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Jeneé Osterheldt

‘Step out of line’: We all have the right to be here, Emmys

Billy Porter poses with the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
Billy Porter poses with the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.Frazer Harrison / Getty Images/Getty Images

Is there freedom on film?

We haven’t quite found it in the world, but sometimes it’s there on TV: an escape to a place where we’re free to be you and me and the fun, messy lines in between.

The possibilities pixels bring were on display at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday night.

“It’s really wonderful to know a dirty, pervy, angry, messed-up woman can make it to the Emmys,” said “Fleabag” star-creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Sunday night when she nabbed the first of her three awards.

We’re all told lies about ourselves and who we’re supposed to be. But in our favorite characters, we see the possibilities, the wicked and wonderful upside-down places we can go.

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Jharrel Jerome was in disbelief when he won the Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie for his soulquake of a role as Korey Wise in “When They See Us.”

“I feel like I should just be in the Bronx right now chilling, waiting for my mom’s cooking or something, but I’m here in front of my inspirations,” he said.

Jharrel Jerome accepted the award for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie for "When They See Us.”
Jharrel Jerome accepted the award for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie for "When They See Us.”Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

In that moment, Jerome became the youngest winner ever in the category and the first Afro-Latinx actor to win an Emmy. At 21, he didn’t grow up seeing himself represented on these stages; he’s still earning firsts.

TV and award shows sometimes perpetuate the stereotypes they also fight. Erasure still happens. Last week, at the Creative Arts Emmys, Beyoncé’s historic “Homecoming,” documentary was snubbed six times over. On Sunday, Don Cheadle lost for the eighth time at the Emmys. Only three people of color won an award in hosting/major acting categories — and none were women of color.

Cast after cast took the stage, and they were largely white and male-led. A lot of money men.

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But change is coming.

In 2017, Michelle Williams got less than $1,000 to reshoot “All the Money in the World” scenes replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer. Co-star Mark Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million.

On Sunday, she called her lead actress in a limited series win for “Fosse/Verdon” a testament to what happens when women are respected.

Michelle Williams accepted the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie award for "Fosse/Verdon.”
Michelle Williams accepted the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie award for "Fosse/Verdon.”FREDERIC J. BROWN//AFP/Getty Images

“I want to say thank you so much to FX and to Fox 21 studios for supporting me completely and for paying me equally because they understood that when you put value into a person, it empowers that person to get in touch with their own inherent value,” she said.

“Then, where do they put that value? They put it into their work and so the next time a woman and especially a woman of color, because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white male counterpart, tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her. Believe her. Because one day she might stand in front of you and say thank you for allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment and not in spite of it.”

That right there is what Alex Borstein meant when she encouraged women to step out of line.

When Borstein graced the stage for her supporting actress in a comedy win for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” she wasn’t all laughs. She honored her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.

“My grandmother turned to a guard — she was in line to be shot into a pit — and said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’ and he said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will.’ And she stepped out of line. And for that, I am here. And for that, my children are here. So step out of line, ladies. Step out of line.”

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Alex Borstein accepted her Emmy on stage Sunday.
Alex Borstein accepted her Emmy on stage Sunday.Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In Hollywood, that does not mean facing a gun. It means the Time’s Up Movement. It means Benedict Cumberbatch demanding equal pay for his female co-stars and Frances McDormand’s call for inclusion riders. It means Ava DuVernay putting women in the director’s chair episode after episode of “Queen Sugar.”

Stepping out of line means Patricia Arquette using her acceptance speech for her supporting role win for Hulu’s “The Act,” to advocate for trans rights and tribute her late sister, Alexis Arquette.

“Trans people are still being persecuted. I’m in mourning every day of my life, Alexis, and I will be the rest of my life, for you, until we change the world so trans people are not persecuted. And give them jobs. They’re human beings, let’s give them jobs, let’s get rid of this bias we have everywhere.”

Stepping out of line is fighting for the rights, roles, and stories of LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, immigrant people, older people; all of us have stories to tell. Representation matters. And when we acknowledge that, our art and lives are better for it.

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“Television isn’t just about entertainment anymore,” said Frank Scherma, the Television Academy’s chief executive officer. “It’s a shortcut to understanding each other a little better... television has the power to bring out the best in us.”

I don’t think TV was ever just for entertainment.

When you start to see characters on screen as people you laugh and cry with, you start to see them in the world a little differently, too. And when we see ourselves represented more fully, we have visual justice by reflecting the world we live in.

When we don’t, we find ourselves with half the story and filled up on lies that hurt and divide.

“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the Earth as though I had a right to be here,” James Baldwin wrote.

Billy Porter evoked those words when he became the first openly gay man to win the Emmy for best actor in a drama for his role as Pray Tell on “Pose.”

“I have the right. You have the right. We all have the right,” he said, saying he was happy to have lived long enough to see this day. “We are the people, we as artists are the people that get to change the molecular structure of the hearts and minds of the people who live on this planet. Please don’t ever stop doing that. Please don’t ever stop telling the truth.”

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The category is line-stepping. No boundary or stereotype will hold the truth of us.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.