Headed into this Sunday’s Emmy Awards, there were a few victories that felt very certain. After a gangbusters, provocative season, Saturday Night Live’s brightest stars, Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon, seemed destined for victory. None of the talented performers in the leading actress in a comedy category had a shot at breaking Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s winning streak. And despite a very crowded and competitive category, Big Little Lies was an early favorite to dominate the limited-series categories. But even those sure things couldn’t have helped one predict exactly how the 2017 Emmys would end up taking a big, incisive swing at the patriarchy. But after a surprise sweep from The Handmaid’s Tale, the show’s ultimate female-positive narrative could not have been clearer.
Negative Donald Trump sentiment was a clear winner for TV this year, with Saturday Night Live making a meal out of every opportunity he gave it. The massive victories for that show, including four acting, one directing, and the comedy institution’s first win for variety series since 1993, proved that every shot S.N.L. took at the commander in chief only endeared it more to Emmy voters. The same can probably said for John Oliver, whose show Last Week Tonight was the most confrontational in the late-night field—and it ultimately took home the variety talk series prize. But despite McKinnon passionately thanking Hillary Clinton and Oliver randomly thanking Oprah Winfrey (twice), it’s fair to call these wins more anti-Trump than specifically pro-women.
Early on in the ceremony, though, Jane Fonda,Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton set the tone by going a bit off-script to turn a cute 9 to 5 reunion into a rousing, feminist war cry. “Back in 1980, in that movie, we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigot,” Fonda said. “In 2017, we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, hypocritical, lying, egotistical bigot,” Tomlin concluded to massive cheers from an audience that had just given the three women the night’s first standing ovation.
Then came the surprising sweep for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This night was supposed to belong to This Is Us, and signal the resurgence of the gentle, network family drama. But instead, a dystopian look at a future where women are first oppressed and then rebels won category after category. (Perhaps we should have seen this coming after Alexis Bledel’sunexpected guest-actress win last weekend.) For every win, the Emmys orchestra bluesily blared Lesley Gore’s feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me.” Elisabeth Moss’s best-actress speech was bleeped as she boldly thanked her mom for “teaching me you can be kind and fucking badass.” The final surprise of the night came after Oprah sang-shouted “The Handmaid’s Tale!!” as the winner the top category, and 77-year-old Canadian writer Margaret Atwood approached the stage—winning the biggest standing ovation of the night.
The evening may have peaked there, but there were also other bold and surprising victories for women worth noting. Big Little Lies may have been the expected winner in most of the limited-series categories, but its stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon used their spotlight to shine a light on domestic abuse and the dangers of dismissing work for women and by women.
Veep won, as it often does. But the story of a female politician (however inept) took on added resonance this year. Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker may have accepted the statues for his double surprise wins for the dystopian Netflix series, but don’t forget that the episode he won for, “San Junipero,” envisioned a hopeful, romantic future for two women following their bliss. And Lena Waithemade Emmys history as the first black woman to be nominated and win a statue in the best writing for a comedy series category. Her episode, “Thanksgiving,” was a deeply personal exploration of her own coming-out story. Wins for Waithe, McKinnon, and “San Junipero” means that this Sunday was not just a big win for women, but one for queer women as well.
More generally, it’s worth noting how few white male actors won at all at the Emmys this year. John Lithgow, Baldwin, and Alexander Skarsgård (who thanked his Big Little Lies co-stars for making him feel like one of the girls) were equally matched by nonwhite winners Riz Ahmed (who also thanked Oprah), Donald Glover, and Sterling K. Brown. As Brown gave a broad, impassioned, unfortunately curtailed speech about how it had been 19 years since a black performer had won the lead actor in a drama prize, Glover called out one person specifically for his lead actor in a comedy win. “I’d like to thank Trump for making black people number one on the most oppressed list,” he joked. “He’s the reason I’m probably up here.”
Across the board and without question, this year’s awards ceremony was a referendum on Trump—mostly as expressed through the mouths of women. Despite host Stephen Colbert’sopening song which touted the benefits of TV escapism, Emmy voters were determined to reward shows that took a more unflinching look at the damage a Trump administration might cause. In the end, it was a white man who had the last word of the evening. Handmaid’s Tale show-runner Bruce Miller—who, all along, has been trying to give credit away for his work on the series—said, as he clutched his Emmy: “Go home; get to work. We have a lot of things to fight for.”
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