character quickly became a fan favorite while breaking from the traditional mold.

“This is so cool,” O’Hara said in her acceptance speech. “I will forever be grateful to Eugene and Daniel Levy for the opportunity to play a woman of a certain age — my age — who gets to fully be her ridiculous self.”

This year's nominees were more diverse than previous years, with more than 30 people of color nominated and nearly a dozen openly LGBTQ+ actors. "Ramy" became the first Muslim American comedy to be nominated for an Emmy, although it didn’t win. And RuPaul made history, winning Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program category for the fifth consecutive time and breaking the record for most victories in the bracket's 13-year history. He dedicated the award to Chi Chi DeVayne, the "Drag Race" and "All-Stars 3" queen who recently died after being hospitalized for suspected kidney failure at 34.

But besides a lead actress nomination for Sandra Oh, who wore a jacket and mask in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was no Asian representation in other acting categories. and no representation at all for Indigenous, Latinx and other historically underrepresented communities, including the disabled community. And it’s worth remembering where it started. As of 2019, less than 9 percent of primetime acting nominees had been people of color and less than 7 percent of overall winners had been nonwhite.


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Published on Sep 21, 2020