Why Kerry Washington’s Emmy nomination matters

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3rd Annual Celebrate Sundance Institute Los Angeles BenefitPhoto: Paul Archuleta/Getty

While we are all raging over Tatiana Maslany’s snub in this year’s Emmy’s nominations, as well as Monica Potter’s, who was stunning in her heartbreaking portrayal of a cancer survivor on Parenthood, there is one woman who was nominated that I can’t stop thinking about: Kerry Washington, for her lead in Shonda RhimesScandal. I am thrilled for her, and for us, while simultaneously being frustrated that the Emmy’s not overlooking a black actress has to be so thrilling.

Here’s some perspective: Kerry Washington is nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. There has never been a black winner in this category. Ever. The last time a black woman was nominated prior to Washington was Cicely Tyson for Sweet Justice in 1995, 18 years ago. While there has been a black winner for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, Isabel Sanford in The Jeffersons in 1981, there has not even been a nominee in that category since Phylicia Rashad in 1986, 27 years ago. Twenty-seven-years.

A few weeks ago, Alfre Woodard (who is nominated this year for Steel Magnolias), Phylicia Rashad, Viola Davis, and Gabrielle Union were part of a roundtable on black women in Hollywood on Oprah’s network, OWN. Near the beginning of the program, Oprah asks: “How is it that you can exist in a world where there are seven or five or three roles for the, let’s say, 50 top leading [African-American] actresses–and that’s a ‘big year.’ How do you cope with that?” Viola Davis described it as being in constant “crisis mode,” both in fighting for the limited number of roles in general and for still struggling to find a variety of roles outside the classic black actress tropes. As she put it, “Listen, unless I create it myself, I’m not going to be rolling around in bed with Bradley Cooper.” She also noted, interestingly, that a black character similar to Lena Dunham’s in Girls, also much lauded by the critical circuit this year, could never exist, because black women who are not put together, who do not look like movie stars, are only accused of playing into racist stereotypes.

All of the actresses agreed that this tiny world of limited roles creates a mean spirited, competitive atmosphere between them, when in actuality they understand each other the best and should be able to support one another. The most striking moment, for me, was when it came to Kerry Washington and Scandal. Gabrielle Union says that Washington winning the role of Olivia Pope could have been another repeat of all her previous rejections: oh, that black woman got it. Oprah interjects, “So you went out for it?” Union replies, with a slight, “duh, Oprah,” eyeroll, “Oh, yeah, me and every other woman.” She then finishes by saying that the entire auditioning and casting experience, however, was different because of Shonda Rhimes, who made every woman feel worthy and created that supportive atmosphere which is clearly so needed. I should also note that Shonda Rhimes did not get nominated for writing in this year’s Emmy’s. Every nominee in that category is a man.

Complete white girl disclosure: I’ve always known that there needs to be more diversity on all of my screens, and it registered somewhere in my brain that Kerry Washington is the only lead actress on a major network TV channel right now. But I need to be honest that until watching this conversation, and thinking about it for a long time, I hadn’t truly imagined what it would be like to be a black actress in America. That when you heard of a role like Olivia Pope, of course you and everyone you know would run to it. Because there are no other Olivia Popes right now. Olivia Pope is all you get this year. This is a fact you’re used to.

I should note that I’m not entirely blaming the Emmys, who don’t create the TV shows they give awards to. But the Emmys allow us to highlight the reality of TV itself. And that reality is important, as almost everyone, from critics to fans to the actors themselves, seem to agree at this point that TV is where the truly exciting, innovative, and excellent storytelling is happening. How could we have The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show in the ‘70s and ‘80s but not have anything in 2013? What is up with that drought?

And why am I talking about this on AfterEllen? Because we like to say that visibility matters. And as of the latest US Census in 2010, African-Americans made up 12% of our population. Yet this year’s Emmy African-American nominee count comes out at a sad 3%. I also have to point out here that the only Latinas given a nod in these Emmy noms were, once again, Sofia Vergara, and Brazilian-American hotness Morena Baccarin. Unless I’m mistaken, there is also not one — not one! — Asian American nominee, or Native American nominee.

And when I watched that Oprah roundtable through my gay lens that I can’t turn off, there were so many things that the women mentioned that I recognized as struggles of the queer world: of often facing the harshest criticism from within your own community, debating what the “right” way to be black or queer is; of struggling for roles that show complex human beings instead of stereotypes; of whether we should settle for the “happy with what you can get” mentality. But so many things weren’t the same at all: a queer white woman can still, feasibly, play whatever role she wants. A black woman is still, 99% of the time, only cast as a black woman.

And in a year when it seems like there are more queer victories than ever–undoubtedly more queer characters on TV than there ever have been before; gay marriage victories happening seemingly every week–we still live in a country where the Supreme Court believes we live in a post-racial society where voting rights safeguards are no longer important, and where a man can admit he shot and killed an unarmed black boy and walk away free of any consequences. Social justice must be interconnected. All minorities aren’t the same, but all minorities understand what it’s like to be a minority. And until I see women on my TV who are queer and also black, or Latina, or Russian, or Japanese, or Indian, or Native American, and until those women are being nominated for awards, there won’t be true queer representation on my TV.

And the first step in getting there? More Kerry Washingtons.

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