Arts & Entertainment, Film and TV

Pop Rhetoric: The small screen reaches a wider audience

Television has long been regarded as film’s more annoying, less accomplished younger sibling. Sound bytes like 'made for T.V. movie' and 'multi-camera sitcom' continue to haunt audiences’ psyches, evoking nightmares of outrageous laugh tracks and over-dramatic soap opera acting.  For decades, critics considered film the real art form—a medium that actually allowed its stories and characters nuance and development. However, this past awards season has proven otherwise. When the Academy Awards tried to congratulate itself on a year of great films, audiences were livid. The movies that made Hollywood so proud did not represent the diversity of the American public, and the awards ceremony was infamously dubbed, “Oscars So White.” In comparison, this year marked the most inclusive Emmys in its 68-year existence. Or, as host Jimmy Kimmel so cuttingly quipped, “The Emmys are so diverse this year, the Oscars are now telling people we’re one of their closest friends.” Television has improved because it is finally reflecting diverse stories and perspectives. Meanwhile, mainstream filmmakers continue to cling to their claim that only white heteronormative narratives make money. 

This year’s Emmys broke countless records. It was the first year that each leading acting category nominated a person of colour. Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live’s first openly gay cast member, won for “Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy.” Aziz Ansari was the first Indian-American to be nominated for a leading actor award. However, Kimmel recognized that there is still room for improvement: “Here in Hollywood, the only thing we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity.”

Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor’s acceptance speech highlighted Hollywood’s tendency to cast cisgender people in trangender roles. He said he would “not be unhappy" to be "the last cisgender man to play a female transgender on TV.” Master of None writer Alan Yang used his airtime to call attention to the lack of Asian-American representation within mainstream media. The evening’s underlying tone of advocacy was proof that not only has television made tremendous progress, but that it is working hard to continue to do so. 

Diversity on screen is indebted to new formats of television. Film is confined to vague financial measurements like “foreign box office” and “international markets.” Movies lack diverse representation largely because studios think they will make more money by keeping their films broad and generic. When director Rupert Sanders cast Scarlett Johansson instead of a Japanese actor in his remake of Ghost in a Shell, Forbes magazine defended him by explaining, “Scarlett Johansson is a big movie star and for a film that will cost what Ghost in the Shell will probably cost, you arguably need a ‘put butts in the theater seats’ movie star to justify said investment.”  Mainstream award shows like the Oscars are evidence that not only does this mentality restrict the representation in box office hits, but it also limits the variety of films Hollywood will recognize. New independent content developers, whether it be Netflix, Amazon, or FX, understand that putting faith into individual creators to tell their own stories makes for better television. The shows the Emmys celebrated this year are all proof of the success in new types of distribution: John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is produced by HBO and viewed primarily on Youtube; Amazon streams Jill Soloway’s Transparent online; and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is a Netflix original. 

Television has dramatically improved largely because network television is an outdated format—when artists have autonomy from studios, they create more unique and powerful work. The Oscars continue to pander to media moguls who insist that movies can only make money with bankable white stars. Meanwhile, T.V. producers have discovered that audiences respond to seeing themselves on-screen. Diversity, whether it is diversity of actors, stories, or distribution, makes for quality television. 


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