‘Russian Doll,’ ‘When They See Us,’ ‘Fleabag’ Push Emmys Toward Parity

When They See Us BTS Ava Duvernay
Courtesy of Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

While Hollywood looks toward a future of gender, racial and social parity, the 2019 Emmys appear to be taking a small but significant step in the right direction. This year, several projects with nods in many major categories were created or co-created by women who also wrote, produced and, in some cases, directed and/or starred in their respective series.

Twice as many female directors were nominated by the Television Academy this year as last, including Ava DuVernay (“When They See Us,” which received 16 noms overall) and Amy Sherman-Palladino (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” 20 noms overall), and almost three times as many women were nominated in scripted writing categories (again including DuVernay).

Leslye Headland, who co-created the high-concept Natasha Lyonne-starrer that received 13 total nominations, says she believes President Trump’s election and the amount of media attention #MeToo has received affected Hollywood enough to force studios and networks to start looking for different creators, directors and writers to service viewers who aren’t necessarily interested in mainstream shows.

“We’re seeing we can give these opportunities to different people,” Headland says. “I think when you get that feedback from the audience and from the industry specifically, you’re a little like, ‘Oh my God, OK well I have a million different ideas!”

Russian Doll” nabbed two of the comedy writing ballot spots this year (one for Headland, Lyonne and Amy Poehler, and the other for Allison Silverman), helping that category pass parity; there are 61.5% female nominees for comedy writer, including “Fleabag” auteur Phoebe Waller-Bridge and “Pen15’s” Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Stacy Osei-Kuffour.
Comedy series nominees came close to parity, with “Fleabag,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Russian Doll” all scoring noms alongside “Barry,” “The Good Place,” “Schitt’s Creek” and “Veep.”

An added importance for women-helmed projects is the trickle down effect. While “Russian Doll,” “Fleabag” and “Pen15” are acting vehicles for their creators, Waller-Bridge’s other Emmy nominated series, the dramatic “Killing Eve,” and Sherman-Palladino’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” also put women at the center of the story.

“I do think it’s women giving women those opportunities,” Headland says. There’s still an assumption, she adds, that women won’t be able to handle their own show alongside domestic duties, even if it’s an unconscious bias. “I think that when you’re a woman, you realize ‘I can do 75,000 things, so I’m assuming this other woman can also do that, and so I’m going to hire them.’”

Interestingly, DuVernay is the sole woman creator whose multi-nominated project is more focused on men (specifically those who were wrongfully convicted and formerly known as the Central Park Five). She points out that in addition to women, people of color also lack opportunities that could net them honors such as Emmy noms.

Only four people of color were nominated in the directing categories for this year’s Emmys, while in the scripted writing categories there were just three, with DuVernay filling one spot in each. In the acting races, there were 26 people of color nominated in 2019, down from last year’s 38. And in some of those categories, there were no people of color celebrated at all. DuVernay finds the problem not specific to the Emmys, but a systemic one instead.

“I don’t see it [as a sea change] when women and people of color are constantly overlooked and not getting hired,” she says.

Headland agrees, noting that she has often gotten “wildly sexist feedback” but feels that when women are leading the rooms and the sets, there are different ways of working.

“Other women have had those experiences themselves,” she notes, “so they can say, ‘That’s not going to happen. No one’s going to question your intelligence. We might butt heads, we might not agree on things, we may creatively have differences or whatever, but your competence as an artist is never going to be questioned, and your commitment to this is never going to be questioned.’”