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The racism problem you might not have noticed at the Golden Globes

TV's golden age of diversity isn't so golden.


Nico Lang

Internet Culture

Posted on Jan 12, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 7:17 pm CDT

Sunday night was a pretty bad day for your Golden Globes pool, with surprise winners across the board at the notoriously unpredictable awards show. Fargo’s Billy Bob Thornton and The Honorable Woman’s Maggie Gyllenhaal beat out overwhelming frontrunners in Matthew McConaughey and Frances McDormand, respectively nominated for True Detective and Olive Kitteridge. In fact, on Gold Derby’s website, the hub of awards prognostication on the Internet, Gyllenhaal was in the fifth slot, with just 3 percent of users and pundits predicting her to win. Amy Adams was so surprised to beat Emily Blunt for Best Actress in a Comedy that she appeared not to have a speech prepared.

It might seem like a David and Goliath story, the little man overcoming the odds, if it didn’t also upset what was supposed to be the Golden Globes’ most diverse year ever.

Even more than the shocking wins for Leviathan, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and The Grand Budapest hotel was who didn’t win on Sunday. How to Get Away With Murder’s Viola Davis and Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba went home empty-handed, as the honors went to Ruth Wilson for The Affair and Joanne Froggatt for Downton Abbey. On Gold Derby, Froggatt was polling at a mere 3 percent, which roughly made her the Jon Huntsman of the category, while Aduba clocked in at a strong 70 percent. That might seem like a David and Goliath story, the little man overcoming the odds, if it didn’t also upset what was supposed to be the Golden Globes’ most diverse year ever. But instead, their racial politics were business as usual. 

While this might not be surprising to anyone familiar with how Hollywood works—Chris Rock’s Hollywood Reporter op-ed is a must-read on the movie industry’s relationship with black people—the narrative over the past year has focused on television’s push for diversity. Fox and ABC have led the charge for people of color on television, between Sleepy Hollow, New Girl, Empire, Cristela, Black-ish, and the upcoming Fresh Off the Boat. Meanwhile, freshman drama How to Get Away With Murder further cemented the Shonda Rhimes domination, the woman whose diverse casts have taken over Thursday nights. 2014’s breakout hit, HTGAWM is TV’s top drama with adults under the age of 50, while Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy remain huge business for ABC, especially on Twitter.

Since Donna Reed became the first woman to win Best Actress, only six women of color have won the award.

While this might appear to be TV’s second golden age of diversity—after Fox’s campaign for black viewers in the early ’90s—the continued snubbing of How to Get Away With Murder and Scandal’s leads shows that television still has a long way to go when recognizing the contributions of black artists. Since Donna Reed became the first woman to win Best Actress, only six women of color, including Debbie Allen and Cher (who is multiethnic), have won the award, while four men have won Best Actor; Redd Foxx, Bill Cosby, and Don Cheadle have taken home trophies for Best Actor in a Comedy, but no black actor has ever taken home a lead dramatic award. This looks slightly better than the Oscars’ track record, where four black leads have taken home trophies total, but considering that the Globes have twice the number of categories, is it really? Or is it just more of the same?

Last night, the amazing Gina Rodriguez was the second Latina ever to take home Best Actress in a Comedy (America Ferrera was the first), but this was after years of Scandal’s Kerry Washington being snubbed in the dramatic category. The show is in its fourth season, yet Washington’s acclaimed performance has been nominated only once. Given the stats, it’s likely she would fare better if Scandal were a comedy. (It’s not.) Viola Davis, the hardest working actress on TV this year, likely suffered the same problem as Washington: No woman of color has won a dramatic award since Regina Taylor was honored for her work in I’ll Fly Away. That was 1992. Another black woman wouldn’t even be nominated for the next two decades—when Washington got her lone bid for Scandal in 2013. (Oddly enough, the only non-white woman who deserved mention in that time period was Jessica Alba. Remember Dark Angel?)

This mirrors exactly what happened to Viola Davis at the 2012 Oscars, when she lost the Best Actress award to Meryl Streep‘s performance in the terrible Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer had been the frontrunners all season for their widely praised roles in The Help, but the Oscars decided only one black woman needed an Oscar that year; Octavia Spencer won in supporting. While Lupita N’yongo took home the Best Supporting Actress trophy for 12 Years a Slave, it meant Oprah Winfrey and Spencer had to sit at home without nominations. They were trending in precursors for their performances in The Butler and Fruitvale Station, but only one person of color got to go to the big show—otherwise, they might all start conspiring or something. The same mentality seems to have affected voters’ ballots last night.

The Oscars’ race problem continues to attract attention on the racial disparities in the film industry, but the movies are hardly alone. Last year, the aforementioned 12 Years took home the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Picture and Best Drama, respectively, but the Globes were unwilling to show Orange Is the New Black the same love. Another acclaimed streaming show won in its place—Jill Soloway’s incredible transgender family dramedy, Transparent—but it’s hard to argue OITNB, one of the most diverse shows in TV history, didn’t deserve it. On top of being one of 2014’s most popular and well-reviewed programs, the Netflix show helped redefine what television is, especially in terms of race and sexuality. It’s utterly earth-shattering.

Racism isn’t just a Lena Dunham problem—it’s a TV problem.

Orange Is the New Black’s fellow comedy nominee Girls has long attracted attention with its whitewashed depiction of race in New York City, and according to Salon’s Sonia Saraiya, this season (which premiered last night) isn’t much better. However, racism isn’t just a Lena Dunham problem—it’s a TV problem. According to statistics from UCLA in 2011-2012, minority characters were underrepresented on television by a ratio of 7 to 1. That discrepancy disproportionately targets black women, who make up just 3.8 percent of characters on television, despite being 6.5 percent of the population, but it also makes Latinos and Asians nearly invisible. While Asian and Latina women account for 12 percent of the American public, they’re still just 3.8 of our TV characters.

The Golden Globes weren’t all bad news, especially for LGBT viewers. It might have been a great night to be white in Hollywood, but it was a bad year to play a straight man—with Jeffrey Tambor, Matt Bomer, and Kevin Spacey beating out their competition. However, highlighting some communities while continuing to erase others feels bittersweet at best. In Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s hilarious opening monologue, Fey joked that “the movie Selma is about the American civil rights movement, that totally worked and now everything’s fine.” The remark is a reference to Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King biopic, nominated on the film side, and the crowd guffawed at the remark’s implication about the recent Ferguson and Eric Garner incidents. However, she could have just as easily been talking about the Golden Globes.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Jan 12, 2015, 11:00 am CST