The Television Academy is getting kudos for finally recognizing more diverse talent. But do the Emmy Awards actually honor media stereotypes?
When the Emmy nominations were announced last month, it was no surprise that Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson earned recognition for their leading roles in Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder and Lee Daniel’s Empire. It was also no surprise that these talented actresses were acknowledged for roles rooted in old stereotypes, anti-feminism, and fixed images from white writers.
We’ve seen this narrative play out time and time again with award shows. Uzo Aduba’s performance as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in Orange Is the New Black garnered the actress her second Emmy last year for playing an inmate with a mental disorder. Though a compelling character, Crazy Eyes is a product of a crooked criminal justice system that incarcerates Black women at higher rates than their white counterparts. She is also a product of mental illness, a longtime issue and stigma in the Black community. Warren’s mental health is used as a comedic modifier to entertain audiences and undermine her humanity. The Academy rewarded Aduba for a role, largely written by white writers, embedded in the historic and systemic dehumanization of Black bodies. Let’s not even get started with Kerry Washington’s Emmy-nominated performance as political fixer Olivia Pope in Rhimes’ Scandal, a role that continually exploits and sexualizes a Black female for the pleasure and phallocentric gaze of a white, heterosexual male.
What’s different with Davis’ portrayal of Annalise Keating and Henson’s Cookie Lyon? Between a confident lawyer protecting her clients and a selfless mother putting her children first, many viewers of the popular primetime dramas would argue that these characters embody strong, Black womanhood. This image, which audiences have been seduced by, is a façade of an anti-feminist narrative at work. Throughout each series, Keating and Lyon exemplify mammy, jezebel, and sapphire archetypes while simultaneously operating under their intersectional identities as professional, upper-class Black women.
To be brief, a mammy is a derogative trope used to domesticate Black women as chaste, self-effacing individuals prioritizing the needs of others before themselves. A jezebel signifies a promiscuous, hypersexual Black woman using her body for self-gain, while a sapphire denotes the image of an independent Black woman emitting tones of aggression and insensitivity.
Keating and Lyon are contemporary mammies allowing the lives of others to take precedence before their own. Whenever her interns find themselves in hot water, which is nearly all too often, Keating inevitably goes into protection mode. A nurturer, the law professor suppresses her emotions to put on a brave face while numbing her internal pain in solitude with endless alcohol consumption. Lyon, on the other hand, portrays the mammy figure differently. Family first has always been a priority for Empire’s co-founder. Whether it was supporting Lucious’ dream of becoming a hip-hop mogul, helping launch the musical careers of sons Jamal and Hakeem, or caring for Andre’s bipolar disorder, Lyon has repeatedly catered to the needs of her family before her own, thus reinforcing the ageless matriarch stereotype. The same can’t be said for the devoted matriarch.
Sexual objectification is another instance of how Keating and Lyon fit into an anti-feminist framework. Keating is often sexualized in Murder through her steamy affair with Nate Lahey, a married detective. Demonstrating the Jezebel trope, Keating uses her body and longtime relationship with the Philadelphia cop to frame him for a murder he didn’t commit in an effort to keep her, and her team, out of prison. With Empire, Lyon boldly desensitizes other female characters with rhetoric centered in jezebel traits. One example is when the unrepentant record producer scolds Anika by telling her that she “can’t even dyke right,” after her failed attempt at seducing Mimi Whiteman into investing in Empire.
Keating and Lyon effortlessly embody the sapphire trope in their mannerisms and interactions with others. Both subtlety roll their necks and eyes when engaging with characters of their disliking and both come off hostile in their commentaries. Between Keating belittling her students and staff for failing to do their jobs and Lyon emasculating her queer son with divisive, homophobic language, both women unapologetically epitomize 21st century sapphires.
Why do award shows reward stereotypical performances? With the normalization of negative tropes, limited access to positive roles, and dominant white voices controlling the narrative, the answer becomes incontrovertible.
The 68th Emmy Awards will air September 18th at 5:00PM PDT.
Jordan Joyner is a fourth year undergraduate at UC Berkeley majoring in Media Studies with a minor in Journalism. Jordan is an entertainment media enthusiast with an interest in the intersection of race and pop culture. He has cultivated his passion in entertainment journalism by writing for ONYX, Berkeley’s Black student-run news magazine, and serving as an entertainment writer for All Digitocracy.