September 20, 2017

Sean Spicer and Margaret Atwood at the Emmys


Television is a pretty big deal in America. Lots of people watch it. Lots of people get paid too much money to write about it. Some people imagine political figures as characters in popular television shows. It isn’t entirely clear why any of this is true, but that’s pretty much the way it is here, and, probably, in other places.

One of the manifestations of the importance of television in America is, of course, a television show called The Emmys.

This year’s 69th (nice) installment of The Emmys was notable for a couple of high-profile firsts: The truly excellent Donald Glover became the first African-American to win Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for his show Atlanta, and Lena Waithe became the first African-American to win Best Comedy Writing for her work on Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. Also, a notable second: Julia Louis-Dreyfus tied Cloris Leachman’s record of eight prime-time wins. Congratulations to everyone!

Two other notable things happened, and while both may have been firsts, they were not remarked upon as such, at least not by much mainstream coverage of the event.

The first thing to mention is the very large number of awards the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale received. From Joe Otterson at Variety:

The dystopian series based on the book of the same name by Margaret Atwood won eight Emmys this year, including outstanding drama series, outstanding lead actress in a drama series (Elisabeth Moss), outstanding writing for a drama series (Bruce Miller), outstanding supporting actress in a drama series (Ann Dowd), and outstanding directing for a drama series (Reed Morano)

That’s a lot of art deco statuary. Dowd and Moss both thanked Atwood, along with the standard litany of family members, colleagues, and multinational corporate overlords (Hulu and MGM in this case). Moss, however, also broke script a little, thanking and praising her mother in terms that caused the prime-time TV censors to leap into action: “My mother, you are brave and strong and smart and you have taught me that you can be kind and a fucking badass.”

When the show won Best Drama, Margaret Atwood (and her purse) took the stage along with the cast and crew, though Atwood herself did not speak.

So, seems like the Emmys were pretty freakin’ woke, as it were. Certainly that’s the angle that Vanity Fair‘s Joanna Robinson takes in a piece titled How the Emmys Raised a Surprising Middle Finger to the Patriarchy. The piece elevates the diversity of this year’s Emmys to the level of a substantial political achievement.

This brings us to the second thing: Sean Spicer’s baffling cameo during Stephen Colbert’s opening monologue. Outraged response was swift, brutal, and totally justified, even though Spicer’s utter humiliation does elicit a tiny measure of queasy sympathy. Though let us be clear. This. Man. Is. A. Monster.

Which is exactly why Robinson’s take seems more than a little off. Don’t get us wrong, representation is hugely important. The work that people like Shonda Rhimes and Marley Dias are doing is necessary and serious.

But the fight for more and better representation in prestige television has not materially changed the political situation in America. Exhibit A: Our fucking president. Exhibit B: Sean fucking Spicer, a guy who as Press Secretary for the Fucking President denied that Hitler had gassed “his own people.”

Rhimes, at least seems to agree. In a profile at Vanity Fair, she tells Yohana Desta that the show was “embarassing,” and that “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.” Which nicely gets to the heart of the issue. It’s great that the Academy acknowledged The Handmaid’s Tale and Margaret Atwood, and that Dolly Parton called Donald Trump a bigot, and that African-American film professionals are finally getting their due. But none of it is political.

Glover himself acknowledged the empty symbolism of his award, thanking Donald Trump “for making black people number one on the most oppressed list… He’s the reason I’m probably up here.”



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.