“The next time a woman, and especially a woman of colour — because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white, male counterpart — tells you what she needs in order to do her job — listen to her,” Fosse/Verdon star Michelle Williams said as she accepted her 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series. It was a rousing statement that received boisterous applause from the audience at L.A.’s Microsoft Theater, where the 71st Emmys were held, and immediate social media support. InStyle, the Lean In organisation, and Refinery29’s own Instagram all shared the speech, too.
Williams’ words put a fine point on a night that proved women’s stories are more than necessary - they're crucial. It’s unfortunate that the limelight didn’t hit every woman. When you zoom out on the evening, you realise women of colour are still being left out in the cold.
Three series left the Emmys as the probable heirs to the next decade of television, following Game of Thrones’ departure. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Killing Eve, and Fleabag demonstrated they were up to filling the GOT vacuum. Maisel won both supporting actor races in the comedy genre after dominating the Emmys last year with eight wins. One of Killing Eve’s leading ladies, Jodie Comer beat out Game of Thrones queen Emilia Clarke — the presumed winner after the most gutting villainous turn of the TV decade — in the tense Outstanding Actress in a Drama race. Fleabag was the biggest success story of the night, taking home Outstanding Comedy Series, Lead Actress, Writing, and Directing gold. Fleabag may be over, but its creator and Killing Eve mastermind Phoebe Waller-Bridge has officially been crowned television's next visionary.
These three series follow noticeably similar central characters. Their settings and circumstances might be different, but their broad strokes are not. Each one largely follows a white woman with a chaotic interior life — due to a shocking divorce, bloodthirsty assassin lifestyle, or tragic guilt — who is still wildly resilient despite all that mess. Even after the arrests or priest seductions or elaborate stabbings, you root for them.
This is a trio of potent reminders that women don't need to be perfect to be compelling. In fact, they're all so much more interesting when they're not pristine saints. After watching hard-boiled antiheroes power 21st century television — see: Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Walter White (2019 Emmy opener Bryan Cranston), every man in Deadwood, and every man on Game of Thrones — it has been refreshing to see women characters shed the restraints of the Likable Woman trope and entertain their darkest impulses.
Nevertheless, it’s also necessary to consider who isn’t taking home statues and posing in the winner’s circles in their stead. Comer beat out co-star Sandra Oh, who plays Killing Eve's true complicated centre as the titular Eve Polastri. Oh was the first Asian woman ever to be nominated in this category in the Emmy’s 71-year history. Both the Outstanding Comedy race and Waller-Bridge’s Lead Comedy Actress category were all-white competitions. When They See Us’ Marsha Stephanie Blake was the only woman of colour nominated in any supporting acting category across the board. Even Michelle Williams, who championed listening to women of colour, took home the Limited Series Lead Actress trophy over two black women: Niecy Nash and Aunjanue Ellis of When They See Us. Williams can't control Emmy voting, but she does benefit from the current state of it.
When They See Us, which won just 2 Emmys out of 16 nominations, reminds it’s not that stellar storytelling from women of colour doesn’t exist — it simply isn’t what Emmy voters believe is award-worthy. The limited series’ director, Oscar-winner Ava DuVernay, also lost her category, this time to a white man, Chernobyl helmer Johan Renck.
While undeniable talents like DuVernay and Nash were at least nominated, so many other women of colour were snubbed entirely. Although Insecure’s stellar third season, which premiered in August 2018, may seem like a lifetime ago, it was actually eligible for this Emmys cycle. It was solely nominated in the cinematography category, which it lost. That means Issa Rae could not find her way into the Lead Actress race, and her relentlessly funny supporting cast failed to get a single nod. Apparently, the fearsome power of HBO’s award show net does know some bounds. In that same vein, Asian actor Maya Erskine received a writing nod for her Hulu series Pen15, but was never even a whisper in the Lead Actress race. Anyone who has seen Erskine’s show can tell you she’s giving the fearless taboo performance of a lifetime as her horny 13-year-old self.
Pose, an Outstanding Drama nominee that seems destined for icon status, ran into similar problems. Billy Porter may have won the Best Actor race in a historic victory, but his co-star Mj Rodriguez, the beating heart of the FX series, wasn’t even nominated. Indya Moore, a femme non-binary performer and Pose’s breakout star, was also snubbed, as was the unforgettably sharp Dominique Jackson, who plays diva Elektra Abundance.
There are also three outstanding Latinx, women-led series that didn't find a single road into the Emmy party. Jane the Virgin, a series that has managed to juggle delicate and important subjects like religion, abortion, and immigration with soap opera hijinks, has only ever gotten an Outstanding Narrator nomination, which it has lost every time. The CW series did not receive a single Emmy nod for its finale season. Netflix's last season of One Day at a Time won the editing race at last week’s Creative Arts Emmys, but was invisible at the big show that is the Primetime Emmys. Starz's Vida, a dramedy that tackles Emmys-bait topics like grief, queerness, and race with a surgeon’s care, has never gotten a single major awards show nod over its two-season run.
Vida’s Starz sibling Outlander, which is led by two white actors, has netted four Emmy nominations and six Golden Globes nods. So, it’s not like award show voters are oblivious to the smaller premium network.
If network execs and TV producers are ever going to take actresses of colour seriously about what they need to succeed, Hollywood has to deem their stories as vital as their white counterparts. Maybe next year — when Kerry Washing's American Son, HBO's beloved Black Lady Sketch Show, and One Day at A Time's much-lauded PopTV revival are all eligible — that can happen. Until then, everyone is waiting.