No true winners here: 2021 Emmys fails to address larger problems in television diversity

photo of the Emmys award show
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It’s no secret that #EmmysSoWhite recirculates as a Twitter trending topic each awards season, and 2021 is no exception. The Emmy Awards continue to reflect the unfortunate tendency of a couple shows sweeping the board in all or most of their respective categories. This year’s Emmys ceremony reflected not only what some consider an exclusionary Emmys, but also suggested the obsoleteness of the voting process by which the winners are selected.

Last year, “Schitt’s Creek” triumphed with its historic nine-win sweep at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, essentially an anomaly — an immensely joyful and queer show produced in Canada by PopTV, rather than another streaming giant, was finally recognized. For once, the Emmys seemed to represent the average television viewer by rewarding a well-loved underdog.

But that isn’t the full story. While the final season of “Schitt’s Creek” deserves to be celebrated, it’s critical to note that it still has a majority-white cast, prioritizes small-town values and relies on comedy greats (such as Eugene Levy, who was already an Emmy winner before “Schitt’s Creek”). The shows that consequently sweep the Emmys, even when their victories are framed as surprises like that of “Schitt’s Creek,” often remain especially palatable to white audiences.

This year, however, the Emmys had already made history before they aired. People from marginalized backgrounds composed almost half of all acting nominations, notably including the first nonbinary Emmy nominee, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, for their role as Marcus in “Hacks” as well as the first transgender Emmy nominee, MJ Rodriguez, for her work as Blanca in “Pose.” Yet if this was one of the most diverse pools of acting nominees in Emmys history, how did no people from marginalized communities win in any of the major acting categories?

Last year, the Emmys’ lack of diverse nominees led to public backlash and some even calling to entirely boycott the awards show, making this year’s subsequent and sudden uptick in nomination diversity feel less authentic. And after the Emmys proudly advertised their increased nomination diversity, the awards show’s viewership increased.

The sad truth is that television content isn’t as diverse as both fans and creators claim it to be. While on-screen diversity has improved with minority actors making up 35% of scripted roles in cable shows in 2019, the greatest racial disparities exist behind the camera, as only 10.3% of show creators were minorities in the same year.

As streaming service content continues to grow, television is often viewed as an ideal medium for niche content created for every audience imaginable, allowing underrepresented narratives to finally see the light. But in reality, content intended for older, white and straight audiences has historically been the most awarded, especially for awards shows such as the Emmys. Due to its mainstream popularity and financial success, similar media created to appeal to this demographic continues to be churned out every year. 

Shows such as “Mare of Easttown” and “Ted Lasso,” though incredible, strike unmistakable popularity with middle-aged white demographics and should be held accountable for not offering more diversity in their shows, both on-screen and off.

Marketing can also influence which television shows receive award nominations. This year, for instance, both HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” (featuring a predominantly Black cast) and “Mare of Eastown” (featuring a predominantly white cast) received Emmys nominations. Even though the former received more nominations (18) than the latter (16), some speculated that “Mare of Eastown” may have been more heavily advertised in order to emphasize the casting of previous Emmy winner Kate Winslet.

To ensure the success of television diversity for the future, the Emmys’ Television Academy, or the voting body for the Emmys, needs to seriously reconsider how they nominate and select the winners of their awards. The Television Academy is largely secretive about its demographics, but this year’s Emmys reek of myriad missed opportunities to award era-defining performances that will certainly stand the test of time rather than shows that assumed temporary popularity.

And as the delta variant ravages Los Angeles, watching an entirely unmasked audience of mostly white, affluent television makers squeezed together in a theater is a fitting metaphor for just how out of touch those involved with the Emmys really are.

Caitlin Keller covers television. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @caitlinkeller20.