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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: How to walk away with Emmys

Viola Davis won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series last night for her role as the incomparable Annalise Keating in ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.”

Coming off a jam-packed opener from host Andy Samberg, when he touched on everything from the gender wage gap to Kim Davis, the acknowledgement that this is perhaps the most diverse Emmys ever was not lost on Samberg who subsequently proclaimed, “Racism’s over. But don’t fact check that.”

Viola Davis’ win­—along with Taraji P. Henson’s nomination for her role as Cookie in “Empire”, Uzo Aduba’s win for “Orange Is the New Black” and Regina King’s win for “American Crime”— was incredible. However, the award points out, along with Davis herself, that we can do more to address racial and gender inequality within media.

The Emmys haven’t historically been productive for people of color, particularly women. A 2014 UCLA report found that over 90 percent of Oscar winning films are directed by and predominantly star men; in the 2011-2012 television seasons, only 20 percent of Emmy-winning shows were created by women.

In response to report’s finding, the researchers wrote, “When media images are rooted primarily in stereotype, inequality is normalized and is more likely to be reinforced over time through our prejudices and practices.”

With Davis’ win last night comes the first win in the category of Lead Actress in a Drama Series for a woman of color, after 66 years of Emmy awards. While myriad actresses have been nominated over the years—Cecily Tyson, Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer—Davis is the first to win such a major award.

In her acceptance speech, Davis opened with a Harriet Tubman quote. “In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched towards me; but I can’t seem to get over that line.” Davis may finally be over that line, but recognizes the cost.

“Let me tell you something. The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else, is opportunity,” she said. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Following Davis’ win, daytime soap star of General Hospital, Nancy Lee Grahn, tweeted “I’m a f-king actress for 40 yrs. None of us get respect or opportunity we deserve. Emmys not venue 4 racial opportunity. ALL women belittled,” which was subsequently deleted, although recorded by Buzzfeed.

Grahn followed with the less incensing, “I think she’s the bees knees but she’s elite of TV performers. Brilliant as she is. She has never been discriminated against.” While she eventually apologized, noting how inappropriate her phrasing was, Grahn’s tweet is a testament to the idea that racism is indeed over in Hollywood, Calif.

Grahn isn’t alone in her now redacted opinion that Davis, and other elite people of color in Hollywood, hasn’t been discriminated against.

In 2014, when “How to Get Away with Murder” was released, then television critic Alessandra Stanley had a whole lot to say about Davis and executive producer Shonda Rhimes.

She referred to Davis as “older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Hollywood’s other leading black ladies, like Kerry Washington and Halle Berry,” and also “sexy, in a slightly menacing way.” The writer went on to question Rhimes’ writing as a perpetuation of stereotypes.

She suggests later that Rhimes’ possible memoir be titled “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman,” a stereotype she clearly thinks is real, and explained that the ideal of woman of color on TV—and apparently just in general—is Clair Huxtable, “The Cosby Show” character played by Phylicia Rashad.

Karl Rove, former White House deputy chief of staff and senior advisor to President George W. Bush, explained that Huxtable is the reason Americans are ready for a black first lady.

Stanley, who later stated that Saturday Night Live was going on a “diversity jag” after hiring a few cast members of color, is representative of the mainstream white ideology that people of color simply just aren’t trying hard enough without acknowledging that opportunities for them­—especially within television and film—simply do not exist.

Davis, who had worn her natural hair at the Oscars in 2012, had already made waves as someone not willing to bow to the confining white-washed stereotypes presented by Hollywood. Davis and Rhimes collaborate to showcase the power of color in television, but also to include women of color within the female narrative on screen, eschewing the classic roles of maid and slave for the tenure and pristine law offices of Keating.

“The role wasn’t written for a black woman, I made it black,” Davis said in an interview.

Her role may not have been written for her, but there isn’t a reasonable person who wouldn’t commend the incredible talent of Davis, Washington, Henson and the other actresses nominated.

I stand with Davis when she says, “So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people—people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”

We have a lot left to do to solve the race and gender gap of representation, but Davis’ win is a definite sign of progress.

Follow Nick Havey on Twitter.

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