Why Did Stacey Abrams Get an Emmy Nomination?

A multi-media push to the top of the political pile

Buried among last week’s Emmy nominations was the rather bewildering ascension of Stacey Abrams for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance. That’s right, Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate, whose name frequently comes up in crediting the Democrats for winning Georgia in the 2020 election. People also pushed her hard for Joe Biden to name her his running mate in that same election. But what’s with giving an Emmy nomination to Stacey Abrams?

First, we have to contextualize the nature of the Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance award . The Emmys primarily represent screen professionals, not those in animation. Consequently, the nominations always tend to overrepresent famous screen actors who happen to do character voiceovers rather than voice actors who are best known for voice acting. This year was particularly bad in that regard. Of seven nominees, only Seth MacFarlane is well-known primarily for voice work.

This bias explains why Titus Burgess and Stanley Tucci both received Voiceover Emmy nominations for Central Park this year, a basically obscure animated sitcom on Apple TV. It still doesn’t quite explain Stacey Abrams, who isn’t even an actress. Her minute-long appearance on the animated Black-ish Election Special only just barely qualifies for a nomination by the most technical of margins. As is the case for the Outstanding Animated Program Emmy, individual episodes rather than series receive nominations. Consequently, any brief cameo appearance by any person on an animated program technically qualifies, provided the relevant producers make that the official submission.

Despite the wide berth that producers receive in this regard, they don’t typically abuse the privilege. The Simpsons, for example, almost always submits its regular cast for their awards, rather than pretending that any random guest star is of comparable importance to the leads. Black-ish was in a more unique situation. It’s not usually an animated series, so only the seventh season’s Election Day two-parter qualified for a Voiceover Award at all.

The show’s live-action stars, Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross will be competing in the lead acting categories, as they should be. They might win, but no one expects Stacey Abrams to win. Still, we have to ask: why Stacey Abrams at all?

Politics as superhero origin story

The story of Stacey Abrams as a national media darling goes back several years. She lost the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, and not gracefully. Abrams filed a lawsuit challenging the Georgia election system as inherently illegitimate. Well into 2019, mainstream publications regarded these accusations favorably, framing Abrams herself as a champion of fighting back against a rigged system.

Come 2020, with the seeming importance of Georgia as a possible swing state, and Stacey Abrams seemed like an obvious pick for Vice President. In May of 2020, Washington Post ran a glowing profile of Abrams featuring an often ludicrous photoshoot that appears to frame Abrams as a superhero. The actual Joe Biden campaign was disinterested by contrast. In a live television appearance, Joe Biden briefly met Stacey Abrams and appeared to crush her hopes of being the Vice-Presidential pick in real time by passive-aggressively ignoring her.

After that Abrams’ name largely disappeared from the discourse until Georgia unexpectedly voted for Democrats, both in November and later in the Senate special election. As the main Democratic politician from Georgia anyone had ever heard of, Abrams’ name constantly came up in connection with the pivotal victory. References to what exactly Abrams did to help with turnout tend to be quite vague, and for good reason. She attached her name to voter-turnout groups for promotional purposes, but didn’t actually seem to contribute anything significant to Get Out The Vote efforts.

In this fashion Abrams became the avatar of Get Out The Vote, and it was in this capacity that she appeared on the Black-ish Election Special. In her brief appearance, Abrams advises Anthony Anderson’s Dre on how to win his election campaign with fairly generic advice that emphasizes early voting. So there’s the easy answer to why Stacey Abrams got an Emmy nomination. Her performance, though wooden and not even the best in the clip, validates the idea of democratic participation, especially among Black voters. It’s a message Black-ish production staff and Emmy voters alike found to be quite agreeable.

While Justice Sleeps

While Justice Sleeps

It’s also such an agreeable message that questioning Stacey Abrams hype has become nearly verboten in most media, despite its apparent absurdity. Just as Stacey Abrams was enjoying a comeback in the wake of the January special election in Georgia, she quickly turned that energy to good use, not by announcing a new gubernatorial bid, but by promoting her new book, While Justice Sleeps.

In a cutthroat industry where every book has to fight tooth and nail for any coverage, people reviewed Abrams’ boilerplate legal thriller both in its own right as literature and also in general-interest articles as evidence of Abrams’ incredibly diverse talent portfolio and unique perspective. They also advertised Abrams writing While Justice Sleeps in her spare time–a bit of an incredible claim, but a necessary one to square with the notion that Abrams spent most of 2020 personally saving democracy rather than writing a novel.

Now someone is purportedly developing While Justice Sleeps into a television series. With pre-release hype for While Justice Sleeps starting in March, a New York Times bestseller list debut in May, and now the recent Emmy nomination, it’s clear that Abrams has friends in the media industry and is settling in for a long career. The optimistic interpretation of this, and clearly the one media professionals are assuming, is that Abrams will parlay this fame into a positive political agenda.

More pessimistically, we all know that awards shows are bunk at this point, and more based on industry politics than anything else. What’s new is for industry politics to intersect with political politics quite so literally and undeniably. The Stacey Abrams Emmy nomination isn’t just ammunition for frustrated animation fans who are used to their favorites getting snubbed, it’s an open admission that Hollywood values politically-correct prosletyzing over art form. And people aren’t stupid. The more obvious this motivation is, the less likely anyone is to be convinced by it.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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