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'Normal People' Nominations Raise Questions about Gender Equality in the Emmys

If you didn’t spend quarantine having your heart wrenched out by Normal People on Hulu, what were you doing for the past five months? As a series that redefines isolation and uncertainty, it’s exceptionally relevant and timely—and a perfect escape from the mind-numbing drone of Zoom meetings. If you’re finding this hard to believe, you can use its four Emmy nods as proof. The 72nd Emmy Awards took place virtually on Sunday, Sept. 20, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. Hulu’s Normal People nominations included that of Paul Mescal, who plays the show’s lead, for Best Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie. His co-star, actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, was not nominated.   

Normal People, the screen adaptation of a novel by Irish author Sally Rooney, centers around an intensely intimate relationship between two characters: introspective and awkward Connell, played by Mescal, who is complemented by outspoken, brilliant, yet emotionally misunderstood, Marianne, played by Edgar-Jones. Life persists in bringing the pair together. As they leave their stuffy high school life in a small town and join a totally different crowd at prestigious Trinity College in Dublin, the two find that they cannot escape the emotional bond that ties them to one another. The show is interwoven with important dialogues about issues including domestic abuse, depression, anxiety, toxic relationships, class disparities, and the unique feeling of being lost and alone in college. 

One of the most salient parts of both the book and the series is that the relationship and storyline are not one-sided. The plot follows a holistic depiction of an intense relationship and private experiences of two people whose perspectives have been shaped by one another. Both struggle to adapt to college while figuring out what “normal” means in the context of their bizarre idiosyncrasies they’ve only felt comfortable sharing with each other. Mescal and Edgar-Jones share the screen equally, and while their characters develop both independently and concurrently, neither experiences more growth than the other. Their characters alternate in progress, reaching highs and lows at different points in their lives, yet even still, these experiences are either brought about by not having the other person in their life, or by being around them constantly. To put it briefly, the two characters exist on their own terms, but don’t feel complete without the other person. 

Both Mescal and Edgar-Jones have been praised for their roles. So, then, why was only Mescal nominated? If the story is dependent on the two of them, why commend one and exclude the other? Director Lenny Abrahamson, who was also nominated for an Emmy, weighed in on this by saying that although he had been sincerely hoping for Edgar-Jones’ nomination, she was up against some tough competition. He told Deadline Hollywood, “It was just so hard, but I think the whole show is about those two, so everybody’s recognition reflects on the two of them as the central engine of the whole story.” The other women nominated in Edgar-Jones’ category are well-known, long-established actresses including Kerry Washington, Cate Blanchett, Octavia Spencer, Shira Haas, and Regina King. At only 22, Edgar-Jones has a lot to look forward to. After the nominations were released in July, Edgar-Jones told Grazia, “I was obviously initially disappointed. But...I’ve still got to earn my stripes. I want to keep working and dreaming toward that.” Mescal also warmly spoke of Edgar-Jones’ talent on social media and said that he, too, was disappointed not to share a nomination with her. 

The omnipresent question lingers: is this related to gender? Despite the fact that each acting category has the same number of male and female actors nominated every year, the non-acting categories have historically been lacking in gender parity. This year, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences implemented changes to the credibility rules, increasing the maximum number of possible nominations in each category from five to eight. This was made in an effort to allow for more “inclusiveness in the recognition of excellence” and to open the opportunity for new voices, according to the Academy. A study of this year’s Emmy nominations by the Women’s Media Center, however, shows that the new rule hasn’t made much of a difference: of the 2,286 people nominated for non-acting Emmys in 2020, 35% were women and 65% were men. This is only a slight increase from last year, when women made up 32% of the non-acting category and men accounted for 68%, with 0.13% who identify as non-binary. 

For Normal People in particular, there is also the question of how gender is perceived by and portrayed in media. Mescal’s character, Connell, though appearing to be a rugged, athletic, and popular jock, is revealed to be incredibly sensitive, emotionally vulnerable, and socially anxious. His persona does not fit the stereotype of hypermasculinity. Some media outlets, such as Grazia, have questioned if this is what made Mescal’s acting more impressive to the Academy’s panel. It’s true that Connell battles against traditional toxic masculinity—he gets up the nerve to speak against the sexist remarks of his classmates, he begins to recognize his own harmful behavior, and his strong relationship with his single mother gives him the courage to do so. And although Mescal’s acting was undoubtedly remarkable, it is time gender non-conformity is normalized. Edgar-Jones’ acting was on par with her counterpart, filled with challenging scenes of emotional torment and ingenious deliverance that could make even the viewer become too attached. 

A pertinent take on the gender divisions in Emmy categories was published in a Variety column in August. The author argued that entertainment award shows should eliminate the “actor” and “actress” categories because not only does it pit women against women and men against men, it completely excludes those who do not identify with a singular gender. Is there merit in regarding women and men as separate in the acting industry, or does this stand in the way of gender equality? According to the article, some awards shows have already included non-gendered categories, including the MTV Movie & TV Awards and Television Critics Association’s TCA Awards. Although this does lead to the concern that the representation of women, and especially women of color, might diminish if these categories are not clearly delineated, it is a conversation that carries weight in the ongoing fight for social justice and inclusivity.

In good news, this year’s Emmy Awards broke records for diversity in race, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times. Overall, performers of color made up 37% of the total nominees, 6 % more than in any of the previous five years. 33% of the nominees in the acting categories were Black, compared with 14% in the five years prior. From 2015 to 2019, only 18% of Emmy nominees were Black, 2% were Asian, and 1% were Latinx. This year, Black actors made Emmys history with 11 performers (acting, hosting, and voice) accounting for the most wins in a single year. More specifically, 2020 had the most nominated Black women in Emmy history—17 in the acting categories alone—resulting in winners that included Regina King for her performance in “Watchmen” and Zendaya for her performance in “Euphoria.” Of course, much more progress needs to be made, as the Emmy nominees remain overwhelmingly white and male. 

Despite the Emmy disparity, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal were both recognized on Monday as part of the Screen International Stars of Tomorrow 2020, an annual list showcasing up and coming actors. Normal People was Mescal’s debut in television, and as a 24-year-old, an Emmy nomination is a serious testimony to his acting ability. As young as they are, Mescal and Edgar-Jones have taken on extremely heavy and profound material in Normal People and have done it exceedingly well. Mescal and Edgar-Jones deserve all of the accolades for their work in Normal People, and the world will be watching to see what they do next. Perhaps Edgar-Jones will fulfill her dreams and add a bit more (much needed) female representation to the list of future Emmy nominees and, hopefully, of winners.