Bowen Yang's history-making Emmy nomination is full of complicated symbolism

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 14: Bowen Yang of Nora from Queens attends the ViacomCBS Winter TCA T...
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“Now, can we please talk about my [Emmy nomination]?” Somewhere, Bowen Yang is likely pleased to be able to say this now, with the hall pass to be as much of a diva as we know he can play. Among the recently announced Emmy nominations, a small crop of historic firsts (including a welcomed nomination for Pose's MJ Rodriguez, the first ever trans woman to be nominated in Emmy history) included the comedian, who was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role on Saturday Night Live.

Adding to the history Yang already made two years ago as the first ever Asian cast member on SNL, the announcement served as a multi-pronged barrier-breaking moment: Yang is not only the first ever featured player to score an Emmy nomination (a rather stunning feat considering the comedic greats that all started out as featured players in SNL’s 46-year history), he is also one of the few Chinese-American men to receive an acting nod (including B.D. Wong for Outstanding Guest Actor on Mr. Robot). Beyond just another mark of what can at time feel like the stubborn diversity check-boxing that these institutional awards shows have been belatedly catching up to do these last few years, the nomination does carry a few rather complex symbolic feelings.

For one, it is a well-deserved acknowledgement of what has been Yang’s rather impressive mark on the show throughout his short stint thus far: from The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic to Fran Lebowitz, Yang’s performances have been a delightfully chaotic, but consistently remarkable presence, particularly for a featured player, on the show.

The nomination can also feel like a mark of poetic justice. Just two years ago, shortly after the announcement of Yang’s historic casting, the celebration was quickly overshadowed by the controversy that ensued hours later when videos resurfaced of comedian Shane Gillis, who was part of Yang’s incoming class of new SNL cast members, using anti-Asian racial slurs. It was a situation that of course put Yang himself in a compromised position — as a Chinese-American cast member, what was his response? How would he work side-by-side someone like that? Days later, Gillis’s casting was revoked, and two seasons later, Yang is an Emmy nominee.

And yet, it’s also a similar version of this tension that the nomination can feel clouded by. There is a bit of what feels like cognitive dissonance at play when, in the same year that Asians and Asian Americans have been repeatedly brutalized in the street and blamed by segments of the American populace for the pandemic, Yang is heralded as a barrier-shattering talent on an institution of American television. Of course, the nation is and always will be starkly multifaceted, but it is nevertheless a strange feeling.

Yang himself spoke about this reality earlier this year. Amid the spike in violent attacks across the country and after a mass shooting in which several Asian women were targeted and killed, Yang appeared not as a character, but simply as himself on a segment of Weekend Update, reflecting on the tragedies with a mixture of cathartic levity and nuanced poignancy.

The moment could feel for some like a comforting, if beleaguered sigh, and also a moment of validation — he didn’t have to take on the mantle of speaking to such a complex phenomenon, but he did. It’s not surprising after watching the segment that someone like Yang, months later, would go on to make history.