The real-life stats behind Viola Davis’s emotional Emmys speech about diversity on television

“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
Image: Reuters
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Viola Davis, the star of “How to Get Away With Murder,” became the first black actress to ever win an Emmy for a lead role in a drama last night in Los Angeles.

Her emotional acceptance speech, in which she quoted Harriet Tubman about the invisible line that women of color are striving to cross, was probably the awards show’s audiences favorite, and she was cheered in a standing ovation and online:

“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Statistics from the industry show how few roles there are out there. Women overall continue to be underrepresented in television, according to the latest Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film “Boxed In” survey, with just 40% of speaking roles on all broadcast, cable, and Netflix programs. And within that 40%, the characters are overwhelmingly white, the study found:

In contrast, about 63% of the overall US population is “non-Hispanic white,” according to the latest census.

The latest statistics, and Davis’s role in the drama (it was originally written for a white woman), are part of what some say is an industry-wide shift, in which more leading roles are being written for and filled by minority actors. But the numbers show that things have not changed that much. In 2010, the first time that the “Boxed In” survey tracked race and ethnicity, African-American women were 12% of female characters on television:

That survey doesn’t address the quality of roles that are available to non-white actors, an issue that Davis discussed in an interview with the New York Times last year. “Even when I get the fried-chicken special of the day, I have to dig into it like it’s filet mignon,” she said, speaking of the marginalized, minor, and stereotyped roles offered her. The role of lawyer Annalise Keating in “Murder,” Davis said, was the “complicated” character she’s been waiting to play for a long time.