Shonda Rhimes is right: the 2017 Emmys were “embarrassing”

Lena Waithe, Donald Glover, Emmys

I’m so happy for so many of the winners from the 2017 Emmys which aired on Sunday evening. And I’m glad there were so many firsts, most of them people of color and women. But the fact that it took until 2017 for so many of these firsts to occur shows how far behind Hollywood is. It’s astonishingly shameful.

Shonda Rhimes thinks so too.

Rhimes is an absolute force in the entertainment industry. She has steadily grown her career on the back of breakout hits. And now she is set to blaze new trails at Netflix. Still, with all of the amazing and diverse content she has created, she has yet to win an Emmy.

Let that sink in for a moment.

So, it is no surprise her comments to Vanity Fair regarding the breakthroughs at the 2017 Emmys ran counter to the back-patting narrative that has dominated the media cycle since. The media mogul said:

It’s embarrassing, frankly. To me, it feels embarrassing that we are still in a place in which we still have to note these moments. . . . I’m hoping that it’s not a trend. I’m hoping that people don’t feel satisfied because they saw a lot of people win, and then think that we’re done.

For me, it was great to have my own feelings on these slight gains in notoreity for minority content creators be validated by someone with her industry standing. After the last of the awards had been handed out and my pride for record-setting winners like Lena Waithe, Riz Ahmed, and Donald Glover finally settled, I too realized how tragic their wins really were.

Lena Waithe wrote the shit out of that “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None, but how in the hell has no other Black woman won a comedy writing Emmy before? Donald Glover is clearly pushing the boundaries of television with Atlanta (my personal tastes aside), but his win for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series also shines a retina-burning light on the dearth of Black directors in the industry. And Riz Ahmed was a revelation in The Night Of, but he’s also both the first South Asian man and first Muslim man to win an acting Emmy.

What in the entire fuck.

So yes, let’s be excited, but let’s keep that excitement measured. Hollywood has always been and continues to be built upon a “good ol’ boys network” riddled with hand-ups, back rubs, and nepotism. Whites with historical connections and money still hold an outlandish advantage of the rest of the dreamers and creatives vying for space. For every Issa Rae or Donald Glover who have spent years paying dues and working against the current of industry tastes, there are an innumerable gaggle of whites who’ve just been handed the keys to the kingdom.

And this is an industry that is universally difficult to break into. It’s costly to get training many need, and reputable film schools are nearly impossible to get into. USC’s Film School boasts an acceptance rate below 5%, (lower than Ivy League schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Yale) and a yearly tuition cost of $53,448. And acting courses can run anywhere between $150-$2,000. These are all costs incurred before anyone earns a single dollar and without any guarantee of work or success. Imagine enduring all of that just to score the bit role of “Thug #2”, “corpse”, or “bystander” or to land a Production Assistant job making copies and getting coffee. It’s no wonder that the industry has historically run low on minorities both in front of and behind the camera.

Still, Hollywood has at least recognized the disparities as a major problem and mobilized to do better. As President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs pushed to increase the diversity of the Oscars voting body. And the Writers Guild of America West has an extensive list of writing programs, conferences and festivals that can help the disadvantaged. And as Stephen Colbert pointed out in his opening monologue, this is the 3rd year in a row that the Emmys have had their most diverse group of nominees ever.

But none of this is enough. These band-aids only cover up Hollywood’s true ailment: white supremacy. Despite the wins and the gains, actors with disabilities struggle to find work and the number of women, LGBT & non-white movie actors has been stagnant since 2007. In fact, the number of women directors has actually dropped.

To echo Shonda Rhimes, “It’s embarrassing.”

So even as we celebrate Hollywood slowly making changes to match the world it lives in, know that these wins aren’t the change, merely a beginning of a new possibility, Change comes when these wins are the norm and not the deviation.

As Riz Ahmed said in a press conference after the show:

I don’t know if one person’s win of an award, one person snagging one role, or one person doing very well, changes something that’s a systemic issue of inclusion in this industry. I think that’s something that happens slowly, over time. If there’s enough isolated examples of success then maybe the dots start joining up and it’s not as slow a process as it sometimes is.


Photo credit: Lena Waithe Instagram

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.