Viola Davis and Taraji Henson Make Emmy History

This past weekend, two African American women were nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in the same year for the first time in Emmy history. Viola Davis, who stars in the show How To Get Away With Murder, and Taraji P. Henson, who stars in Empire, were nominated.

Konstantin Sutyagin / Shutterstock.com
via Konstantin Sutyagin for Shutterstock.com

It has been rare for African American women to be nominated in this category. Before Kerry Washington was nominated in 2013 for her work in Scandal, the last African American woman nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series was Cicely Tyson in 1995. No African American woman has ever won an Emmy in this category.

These nominations highlight the slow but steady progress television has made in becoming more diverse. Other notable Emmy nominations include Anthony Anderson for his work on the comedy black-ish and Amazon’s Transparent, a TV series about a transgender woman transitioning as an adult with the support of her family, which received 11 Emmy nominations and earlier this year won the Golden Globe for best TV comedy. Several other series with LGBTQ characters, actors, and storylines also received nominations.

The diversity of this year’s Emmys is contrasts greatly with a lingering lack of diversity in film. Last year at the Oscars, for example, not a single African American, Latino/a, or Asian American actor was nominated.

“Film needs to take a leaf out of the TV book especially with diversity and women starring, directing and producing,” said British-born actor David Oyelowo, nominated for his work in the HBO movie “Nightingale” and star of the film Selma. “There is a far more representative view of what it is to be in America from TV [than film].”

Diversity in television still has a ways to go. Some have criticized the fact that Empire only received three nominations whereas shows like Game of Thrones received 24. Jane the Virgin, which has been lauded as “unapologetically Latin” and stars Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez, failed to receive a major nomination. Fresh Off the Boat, a series featuring Asian American lead characters, also did not receive any major nominations.

Organizations have been highlighting these gaps in progress and pushing for more. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) filed a complaint earlier this year asking for federal and state civil rights agencies to investigate the massive gender discrepancies in the hiring of directors at all levels of the film and television industry, and the Feminist Majority Foundation recognized Jenji Kohan and Shonda Rhimes at 10th annual Eleanor Roosevelt Global Women’s Rights Awards this year for their dedication to hiring diverse casts and placing women in lead roles in the shows Orange is the New Black, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and Grey’s Anatomy.

Media Resources: E! Online 7/16/15; Los Angeles Times 7/16/15; Feminist Newswire 1/12/15; Mic 7/16/15; Feminist Newswire 5/18/15; 5/19/15


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