BY Michelle Orange in Opinion | 09 JAN 18
Featured in
Issue 192

Ladies and Gentlemen

Should acting awards be gender neutral? 

BY Michelle Orange in Opinion | 09 JAN 18

As part of an awards voting body, each December I meet with a group of fellow film critics to decide on the best of that year’s movies. This gathering has certain constants: junky snacks, awkward vibes, the sense of a successful publicity campaign – rather than a great movie – carrying the day. Being critics of strong and entrenched opinions, we don’t waste time arguing our differences in taste: there are no passionate advocacies, no bitter clashes, no open judgments. (Private judgments are another matter.) Instead, year after year, some version of a different debate breaks out concerning the terms of our voting categories: how are the nominees arranged? Should we differentiate between an original score and the use of pre- or re-recorded music? Where is the line between supporting and lead roles? What qualifies as a ‘breakout’ performance?

We have fought about every categorical premise, in fact, except the one that is the most evidently fraught: why do we divide by gender? The obvious answer suggests the reflexive nature of the problem: we segregate men and women in acting awards because everybody else does and always has. But, even in the traditionalist realm of creative industry awards, change has been possible – and sometimes necessary – reflecting evolution both in the industry and in society. The first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, for instance, included an Oscar for ‘Best Title Writing’. When silent films became obsolete – one year later – so did the category. In 1985, Prince and Michael Jackson competed for ‘Best Black Album’ at the American Music Awards, before ‘Soul / R&B’ – the category it replaced for that year only – was reinstated. Six years ago, the Grammys did away with all of their gendered categories and now organize their awards by music genre, performance and format. In spring last year, MTV decided to overhaul its movie and TV awards, including those acting categories split by gender, a move that network head Chris McCarthy attributed to the preferences of a youthful audience which ‘actually doesn’t see male-female dividing lines’. Accepting the first ever gender-neutral acting award for a film at the ceremony, Emma Watson emphasized the paradigm shift her win represented: ‘The first acting award in history that doesn’t separate nominees based on their sex says something about how we perceive the human experience,’ she said.

Emma Watson at the MTV Movie and TV Awards, 2017, The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Even in the world of sport, where a more viable argument might be made for the separation of men and women in competition, there is a history of challenges to the status quo. This past autumn, the International Ski Federation agreed to consider an appeal by champion ski racer Lindsey Vonn – who regularly beats the men she trains with – to compete with the men in the 2018 World Cup Alpine race. In 2016, Schuyler Bailar became the first transgender person to join the men’s swimming and diving team at Harvard. In the same year, the International Olympic Committee recommended that trans athletes could compete in the Olympics without undergoing gender affirmation surgery. Back at the movies, one current awards season contender, Battle of the Sexes (2017), tells the story of the nationally televised 1973 tennis match between US national champions Bobby Riggs (played by Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone). Riggs, then in his mid-50s, claimed that he could still beat the best women in the game; in front of 90 million viewers worldwide, King proved him wrong.

The well-received Battle of the Sexes is especially primed for acting nominations: but why should Carell and Stone not compete in the same category? What is the argument, today, for considering the acting talents of men and women separately? Why involve gender at all? It might be argued that female categories have, in the past, ensured women a place at the table. But why should female actors continue to accept even a whiff of concession? Unlike their counterparts in gender-neutral categories – such as screenwriting, directing and cinema­tography – women actors have a well-established presence in awards contexts, one that makes desegregation less likely to erase them from the field. It’s possible that open competition for actors – and the attention it would bring to issues of gender parity – might help loosen men’s monopoly on other creative and technical categories. Organizing award categories by genre and performance will force a confrontation with the way we watch women on screen, the roles they do and don’t play, and the relative credit they earn for their work. It could also help reveal and remedy the demographics of voting bodies that tend to seek their own reflection and satisfy their narrow tastes at the movies and on television.

Television is already morphing far beyond its original parameters. As the medium and the terms on which we watch it transform, there have emerged more and better opportunities for women, people of colour and other previously ignored or ill-represented groups. In a media- and tech-saturated culture increasingly in thrall to the disruption of old social and economic models, traditional cinema appears less and less relevant – perhaps never more so than when it separates the boys from the girls to hand out merit badges. Once the most influential medium and art form in the Western world, film grows ever more dependent on blockbuster spectacles to attract a theatre-going audience and, in straining to satisfy a globalized market, has favoured crudeness on every level, including in the presentation of gender roles.

Producer Harvey Weinstein’s 81 Academy Awards and ruthless campaign tactics made him the Hollywood figure most associated with the Oscars. His outing as a serial predator who, for decades, used sexual violence and harassment to subjugate actresses and female colleagues has been heral­ded by some as a turning point. In its statement on ejecting Weinstein from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the governing body claimed it hoped to ‘send a message that the era of wilful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behaviour and workplace harassment in our industry is over’. Strong words. But the scale of such change requires that it foment in the many lower ranks of the culture over which Weinstein enjoyed such prominence. It needs to be seen and felt, not simply announced.

In much of the world, but particularly in Hollywood, the separation of men and women into discrete categories, with separate rules and conditions, has served the interests of the former and suppressed those of the latter. Gender-neutral categories at awards ceremonies are a minor way in which the industry might signal the end of that system and, indeed, herald a broader view of the world – on screen and off. It’s an opportunity – small, but potentially potent – for Hollywood to set a precedent and disrupt an order so entrenched that, until now, few have thought to question it. 

 Main image: Steve Carell and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes, 2017. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Los Angeles; photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life: Essays (2013). She lives in New York, USA.