The 2020 Emmys tried; they really did. The award show tried to actually help the less-fortunate rather than simply patting itself on the back for featuring famous faces far more liberal than the racist president of the United States. That’s how non-profit No Kid Hungry ended the night with more than $2 million in donations from Emmy winners, and viewers were subtly bombarded with reminders of the injustice around Breona Taylor’s murder and the imminent need to vote.
But no award show is perfect. The Emmys proved as much with a segment producers perceived as eye-opening (in a positive way), but in reality used Latinx actress America Ferrera as a prop. The Television Academy largely ignored Latinx talent in its 2020 nominations— particularly performances by Latinx women — so the moment felt manipulative. If the TV Academy is going to continue to ignore many marginalized groups, it can’t have its self-congratulatory diversity cake and eat it, too.
The Emmys’ very special Latinx statement immediately got off on the wrong foot with the person chosen to introduce Ferrera: 20-year-old Black-ish star Yara Shahidi. “America Ferrera reminds us that when TV has more voices, it’s just better,” Shahidi correctly tells viewers. It’s a statement that has become par for the course in Shahidi’s career. In the six years since Black-ish’s debut, Shahidi has been forced into the role of Hollywood’s youth diversity and representation ambassador. Shahidi has defended the topic everywhere from South by Southwest to Georgetown University and the New York Times. Even usually apolitical celebrity gossip site JustJared ran a story about Shahidi and “the importance of diversity.” At this point, making Shahidi speak about representation again feels more like a lack of imagination and short-sighted pigeonholing than radical behavior.
There are more young BIPOC actresses worthy of the spotlight than just Yara Shahidi (and fellow biracial star and Emmy history-maker Zendaya). Shahidi thinks about more than the diversity-speak the film business demands of her multiple times a year. She’s a person, not a Venn diagram of marketing messages and desired optics from an industry finally bowing under the weight of decades of systemic racism.
This is a truth that particularly applies to the Ferrera segment, which would have been improved by the presence of a young Latinx actress as its presenter; someone who could speak directly to the way Ferrera’s success as a prior Emmy winner has influenced their own career. But Hollywood has yet to crown any such young Latinx woman with the prestige and celebrity recognition of someone like Shahidi. Euphoria’s Barbie Ferreira and Alexa Demie were never given the awards show push they deserved. Jenna Ortega hasn’t been permitted to break out despite scene stealing turns in You and, this month, The Babysitter: Killer Queen. Riverdale’s Camila Mendes has been limited to the high camp of her CW murder drama. The producers of the Emmys accidentally confirmed Hollywood’s obvious problems with nurturing Latinx talent in a moment designed to feign support.
And that was just the intro. Ferrera’s segment itself, titled “This Is What I Sound Like,” is powerful, albeit in a vacuum devoid of its Emmys placement. Ferrara begins the pre-taped piece recalling her first audition as a 16-year-old “little brown, chubby Valley girl who spoke like a Valley girl.” That means, vernacular-wise at least, Ferrera had more in common with Clueless’ Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) than the broken English accent of Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) on That 70s Show — or the countless fearsome Latinx gang members TV producers use as villainous cannon fodder on cop shows. The casting director was not pleased.
“She was like, ‘That’s great. Um, can you do that again, but this time, sound more Latina,” Ferrera says. Ferrera’s face in the moment — decades after the incident — still shows all of her pain and shock over the offense. When Ferrera countered that she is a Latina and therefore sounded Latina, she was dismissed from the audition. Ferrera’s family informed her the director wanted her to “speak in broken English” or “sound like a chola” — and they were right. Cierra Ramirez of Freeform’s Good Trouble described almost identical situations in her own career just last year to Refinery29. Roswell, New Mexico’s Jeanine Mason recalled her discomfort in almost-all-white auditions around the same time, telling R29, “I remember being so conscious of my thighs, sitting in a room with four Caucasian actresses waiting to go in and read for Dead Girl Number 3 on CSI. And being like, ‘How do I apologize in this space?’”
As the most powerful barometer of worthiness in television, the Emmys cannot decry the erasure of the Latinx identity in TV while leading the charge in that exact insidious project.
Despite being separated by a full generation as actresses, women like Ramirez and Mason are facing the same problems Ferrera spoke about during the Emmys. Rita Moreno made history in 1983 when she became the first Latinx woman to be nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. 24 years later, Ferrera finally won the award for her role in Ugly Betty. No Latinx woman has even been nominated for a Lead Actress Emmy in comedy or drama since Ferrera failed to repeat her victory in 2008. It is impossible to ignore the Emmys’ own part in the continued bigoted behavior Latinx women suffer. The women who have netted supporting or guest nominations in the ensuing years — Handmaid’s Tale’s Alexis Bledel, and Homeland’s Morena Baccarin, and Modern Family’s Sofía Vergara (who was forced into the upsetting “spicy Latina,” broken English trope) — are all white Latinx performers. They all also lost their categories, except for Bledel as a Guest Actress nominee in 2017.
Nearly every year, the Emmys tell us the work of Latinx actresses does not matter.
As the terrible cherry on top of the offensive sundae, not one actress nominated for a major Emmy this year identifies as Latinx. Shows led by Latinx women — like One Day at a Time and Pose — were entirely overlooked (save for Black actor Billy Porter’s much-deserved Lead Actor nomination). As the most powerful barometer of worthiness in television, the Emmys cannot decry the erasure of the Latinx identity in TV while leading the charge in that exact insidious project. If the Emmys had at least recognized its part in this problem — and the fact that the Television Academy itself snubbed Ferrera for her final season as NBC’s Superstore leading lady — the entire experience wouldn’t have tasted so bitter.
The work doesn’t stop with the Emmys and its willfully oblivious use of Latinx people. While the show leaned on Randall Park and Laverne Cox for delightful presenting moments, Asian performers and transgender performers were also mostly absent in the major categories. Indigenous actors were left completely off screen and the nominees list. When the Academy inevitably drags someone like Jeanine Mason’s Roswell co-star Amber Midthunder — a member of the Fort Peck Sioux tribe — out to speak on the horrors of racism against Native actors in the audition room, remember that.