2008 Primetime Emmys Review: Tina Fey wins, women and people of color lose

White men over 30 living in a bygone era, and the white women who support them — that is the focus of the winning programs in the Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Drama Series categories at the 60th Annual Emmy Awards (John Adams and Mad Men, respectively).

Unfortunately, it’s also an accurate description of this year’s Emmy awards show.

The Emmys have never been known as a bastion of diversity, but watching the 60th Annual Emmy Awards tonight was like going back in time several decades, to the days when sexism was funny, and everyone important was white, male, and over 40.

I knew things were were going to take a bad turn 10 minutes in, when the Dancing With the Stars host and William Shatner physically pulled off Heidi Klum‘s pants suit to reveal her skimpy glittering outfit beneath.

Klum just smiled, struck a sexy pose, and said, “Now that I’ve got your attention…” (Because who would pay attention to her with her clothes on?)

It only got worse from there.

Women were almost completely absent from all the directing and writing categories (in other words, any categories that were not gender-specific). There were no women nominated in the categories of Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special or Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series (all the nominees were white men), and there was only one woman nominated in the categories of Outstanding Director for a Drama Series (Arlene Sanford, for an episode of Boston Legal), Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Robin Veith for Mad Men) and Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special (Heidi Thomas). None of them won.

There were some female winners in “outstanding actress” categories — Glenn Close (Damages) for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series; Jean Smart (Samantha Who?) for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series; and Laura Linney (John Adams) for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries — but probably only because it was impossible for men to be included.

Towards the end of the evening when Brooke Shields and Craig Ferguson presented the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, their scripted dialogue involved Ferguson talking about how he used to fantasize about Shields as a teenager, but now he respects her for her acting work.

Then Shields asks, “Is that your hand on my ass?” and Ferguson responds, “Yes, and it’s respecting you” with a leering grin.

Brooke Shields and Craig Ferguson presenting

Um, what year is this?

I’ll be the first person to say that Shields isn’t the best actor in the world, but what were the Emmy writers smoking when they thought it was acceptable to have Ferguson leer and pretend to feel Shields up, while she stands there looking uncomfortable and accepts it? None of the male presenters were sexualized like this on stage. (A shocking double-standard, I know.)

If visibility was bad for women overall, it was really bad for women of color. There were only a few women of color even nominated — America Ferrera and Vanessa Williams for Ugly Betty, Sandra Oh and Chandra Wilson for Grey’s Anatomy, and Phylicia Rashad for A Raisin in the Sun — and none of them won. (Shocking, again.)

Oprah was a presenter, as was Eva Longoria Parker with the other Desperate Housewives, and Ferrera, Williams and Oh (who was saddled with a funny but stereotypical Asian joke about her mother wishing she’d become a doctor).

America Ferrera and Vanessa Williams presenting

Men of color didn’t fare much better — all the male winners of the evening were white (save for the previously announced winner in the Outstanding Guest Actor category), and only a few men of color even presented (Wayne Brady and Laurence Fishburne). When The Amazing Race won for Outstanding Reality Series, and a black man started to walk up the aisle with a dozen others to accept the award, I wondered for a moment if they’d even let him on stage.

To call this Emmys show a parade of white people would not be overstating it by much.

But this year’s lack of female nominees in writing and directing categories, and the overall lack of people of color as nominees and winners, is not much different than previous Emmys (with some exceptions).

What was unusual was the extensive time devoted to celebrating television shows that most viewers under 40 would have a difficult time recalling, and very few viewers under 30 would even recognize.

The entire evening was devoted to the “golden age of television.” In between the nonsensical yammering of the reality TV hosts, there was a Laugh In skit, a Smothers Brothers tribute, a montage of “Sock it to ’em!” quotes, a feature on M.A.S.H., and tributes to Don Rickles, Mary Tyler Moore, Thomas Smothers and Betty White.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Betty White, I appreciate that Mary Tyler Moore paved the way for women on TV today, and I laugh at pretty much anything Lily Tomlin does; but I’m 35, and I had to ask my 45-year-old girlfriend what was going on half the time, so I can’t imagine how the average 25-year-old viewer made it through the show without falling asleep or changing the channel.

Lily Tomlin performing during the Emmys

Celebration of classic TV is great, but the event should have included at least as much celebration of TV in the last year, since that’s ostensibly why they have an annual ceremony.

It also would have helped if their had been more diversity in the age of presenters and nominees. There aren’t many good roles for women over 40 in Hollywood, but you’d never know it from their overwhelming presence among the nominees and presenters at last night’s event: Diane Wiest, Betty White, Judy Dench, Mary Tyler Moore, Brooke Shields, Laura Linney, Candice Bergen, Carrie Fisher, Edie Falco, Polly Bergen, Elaine Stritch — the list goes on.

Kathy Griffin introduces Don Rickles

The only women under 30 even on stage at the event were America Ferrera, Hayden Panettiere and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I’m all for giving older women more visibility — I’m only a few years shy of falling into that category myself — but it’s just as boring to see only women over 40 as it is to see only women under 40. And creating a program that appeals mainly to older white viewers is a bizarrely bad business strategy on ABC’s part. Are they trying to drive away future audiences?

Close said in her acceptance speech that she and her fellow Outstanding Actress in a Drama nominees are proving “that complicated, powerful mature women are sexy and high-entertainment and can carry a show.” That’s very true, and The Closer, Damages and Law and Order: SVU are among the best shows on television. But someone on the Emmy organizing committee is taking her words a little too literally.

The evening’s saving grace was Tina Fey — and I’m not just saying that because I’m a fan of Fey. Her skit with Amy Poehler was arguably the funniest of the night (Poehler’s welcome to parrot viewers was classic).

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler welcome Emmy viewers

Fey’s three wins for 30 Rock — in the Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series, Outstanding Writing For A Comedy Series, and Outstanding Comedy Series categories — were well-deserved and fun to watch.

In accepting the award for Outstanding Writer for a Comedy Series (she was the only woman nominated), Tina happily climbed on stage and gave an entertaining acceptance speech.

Ah nerds! I absolutely share this with every member of the writing staff of 30 Rock, we write these episodes together, especially ones like that that are late in the season when I am mostly held together with spit and tape… I’m very proud to be a writer, I would not have any of the other jobs I have if I had not been a writer first. And also it’s great to be a writer because if you’re at a wedding or something, and you tell people that you’re in a writer, they’re less interested in talking to you than if you tell them you’re an actor, which is great.

Tina Fey accepts the Outstanding Writer award

When she accepted her second award, Fey thanked her parents for, “somehow raising me to have confidence which is disproportionate with my looks and abilities. Well done! That is what all parents should do.”

By the time she won her third award, she’d run out of funny speeches and was just thanking people by name.

But as funny as Tina Fey‘s speeches were, the fact that they were the highlight of the evening underscores the problem. Take away Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (and the always funny and inclusive Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), and what you’ve got left is a bunch of unfunny middle-aged white guys running things — and we all know how well that’s working out for Saturday Night Live.

In accepting his award for directing Pushing Daisies, Barry Sonnenfeld inexplicably told the audience to “love TV, and fear the internet.”

If this is the kind of programming we can expect from TV, then the people who make TV should fear the internet — because as technology improves, that’s exactly where more and more viewers are going to turn to find entertainment that doesn’t demean, ignore or just plain bore them.

See women on the red carpet at the Emmys