This year's Emmy nominations seem to show us that Hollywood is ready for progress, but perhaps not too much. The innovative, diverse series Atlanta garnered 16 nominations while the artful inventive series This Is Us got eight nods. However, for two shows that do the work of depicting the plight of women in society the results are less buoying. The first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel received 14 nominations while the second season of Insecure received only two. The former is beloved by audiences and critics alike perhaps because it has the Technicolor fantasy of classic Hollywood films tuned up for modern viewers, while the latter focuses on the often gritty reality of simply getting by as a Black woman in America. Tonight, as the Primetime Emmy Awards show goes off, we’ll see which show comes out on top.
Seeing a series that is a nuanced yet humorous exploration of the young, black experience today pitted against a fizzy comedy steeped in upper class narratives about a white woman attempting to make it in stand-up in the 1950’s, took me back to Oscar night 2017.
The dichotomy evokes the tension at that fateful Oscars when La La Land had to dramatically hand over the trophy for best picture to Moonlight, each film literally and visually representing two competing versions of the industry.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, like La La Land, employs a formula that not only works with audiences but is loved by Hollywood. The show makes the classic bet that people will be mesmerized by the upper class turmoil and white feminist struggle of the main character Midge Maisel. And I’m not saying the bet is wrong. Half of the show’s lure comes from watching Midge enter grand Upper West Side apartments and traverse the city in elaborate dresses, then walk on stage to perform for a drunk, boisterous crowd that doesn’t believe she belongs there. All of those moments give me butterflies.
The show invites you to become a fly on the wall as a wealthy jewish family in 1950’s New York deals with the world-upending drama of their daughter getting divorced, and that daughter seeking an exciting new career. And the dramatic Woody Allen-esque cast of characters and zippy language are fun to watch. But Hollywood has long banked on the fact that general audiences enjoy spying on the lifestyles of the rich and assumed viewers will be comfortable relating to their stories. Judging by the sheer number of nominations the show was given, it seems it’s a favorite of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Though the same could be said of Atlanta, if we’re going by numbers alone.
The popularity of Mrs. Maisel and the machine behind its marketing seems to cement the notion that Hollywood isn’t ready to give way to more progressive stories, even as audiences continue to support narratives centering more diverse lead characters. The show leads viewers to believe they’re watching something poignant that relates to the gender inequity women are hyper aware of following the election of Donald Trump. As Midge attempts to take on a male-centric comedy scene and challenge the sexist expectations the world has of her, a rich white woman, it feels like a show catered to the stereotype of a Women’s Marcher.
But ultimately, the conversation around feminism today is shifting and progressing even further to consider the intersections of race and gender and sexual identity. While The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is steeped in discussions around progress for women, it does so in a way that’s safe for Hollywood. Meaning, it erases those parts of feminism that Hollywood is still grappling with. And the historical lens allows the show to incorporate an absurd, almost cartoonish, version of sexism which is easy for anyone to imagine themselves opposing even if they disagree with the more thorny feminist issues currently being debated.
Insecure simultaneously has helped set a new standard for the way a show can capture the pulse of a culture in real time through its topical issues, use of slang, bop-filled soundtrack and a litany of cultural references. Fans live tweet it every week, and there are podcasts and web series’ dedicated to discussing the themes and moments from each episode. Some have even joked that the plotlines start to affect their real life, whether it’s by deciding to start a hotation, adamantly fighting the #LawrenceHive, or dealing with their own career struggles just like the show’s lead characters, Issa and Molly, do. But the Emmys have been less kind to Hollywood newcomer Issa Rae. After receiving a Golden Globe nomination in 2017 Insecure didn't receive any Emmy nominations that year, which some fans and outlets called a snub. Plus Rae is no longer just a writer and actress on her show Insecure, she's now spearheading two more shows on HBO while Insecure has helped elevate her public persona to that of a cultural icon and tastemaker. She even went viral on the Emmys red carpet last year proclaiming that she's "rooting for everybody black," a catch phrase which took on a life of its own, even inspiring a poem by rising star Courtney Lamar Charleston.
Both shows have their merits, and I would gladly turn either of them on to decompress from the day. But it’s still not hard to feel another us vs. them struggle as was felt during last year’s Oscar race. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is Hollywood’s celebrated newcomer, and by extension their version of progress. Insecure invokes a different version. And shows that push for narratives that revolve around marginalized communities have to do well in order for there to be more.
But ultimately, the innovations of Insecure or even Atlanta are not yet the primary currency in Hollywood which seems to still have the same awkward bipolarity as it did in 2017. Only this time it’s clear that mega star producers are looking for ways to remake upper class stories in more socially conscious ways. They may be implicitly acknowledging the country’s changing appetite, but it still comes off largely like business as usual.
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