Photo by ABC/Craig Sjodin
Television / Underrepresentation

More Than Just an Award: Viola Davis’ Historic Emmy Win

Ecstatic, joyful tears filling her eyes, Viola Davis takes the stage: the first African American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. It is a powerful moment. The crowd is cheering, fellow actress Kerry Washington is shown on camera crying, and Davis gives an incredible acceptance speech. It begins with a quote from Harriet Tubman: ‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’

That night Davis, walking up onto that stage, made it over that line, at least in part. Indeed, her skillful portrayal of the character Annalise Keating on the hit TV show How to Get Away With Murder is worthy of this prestigious honor. Yet, that Davis was recognized for her work legitimizes the presence of diverse characters in the media, which is arguably more important than the award itself.

In 67 years, only seven African American women have been nominated for the Emmy category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Debbie Allen was the first to be nominated in 1982 for the show Fame. Alfre Woodard, Regina Tayler, Cicely Tyson, Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis are the other African American women to be nominated. This year for the first time two African American women were simultaneously nominated in the category, Taraji P. Henson for Empire and Viola Davis.

Undoubtedly, this is a historic moment in popular culture. But Davis’ win is not just indicative of her incredible talent, but instead of an increase in diversified media representation. This is evident within the context of increasing amount of characters that break conventional limitations and television tropes based on race, gender, and class. For example Annalise Keating, the tough yet emotionally complex criminal defense professor and attorney, played by Davis.

What makes Annalise such a revolutionary character is her complex, raw nature. In essence: it’s the clear sense of her humanity. Her fully formed characterization is demonstrated primarily through three main aspects of her personality: her intellectual and professional power; her emotional vulnerability; and her sexuality.

Annalise is depicted as an intelligent, powerful lawyer. She finds ways to win all of her cases, using any method necessary. Indeed, in the courtroom she has a powerful presence. Alongside her clients, the viewer trusts her to win, and yet is still amazed when she does. The four students who she takes on as interns and those that work for her are also in awe of Annalise. They quickly prove that they will do anything for her, no matter the cost.

Annalise’s character is at the same time very vulnerable. It is not rare to see her crying on camera, struggling with various personal demons. Towards the end of the first season, for example, she endures a harrowing emotional breakdown in which she is incapable of even getting out of bed. This visceral fit of depression is only remedied with the arrival of her mother, played by none other than Cicely Tyson, another character with whom she has a complicated relationship. Annalise’s range of emotions is hugely important in demonstrating her humanity: that she is capable of enduring and feeling so much makes her very relatable.

According to Davis, Annalise’s messy sex life is perhaps one of the more notable elements of her character. In distrusting of her husband, manipulating her boyfriend, and in season two (spoiler) reaching out to the woman who she once, and maybe still, loved in law school for help, she is shocking and brutally honest when it comes to relationships. Annalise’s character has sexual depth in that she is involved with a variety of people for equally as many reasons. African American female characters typically are not seen as having this type of social power. If anything, they are restricted in this context only as sexual objects for others’ benefit and entertainment. This in of itself defines Annalise as a character that not only breaks the mold of African American female characters, but of female characters in general.

Davis herself has recognized how groundbreaking Annalise Keating is, narratively speaking. In a recent pre-Emmy interview with the New York Times, Davis discusses how in the film world, despite her success in “The Help,” she was still only offered supporting roles and says it’s a “fight” to get hired for anything else. She highlights that movies today starring women, and especially women of color, have harder times getting funded and promoted, something she hopes to come back with the creation of her own production company with her husband, Julius Tennon. In the television world, namely in “Shondaland”, the production company run by Shonda Rhimes who created other hit shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”, Davis has found success with a major role. She praises Rhimes, and Pete Nowalk who created “Murder” for being arguably the most progressive production company. The shows of “Shondaland” give women opportunities to play incredible characters, such as Annalise Keating, regardless of race, gender, or class, which Davis praises highly.

Aside from in these “Shondaland” shows there are few other such progressive female characters, which makes Davis’ win all the more important. Her performance in portraying a character that defies the expected limitations of a middle aged, African American female character, makes her entirely deserving of her win. Yet beyond recognizing the hard work Davis has done, this also recognizes the importance of a character like Annalise Keating whose existence gives women of color real media representation. Davis recognizes this and in her acceptance speech declares: “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” This opportunity that she mentions refers specifically to the availability of television and film roles that are not just based off of tropes, but represent real people in all walks of life.

This is only just the beginning of change in media representation. It would be absolutely wrong to conclude that Hollywood has diversified, and that racism and sexism have been eradicated. These problems are of course still very much evident. Misrepresentation of people of color as well as women exists in a very crippling manner throughout all forms of media. Yet slowly more and more characters like Annalise Keating are starting to, and hopefully with continue to, become more prevalent. This is why the Television Academy’s recognition of Davis’ character is so important: this is just one step further in fixing this problem and giving more diverse characters a real place in the media.

The problem of media misrepresentation is so crucial to address, as it is one subset of the overall social inequality that extends beyond the world of Hollywood. Davis recognizes, quoting Harriet Tubman in her acceptance speech in order to remind us of the still divided nature of our society. Wrongful preconceptions of people of color, solidified by media misrepresentation, are engrained in our society and lead to this giant gap. But the changing media landscape perhaps suggests a shift in social thought. If the ability to write and create more diverse, complex characters increases, this speaks to the hopeful potential of an improving conception of all people of color throughout the nation. It is not, of course, a simple fix. But if all people are represented in the same realistic manner, then engrained social ideals and stereotypes could begin to change. Davis highlights this in her acceptance speech, demonstrating how this issue is reflected beyond the media: it all connects. She wants us to understand that if our perceptions of people are color are first reshaped in the media, then universally, no one would be limited based on their race, gender, or class. Everyone then would be able to cross that line, just as both Davis and Annalise have, in reality and on screen.