During the 2016 Emmys, if you had tried to play a drinking game that involved the rule, "drink whenever someone mentions ‘diversity,’" you might have died.
With more and more voices outside Hollywood’s white and male stalwarts getting chances to speak and amplify each other, "diversity" has become a go-to buzzword for the entertainment industry. More and more executives are touting their (slowly) growing nonwhite talent numbers with pride, pointing to their hiring of this actor or that producer of color as proof that they, too, care about including a more diverse cross-section of people in their projects.
And to be fair, some of them do care! Though Emmy nominations are hardly representative of the State of Diversity in Television Today, the 2016 Emmys boasted the most inclusive slate of nominees in the awards’ history. Of the 97 acting honorees in the comedy, drama, and limited series categories, 21 were people of color.
Still, host Jimmy Kimmel couldn’t help but poke fun at the conversation surrounding the topic. "The only thing we value more than diversity," he said in his opening monologue with a smirk, "is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity."
This was a good joke, lobbed straight at those who use the diversity conversation to make themselves look more inclusive than they might be in reality. (Here’s looking at you, CBS!) But then Kimmel veered into joking about diversity for the sake of it, asking people of color in the audience to find a white person ("it shouldn’t be hard") and congratulate them on their bravery.
It wasn’t offensive, but it was lazy, and it threatened to overshadow the fact that talking about diversity, and even seeing more of it in the nominations, doesn’t at all mean that people of color have it better in Hollywood. Nor does it guarantee that they will have it better in the future, because it takes hard work to change people’s attitudes, and achieving true "diversity" requires more than checking a box by adding a few token minority characters to your show.
As if to illustrate the point, Master of None co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang won for Best Comedy Writing early in the night, leading Yang to give an earnest but cutting speech about how rare it is for Asian Americans to see themselves onscreen as much more than a punchline.
"There are 17 million Asian Americans in this country," Yang said. "And there are 17 million Italian Americans … They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos. We got [Sixteen Candles’] Long Duk Dong." But then he continued, hopefully: "We’ve got a long way to go. I know we can get there."
This year, it’s not hard to see why Yang ended on a positive note. Even as Kimmel and assorted white guy presenters like Andy Samberg and Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington poked fun at the industry’s increasing focus on #diversity ("The Night Manager needs more white people in their cast and I’m not afraid to say it!" Samberg joked), the Emmys did yield some exciting results on the inclusivity front, proving that sometimes, talking more about this stuff really does work.
Though the winners were still mostly white, there were more winners of color. Along with Ansari and Yang, there were Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele, whose Comedy Central show Key & Peele won Best Variety Sketch Series for its final season. There was American Crime’s Regina King, nabbing a second consecutive win for Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series, and Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek snagging Best Actor in a Drama.
Meanwhile, FX’s hugely popular series American Crime Story: People v. O.J. Simpson won both the Lead Actor and Supporting Actor in a Limited Series races, for Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown (respectively).
Then there was Lead Actor in a Comedy winner Jeffrey Tambor, who used part of his speech to advocate on behalf of transgender talent being considered more to play transgender roles:
Without quite saying so, Tambor’s speech was a half-acknowledgement that the actor has come under fire for being a cisgender man playing a trans role. Transparent isn’t about to recast him any time soon, but Tambor still made a point to say that he hopes he’s "the last cisgender man playing a transgender woman," earning a cheer from Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox.
His acceptance speech piggybacked off an acceptance speech by his Transparent director Jill Soloway, who won for Best Comedy Directing. As she finished explaining her passionate desire to make art and participate in civil rights movements, Soloway even lifted her Emmy above her head and yelled "Topple the patriarchy!"
As she left the stage, Jimmy Kimmel wandered back on, faux-contemplative. "I’m trying to figure out if ‘toppling the patriarchy’ is good for me." He paused, then shrugged. "I don’t think so!"
Maybe not in the short term, Kimmel. But let’s be real: having lots of different types of people win Emmys ultimately makes for more stories, more perspectives to mine for jokes and drama alike. It makes for just plain better TV, and that’s good for everyone.