Dr Jennifer Smyth is a reader in History at the University of Warwick and teaches the MA in History and Film. Viola Davis’ Emmy Award last night was a historic moment. Following Viola Davis’ Emmy Award last night, she asks was this a gain for the recognition of women's roles in film or are we still in the age of mad men?
"Viola Davis’ Emmy Award last night was a historic moment. The first African American actress to win an Emmy, Davis was also competing against another African American woman, Taraji P. Henson (for Empire). Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) and Regina King (American Crime) also won in other acting categories. Coverage has praised television’s equivalent of the Oscars for its diversity in nominations and awards this year. But while black actresses won big last night, behind the camera, African American women were not so well represented. Executive producer of Davis’ How to Get Away with Murder, Shonda Rhimes, was not nominated, and to date has not won any Emmy Awards, despite creating Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.
But the roles are certainly better these days. In another media milestone seventy-five years ago, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American woman to win an Academy Award for her work in Gone with the Wind. But times have changed a bit; McDaniel was playing a “Mammie,” first a slave, and then a maid—one of the few roles open to women of color in the film industry. Davis, in contrast, won her award for playing a defense attorney and law professor. Davis’ role may be the exception rather than the rule: in the much-discussed Black Renaissance in Hollywood a couple of years back, black men were the focus of some truly landmark roles (Twelve Years a Slave, Django Unchained, and now Selma) while black women played slave damsels-in-distress and maids, yet again (The Help).
There would be more empowering roles open to black women if things behind the camera changed more. To date, only writer-producer Shonda Rhimes has won the kind of media acclaim men regularly receive on the networks. Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) is a truly landmark role for women of any color on primetime. At the Emmy’s this year, Olive Kitteridge’s winning writer-director team were both women, but were still in minorities overall. The percentages of women writing today for television and film are arguably smaller than they were in Hollywood during the studio era and in early television, when women routinely were nominated for writing and editing Oscars, and worked on major television programs in the so-called conservative Fifties. Perhaps the age of Mad Men persists in more ways than one?"
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