The 2021 Emmys came and went like the wind, gathering a small section of Hollywood’s elite in a very small — and, as Seth Rogen pointed out, not exactly COVID-safe — room to celebrate the biggest night in television. The nominations leading up to the event promised the possibilities of records to be broken, considering the nominations were the most diverse in the show’s history. But the Academy did as they’ve always done: stuck to the status quo. They’re not changing, so something has to. And I think it’s time that we make that change.
When the list of Emmy nominees first dropped months ago, the lineup was refreshingly stacked with unique, quality contenders across categories. Pose picked up a number of nominations for its stunning final season, and its leading lady Michaela Jaé Rodriguez made history as the first transgender woman to be in a lead acting category. Lovecraft Country’s 18 nominations made a good case for its renewal at HBO, and the BAFTA-winning I May Destroy You seemed to almost guarantee another shiny trophy for Michaela Coel to take home. Granted, there were some shows that were slept on (don’t worry: we’ve got you covered), but overall, the Emmys’ nominations seemed to make more sense than they had in recent years. Many of us were actually hopeful and cautiously optimistic that the stories we loved would get the love and recognition that they deserve.
The Television Academy had other plans. Despite the fact that the show was the Blackest it’s ever been — courtesy of host Cedric the Entertainer and his underappreciated jokes for the night — last night’s event was unfortunately so much of the same thing that we’ve been talking about when it comes to the television and film industry. The 2021 Emmys nominated more non-white people than ever, but all of the stars who walked away with acting gold were white. Where the late Michael K. Williams — put up for his moving role in Lovecraft Country — was expected to win the Emmy for best actor in a supporting role in a drama series, The Crown’s Tobias Menzes was crowned king. MJ Rodriguez lost out in her category to Olivia Colman, and Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross were shut out of the comedy categories for Black-ish yet again. And though he may have won all of our hearts, even the dreamy duke Regé-Jean Page went home empty-handed for Bridgerton. Of all the titles across that were created for and starred Black actors in lead roles, I May Destroy You was the only winner, and it only won its writing category. (It's very telling that the most moving speech of the night was from the only Black woman winner, aside from honoree Debbie Allen, and Coel's words onstage were just were just as potent as the script she penned.)
Now, it’s perfectly understandable to be frustrated by the surface level interest the industry and the Academy shows in celebrating diverse work; seeing Hollywood deny talented creators and artists the respect and accolades that they deserve is upsetting, especially since it happens all of the time. However, knowing that the game is the game, shouldn’t we, the audience, take on a different approach towards these industry events? Aren’t we tired of beating our chests and shouting until we lose our minds to be recognized like clockwork every year?
Though the Academy takes itself and its award shows very seriously, we should not. How could we, when they don’t acknowledge the shows that we love? Winning or just being nominated for an Emmy is great for professionals, who can then leverage the honor to get cast in higher profile projects and negotiate bigger salaries; for example, Michaela Coel’s star is already on the map, but her big win (as well as the other categories that I May Destroy You absolutely should have swept) will take her career even further. At the same time, the Academy is not the end all, be all of television. You and I, the regular people watching these shows at home, are.
Whether we’re discussing these storylines at the (virtual) water cooler on Slack or tapping into a hashtag on Twitter, we are the ones starting a dialogue about the work and deciding what’s good or what’s bad. With just one stroke of our keyboards, we have the power to speak a show into existence (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot), save a series from the great beyond (Manifest), or even get a production to scrap its core premise entirely (The Activist; Confederate). The Academy might be the gatekeepers, but the viewers are the driving force of this vehicle. We’re that important.
Knowing that, my friendly suggestion to the culture is that we detach ourselves from the results of big award shows like the Emmys, Oscars, and Grammys. The critics behind these stuffy academies are always going to do what they do, even when more people of color join the fold, but that shouldn’t take away from how we feel about the work that speaks to us. They might not see the value of devastating stories like I May Destroy You or understand the cultural significance of WandaVision’s Paul Bettany-as-Vision in a durag (if you know, you know), but we do. Keep showing your love and support to these stories and to the people bringing them to life. Let the discourse and the TV ratings speak for themselves. It’s just a better use of our individual and collective energy.