Hollywood’s weaknesses involving diversity and representation have come under fire in recent years, and no single flashpoint exemplified these issues like the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. In 2015, activist April Reign called out the Academy Awards on Twitter when all 20 acting nominees were white. Her hashtag went viral, and essentially defined the way many view the entertainment industry’s awards ceremonies: as bellwethers for its larger, institutional issues when it comes to race and gender.
So it should be considered good news that the 69th Emmy Awards ceremony this past Sunday was, in many ways, an example of diversity in action. Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series, while The Handmaid’s Tale’s Reed Morano became the first woman to win the award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series in 22 years. Donald Glover became the first black director to pick up the Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series award, and Riz Ahmed was the first South Asian man to ever win an Emmy acting award.
It’s absurd that after 69 years of the Emmys, we’re only now seeing these kinds of groundbreaking firsts. “It’s embarrassing, frankly,” Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes told Vanity Fair about the number of “firsts” in the show. But in many ways, the Emmys ceremony was the kind of inclusive step forward that other awards shows like the Oscars have often seemed afraid to take.
This is in part due to the incredible amount of television content that’s currently being produced. In his opening monologue, Emmys host Stephen Colbert commented that there were 450 scripted shows last year. That’s a huge number, but with it comes a huge opportunity. A 2016 study from GLAAD showed that representation has been increasing in television when it comes to women, people of color, and LGBTQ characters. It’s the hidden gift of this era of peak TV: with so many shows, sometimes the best way to break through the noise is to address an audience, or focus on a cultural experience, that simply hasn’t been represented before.
The rise of streaming services has only accelerated that trend. Subscription-based services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime don’t have to worry about conventional ratings. Instead, they’re focused on ensuring they have a broad, diverse assortment of programming with something to appeal to all potential customers. Niches have popped up as a result, providing chances for shows like Master of None to thrive — and win Emmys — even while 76 percent of Americans still haven’t heard of it.
“the film industry still functions as a straight white boy’s club”
By contrast, the film industry barely seems to be moving forward. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body behind the Academy Awards, has taken steps to increase diversity among its own membership, but representation in films themselves is another matter. A 2016 study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that women accounted for less than one-third of all speaking characters in major studio films. In television, 42 percent of series regulars were women. The schism between film and television holds true behind the camera as well: the study states that “the film industry still functions as a straight white boy’s club.” A USC study published this past February also found that, despite the larger conversations about representation, there was no meaningful change in the number of female, black, or Asian film directors between 2007 and 2016. Of the 1,000 top-grossing films in that time frame, the study found that just three black women, two Asian women, and one Latina had been hired as directors.
With predominantly white directors, movie audiences are still getting historical films with all-white casts. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk told the story of British soldiers trying to escape France in World War II, but ignored the presence of Indian, Algerian, and Moroccan soldiers. Sofia Coppola’s Civil War drama The Beguiled nixed the black character who was a major part of the source novel. The director later defended her film by explaining she didn’t want to include a token slave character without properly fleshing the character out, and “there wasn’t room to tell that whole story.” That’s the beauty of television: it’s become a medium that’s providing opportunity for creators interested in telling stories about people of color, resulting in increasingly diverse shows like Insecure and Atlanta.
In spite of these successes, the television landscape is still far from perfect. Television still has a dearth of Asian actors in lead roles, which was reflected yet again in this year’s Emmy nominations. Not to mention, many of the highest-profile roles — Aziz Ansari in Master of None, or Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project — are self-created, rather than the result of diverse, representative casting.
Nevertheless, the 69th Emmy Awards ceremony, and the era of television that spawned it, illustrate a potential path forward that could help the film industry tackle its representation issues. As services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon increasingly invest in film, perhaps they’ll do there what they’ve already done in television: create an ecosystem where a broad range of diverse titles becomes the rule rather than the exception. Maybe streaming services can bring about an era of “peak movies” that audiences have been eager for all along.