There is a lot going on in this country right now. There are police battling protesters in St. Louis (the protests stemming from yet another cop not charged for killing a black man). There are protests for DACA and the protection of the Dreamers, people who were brought into America as children and have grown up under government protections that have now been taken away, putting them at risk for deportation to countries they have no familiarity with. Meanwhile, there are hate crimes happening almost every day, including that of a biracial boy who was lynched. Thankfully, he survived, but I’m sure his psyche has been scarred forever.
With all of that going on, what possible message could the Emmys have for those of us fighting for representation, when it seems everything and everyone else wants to literally and figuratively snuff us out?
Yeah, the Emmys didn’t win any points by having Sean Spicer as one of the main jokey appearances of the night. For many, it was a horrible moment of playing to the “normalizing Trump” deck. While Hillary Clinton is being shunned for speaking her mind on the election and answering the question many of us had–what happened??–Spicer, who has been willing to speak lies to power at the White House press pulpit and recently defended Trump on Jimmy Kimmel Live, now gets to go on the beginnings of a redemption tour, starting with being in Colbert’s opening Emmys act.
— Brow Beat (@browbeat) September 18, 2017
The Emmys also didn’t deliver on reducing tone-deafness in other ways, such as Nicole Kidman’s ridiculously long (and seemingly rehearsed) acceptance speech, and Kidman’s later speech with Big Little Lies co-star Reese Witherspoon. As one Twitter user wrote, having two white Oscar winners complain about the lack of roles, when there’s a much more dire state concerning roles for everyone else, felt just a little bit gross.
— Small Screen Girl (@KiraJW) September 18, 2017
But the most powerful takeaway from The Emmys last night was how amazing it was to see so many people who have been traditionally marginalized by Hollywood–and by society at large for their sexual orientation, religious beliefs, gender, and/or skin color–get recognized by the Hollywood elite. That recognition makes the Emmy board and Emmy voters pat themselves on the back for being “liberal,” but that feeling of recognition shouldn’t be for them. It’s for those winners and the people the winners represent.
The Night Of‘s Riz Ahmed, Master of None‘s Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari, This is Us‘ Sterling K. Brown, Saturday Night Live‘s Kate McKinnon, Atlanta‘s Donald Glover, director Reed Morano for her work on the pilot episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Charlie Brooker for his script for the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror were all big moments highlighting the power of inclusive storytelling.
History was also made by Ahmed, who became the first male South Asian actor to win at the Emmys, and just the second Asian star period after Archie Panjabi. Ahmed is now also the first Muslim actor to win an Emmy. Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing in a comedy series and Brown became the first black actor to win the Outstanding Lead Actor-Drama award since 1998. Glover’s wins earned him the titles of being the first black actor to win the award for Outstanding Lead Actor-Comedy in 32 years and the first black Best Director-Comedy winner.
Waithe and Brown’s speeches in particular showcase just how powerful it is to be seen and validated for being exactly who you are.
“I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers — every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it,” said Waithe to her “LGBTQIA family.”
“And for everybody out there that showed so much love for this episode, thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago,” she continued. “We appreciate it more than you could ever know.”
“When people who have gone through anxiety said, ‘I haven’t seen this on TV. Thank you for representing it as well as you did, and making me not feel as if something is wrong with me,'” said Brown backstage to Entertainment Weekly, referencing the anxiety his character on This is Us faces daily. “You often have this feeling that it’s just me, and then you get a chance to see somebody else go through what it is that you go through, and then you feel like you’re not alone again. I’m always really, really proud of an opportunity to tell people that they’re not alone.”
Ahmed summed up the night perfectly in his backstage interview with BuzzFeed News.
“I think what we’re starting to see is more awareness around how beneficial it can be to tell a diverse range of stories and to tell them in a way that’s authentic,” he said, adding that he found Ben Skrein giving up his role in Hellboy 3 due to cultural sensitivity particularly moving. “When you see examples of that, what you’re seeing is just more awareness around these conversations. And I think awareness is the first step to reach change,” he said.
— Susan Cheng (@scheng_) September 18, 2017
So, when using the context of the Emmys, what does validation mean? It means being seen. “Being seen” is a phrase that gets overused on the internet, especially if you stay within certain circles on social media. But being seen is the best way to describe the feeling. Seeing people like Waithe, Brown, Ahmed, McKinnon, and Ansari getting rewarded for what they bring to the acting world–a certain point of view that reflects their uniqueness as individuals–can give viewers who aspire to be like them, but feel let down by today’s current society, hope. That hope can also be spurred into action.
Nights like the Emmys are chock full of the potential to be empowering, and despite a night full of hiccups, the Emmys still delivered on empowering moments in television. These Emmy winners showed that there is power in inclusion, because the fight isn’t about metrics or taking acting roles away–it’s about validation. It’s about someone saying that your story, your life, matters. It’s about a little kid (or, let’s face it, even a grown adult) gaining encouragement and self-esteem after seeing themselves on screen in the form of an actor winning an award. People want to act like such a simple act as that doesn’t matter, but most of the people who think that have seen themselves validated on screen and throughout society for their whole lives. Acts such as a marginalized person winning in a country that is designed specifically to target them can rewire a person’s entire trajectory for the better. These small moments are wholly important.
Hopefully, last night’s Emmys validated you in some way as well. We all have our stories to tell, and we all don’t feel qualified or allowed to tell them. We can feel as if our country doesn’t support us or love us. We can feel like our parents don’t understand us. We can feel like everyone and everything who is supposed to support us has failed us and refuses to understand our pain or our message. But we are now in an America where it is possible for actors of color and LGBGQIA actors to feel legitimate in telling their story, not a whitewashed version of it.
They can be who they are and be validated for that, and during these troubling times, that counts for something. It means that there’s still an appetite for connection. There are still people in this country who want to know about your experiences and care about how you see things. There are still many who would love to support you in spreading your story to the masses. In short, you have the permission to light the world on fire with your story as well; you can be an inspiration someone else looking for the message only you can give. As Waithe said in her speech, what makes you different is your superpower. Use it to change the world for the better.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) September 18, 2017
— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) September 18, 2017
Now go tell your story!
How did the Emmys positively affect you? What did you take away from it? Did you feel validated by any of the wins? Comment below. And, if you know someone who needs to hear a message of validation, let them know!
“Please tell me you’re seeing this too,” said Rami Malek as he accepted his Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. His work on Mr. Robot is awe-inspiring, but it’s also absolutely necessary. While Malek’s character Elliot succinctly sums up the post-tech malaise and loneliness due to not fitting into society’s herd mentality, Malek also, quietly led a revolution just by being himself. Malek is of Egyptian descent, and as such, he’s become the first actor of color in 18 years to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
18 years. That means a lot.
That means for as long as a non-white kid, let’s say a Middle Eastern kid, someone like Ahmed Mohamed, aka “Clock Boy,” has been alive, there hasn’t been an actor of Middle Eastern/North African descent who the Emmys have deemed “worthy enough” to win, despite the fact that tons of Middle Eastern and other non-white actors are out there, ready and willing to show off their gifts. A kid like Mohamed hasn’t been able to see himself portrayed positively on television, and this means that others watching TV haven’t been able to see positive representations of Middle Eastern characters either; all they and Mohamed see are their people as terrorists.
When all you’re seen as is a terrorist, then it’s no wonder why someone with a vivid imagination, hopped up on discriminatory and xenophobia from the TV screen, would paint a smart, innocent kid like Mohamed, a kid who could have potentially been a bright light pushing America towards a more industrial-sound, innovative future, gets labeled as a terrorist for bringing his model of a clock to school to show his science teacher.
Before you say, “There are clearly more factors into why that kid was mistreated,” let me be the first to say, yes, there are many more factors. The adults in that situation could have been adults and realized that this intelligent kid was hoping those he viewed as mentors would see, acknowledge, and encourage his gifts. The adults in this situation already had their own fears that they put upon this boy. But let’s also acknowledge how our perceptions of the world and each other filter their way through our televisions every day. When you see others as terrorists, thugs, nerdy comic relief, submissive and/or hypersexualized objects, and other dehumanizing stereotypes on TV day in and day out, society as a whole begins to view the real life counterparts as those stereotypes, despite the fact that stereotypes are lies.
Malek’s win should be an uplifting moment for every brown kid looking at the screen, daring to hope that they can be seen as mysterious and heroic, that they can be viewed as a well-rounded, deeply layered individual. The same goes for Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari’s wins for Outstanding for a Comedy Series. Their work on Master of None has, despite criticisms about the cookie-cutter sameness of the woman cast as Ansari’s girlfriend, helped create a platform for Asian American voices to finally tell their stories. With Ansari as the lead and Ansari and Yang’s writing propelling immigrant stories in the much-lauded episode “Parents,” the two were able to smash the Model Minority myth as well as the myth that Asian Americans can’t be mainstream leading men.
While Master of None directly spoke to the immigrant experience, Malek himself spoke to his own experience as the child of immigrants.
— Variety (@Variety) September 19, 2016
Related: The Next Omar Sharif: Why Finding the Next Middle Eastern Hollywood Star is Easier Than We Think
The Emmys also celebrated the stories of layered women, including the performances of Regina King in American Crime, to Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Veep, to Sarah Paulson in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, to Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black (who literally has to play multiple characters in the same scene), and many more. Jill Soloway, writer/director of Transparent and the star of Jeffrey Tambor were awarded for their work on the groundbreaking show featuring the journey of a family as they loved the main character through her transition. But while the show has been part of overarching criticism about Hollywood refusing to cast trans actors and actresses for roles, Tambor took his opportunity on stage to demand for Hollywood to cast trans actors and actresses, making it clear that he recognizes the privilege that allowed him to play his Emmy-winning role.
Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, and Keith David all won Emmys too; Vance for his leading role in limited series The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Brown for his supporting role in The People vs O.J. Simpson, and Keith David for his narration for documentary Jackie Robinson. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele won for their hilariously creepy work on Key & Peele. RuPaul finally won for the stellar RuPaul’s Drag Race and the stories of those with Down’s syndrome were recognized with a win for reality show Born This Way.
Overall, the Emmys shamed the Oscars. Even though there’s still more work to be done when it comes to portraying a much wider array of stories on both the big and little screen, it’s clear TV has a better handle on the battle than the movie industry does. In a year when we experienced the zenith of #OscarsSoWhite, the Emmys has given the Oscars a masterclass on how to respect and award stories different than than the “white male lead” vehicle. The actors and actresses awarded Sunday night have given voice to so many of the voiceless, and the Emmys has not only bolstered their platforms; it’s bolstered those who believed no one would listen to them. Now that there’s a clearer path towards recognition, perhaps we’ll see less terrorists on TV, hapless nerdy stereotypes, one-dimensional women, LGBT stereotypes, and offensive stereotypes of people with disabilities. We’re nearing the day when everyone will be given their just due to tell their stories the way they see fit. Hopefully, we’re nearing an age where we can see everyone’s humanity first.
When he won his Emmy, Malek said to the audience, “Please tell me you’re seeing this too.” We’re definitely seeing it, this change happening in television, and hopefully it sticks around.