Arts·POINT OF VIEW

Led by Lena Waithe and Margaret Atwood, this year's Emmys were an awards show uprising

The old white boys club finally took a back seat to women, people of colour and LGBTQ individuals at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards.

The old white boys club finally took a back seat to women, people of colour and LGBTQ individuals

Aziz Ansari, left, and Lena Waithe pose with their Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series for their show Master of None. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

It felt almost like science fiction, except of the utopian variety: A major awards show where Margaret Atwood was mentioned in seemingly every other award speech, where the four big winners were all narratives with female leads — sometimes multiple female leads — and where women, people of colour and LGBTQ individuals were represented not just for acting, but for writing, directing and producing.

This, somehow, summed up the 69th annual Primetime Emmy Awards last night, which were capped off by Hulu's Atwood adaptation The Handmaid's Tale winning the award for best drama series, with the author herself getting a standing ovation as the she took the stage with the series' cast and crew. Other big winners included miniseries Big Little Lies, starring and produced by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon and also adapted from a book by a female novelist (Liane Moriarty); Black Mirror: San Junipero, which centres around an interracial love story between two women; and Donald Glover's Atlanta, the first series with an all-black writing staff to win a major Emmy.

Straight white men still got a few moments, but they were almost exclusively for their work on productions primarily about women (see Montreal's Jean-Marc Vallée, who Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon hired to direct Big Little Lies). In fact, only one show focused on a straight white male won a single award last night, and that straight white male was John Oliver (certainly not a travesty given how much air time his Last Week Tonight dedicates to minority rights — but more on who should have won his award later).

Margaret Atwood, centre in red, joins the cast and crew of The Handmaid's Tale as they accept the award for outstanding drama series at Sunday's Emmys. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

All across the board, long-overdue Emmy history was made. The Handmaid's Tale's Reed Morano became the first woman to win the Emmy for directing a drama series in 22 years. Glover became the first black person ever to win for directing a comedy series with Atlanta and then winning again for acting — the first black winner in that category since Robert Guillaume in 1985. Riz Ahmed became the first man of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy in any category when he won for HBO's The Night Of.

And then of course there was Lena Waithe, whose speech for co-writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of Master of None with Aziz Ansari was the night's highlight:
 


 

Waithe became both the first LGBTQ woman of colour to win in the category, not to mention the first woman of colour period (she and Mindy Kaling are the only two to ever even be nominated).

"I see each and everyone of you," Waithe says to the queer community in her speech. "The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day when you walk out the door, put on your imaginary cape and go out their and conquer the world — because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren't in it. And for everybody out there who showed us so much love with 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."

Donald Glover smooches one of his Emmys in the press room Sunday. The Atlanta star won for his acting and directing. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Overall, Emmy voters finally seem to have caught up to the fact that the media landscape is witnessing an uprising of brilliant diverse voices (just like Oscar voters made a sizeable step forward in that regard back in February). While it's easy to say "it's just an awards show," it's hard not to imagine the effect finally giving those voices their due will have on a) TV networks and streaming services getting better at diverse representation and b) future voices feeling inspired to follow in the footsteps of Waithe or Glover or Ansari or Ahmed or Morano.

The things that make us different, those are our superpowers.- Lena Waithe

Now, it should also be noted the Emmys didn't get everything right. Besides the producers' baffling decision to extend Sean Spicer's infamy by including him on a telecast that felt largely like a peaceful protest of everything he represents, there were also a few unfortunate winners. Take, for instance, The Voice, which bizarrely won the reality show award over the much-favoured RuPaul's Drag Race — meaning we lost out on what would have surely been a legendary showstopper of a speech from Ru. Equally magical to consider is what Atwood's fellow Canadian Samantha Bee would have said if she became the first woman to win the variety talk series Emmy (the award that ultimately went to John Oliver). But it's still a drastic evolution from the Emmys of just a few years ago, when the idea of celebrating diversity was essentially repeatedly giving Modern Family all the awards.

Progress at awards shows, like everything else, is relative.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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