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'Don't Ever Give Up On You': This Year's Emmys Prove Why Representation Matters

Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph singing by herself with her eyes closed after winning the Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy for Abbott Elementary. She is holding the statuette in her right hand.
Sheryl Lee Ralph singing the Dianne Reeves song “Endangered Species" at the 74th Emmy Awards after winning the trophy for best supporting actress in a comedy for "Abbott Elementary."
(Patrick T. Fallon
/
Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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Like any televised awards shows, the Emmys serve two basic purposes.

The Full List Of Winners And Nominees

The first is obvious: the dispensing of trophies for work judged outstanding by your peers. The second is harder to spot, but no less important: a way for the next generation of creative artists — especially those from underrepresented backgrounds — to see people who look like them collecting a statuette and imagine their future selves in the same place.

“When I was a little girl, all I wanted to see was me in the media. Someone fat like me, Black like me, beautiful like me,” the singer Lizzo said in Monday night’s ceremony, in which she won the Emmy for best reality competition show for Lizzo’s Watch out for the Big Grrrls. “If I could go back and tell little Lizzo something, I'd be like, ‘You're gonna see that person, but bitch, it's gonna have to be you.’”

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The singer Lizzo in a red dress speaking into a microphone after winning the Emmy for best competitive reality show.
Lizzo, who won the Emmy for reality competition show, talks about why representation matters.
(Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and its Emmys, much like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its Academy Awards, have broadly failed to diversify its slate of winners. In last year’s Emmys, every single one of the 12 top acting winners were white. And through the first four awards in this year’s show, the ignoble streak continued.

But just as it looked like the whitewashing might continue ad infinitum, Sheryl Lee Ralph was named best supporting actress in a comedy series for her work on Abbott Elementary, about an underfunded public school. Ralph is the first Black woman — or woman of any color — to claim the supporting comedy actress Emmy since 1987, when Jackée Harry won for the comedy 227.

Ralph also is an accomplished singer, and was nominated for a Tony for Dreamgirls in 1982. So when she took the stage and composed herself, Ralph started singing the Dianne Reeves song “Endangered Species.”

In the same spirit as Lizzo’s remarks, the song celebrates standing up and out when so many others want to knock you down or otherwise marginalize your existence. The lyrics include:

I shake my fist but not my hips

My skin is dark my body is strong

I sing of rebirth, no victim's song

“To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true,” Ralph said after singing, “I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like, this is what striving looks like, and don’t you ever, ever give up on you.”

This is what believing looks like, this is what striving looks like, and don’t you ever, ever give up on you.
— Sheryl Lee Ralph

Ralph and Lizzo’s wins were considered upsets; Hannah Waddingham (from Ted Lasso) was expected to be named comedy supporting actress, while RuPaul’s Drag Race has taken the reality competition award the last four years.

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There were two other acting winners from traditionally underepresented communities: Zendaya was named best actress in a drama series for Euphoria, and Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae won for best drama actor.

Quinta Brunson won the comedy writing Emmy for Abbott Elementary, which she created and in which she stars. Brunson is just the second Black woman to win in the category (Lena Waithe won five years back for Master of None).

Otherwise, most of the favored nominees did in fact win in their categories.

Succession won best drama series for the second time, Ted Lasso was named top comedy series for the second straight year, and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver was again named best variety series. (Oliver might consider not submitting his show for consideration next Emmy season, because he’s won the variety trophy every year since Mad Men, Veep and Transparent were on the air.)

Among all shows, Mike White’s “The White Lotus” won more Emmys than any other program (counting the non-televised Creative Arts awards) with 10 trophies.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn host our weekly podcast Retake, asking: Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?