This article contributes to the discourse around making acting awards of major award shows gender neutral. While this move shall help transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming actors to have a chance of being nominated without being sorted into either the male or female category, the counter argument to this can be the uneven playing field that mostly favours the cisgender man who gets more opportunities than women and people of alternate sexualities and consequently shall have greater chances of winning the award.
Back in 2018 at the 90th Academy Awards, Best Actress winner Frances McDormand created a unique moment during her acceptance speech when she requested every other female nominee across all categories to stand up with her. She ended her speech with the words “inclusion rider” that very subtly hinted at the lack of diversity in major entertainment award shows. A year before this, we saw Emma Watson win the first ever gender-neutral acting award at the MTV Movie Awards, which till the year before, was awarded to men and women separately. This raises the important issue around these awards shows and that is whether or not a gender-neutral acting award should become the norm.
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If we notice the various non-acting categories in award shows, such as Best Director and Best Screenplay, we are bound to realise the gender neutrality in these categories. There is no separate category for a Best Female Director and therefore it might not sound completely improbable to have one acting award for both men and women. Asia Kate Dillon, who presented the aforementioned award to Watson and identifies as non-binary, spoke about the “us” and “them” division created by sex segregated awards. If Greta Gerwig and Guillermo del Toro can compete for best director, then so can Timothée Chalamet and Meryl Streep for acting. While it does seem appropriate to do away with sex specific categories at award shows, we do not live in a world that actually provides a level playing field for people hailing from different backgrounds.
The number of performances by men is overwhelmingly more than that of women. According to a 2014 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, women comprised of only 12 percent of protagonists and 30 percent of all speaking characters in the biggest blockbusters of a year. While women can act just as well as men (if not better) the elimination of gendered divisions might probably create an unfair and institutional disadvantage for women. Without the creation of a level playing field, removing gender from award shows can only result in removing women from the list of nominees. A gender segregated category in place compels the jury of the award show to search for and take cognizance of actresses who have to overcome far more barriers on their road to success than their male counterparts.
The proportion of female nominees to that of men in several award shows that do not have categories segregated on the basis of sex is abysmally low. Apart from getting more and better roles, men continue to win more because gender neutrality has come to be defined as anything that is by default male. While some argue that movies like Booksmart, Little Women and The Farewell, focus mostly on women and girls, thereby lacking the required gender neutrality, the same can be said about movies that feature a cisgender male in the leading role. Take the example of Boyhood. Even though the movie focuses of the various stages of a boy’s life it does not qualify as gender neutral as the story progresses from the view point of a cisgender boy, something that even a gay boy might not be able to relate to let alone women and/ or transpeople. Similarly Get Out displays racism faced by the cisgender black man. There is no reason we should assume that women and trans people of colour have the same experiences. However it is only when the protagonist is a woman that the movie is labelled female-centric while the male protagonist-led film passes of as a universal experience.
For the already existing gender-neutral categories such as Director or Screenplay at award shows, the nominees and subsequent winners are mostly men. 92 Oscars have come and gone but only five women have so far been nominated for Best Director out of which only one (Kathryn Bigelow) has won the award (for The Hurt Locker in 2010). Back in 2018 we witnessed the first woman ever to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars (Rachel Morrison for Mudbound). It is probably not enough to make the award shows categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ disappear when the chances of being rewarded are so bleak. To claim “Everybody is human!” in response to the complaints of women about sexism does not smack of being progressive. Those who say that are never affected by the systems that marginalise women making the issue of visibility of primary importance.
The drawbacks of doing away with gender-segregated categories therefore are many. On the other hand constructing gender as a binary overshadows the experiences of large portions of our population such as the gender-non-conforming folks and trans people. While there has been an increased representation of queer and trans characters both on the big and the small screens, it is not enough to have only cisgender men play transgender or gender non-conforming characters on screen. There is a need for performers who truly understand and represent that experience to portray these roles. Transgender actors have to struggle while playing roles that are not at all parallel to their gender identity. Added to that is the competition that they have to face from cisgender people since the very few roles that are reserved for the former are given to the latter. Many a times, they are included in the movie as a mark of tokenism as opposed to giving them prominent roles crucial for the development of the plot. Pose actor and Primetime Emmy winner Billy Porter addressed this issue by pointing at how as an openly gay black actor he neither gets the straight roles nor the queer ones because both are given to his straight white counterparts.
The concept of a binary award system has become quite an issue as more non-binary, transgender and gender nonconforming actors are getting under the spotlight. While some award shows have allowed the actor concerned to choose whether they would like to be nominated in the male or the female category, this is ultimately an indirect way of forcing a specific gender identity on an individual. This apparently “liberal” attitude of the jury is passed off in the guise of “progress”. Forcing non-binary performers to identify with either sex is an implicit attempt to erase non-binary identities. The concern that women might not receive the limelight that they deserve is legitimate. But gender neutrality is not about choosing between one or the other. The jury has to uplift women but not at the cost of transgender, non-binary and gender nonconforming individuals. They just have to be more proactive. Most of these organisations that give away these awards have considerable clout and resources and therefore are in a position to recognise both historically marginalised groups. The jury has to be made more diverse both in terms of race and gender who can address the implicit bias that prevents individuals belonging to a certain community from succeeding in the entertainment industry.
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In conclusion, while the proposal of a gender neutral acting award category at award shows is not to be dismissed altogether, there is also the need to ensure appropriate representation of all genders. This will happen not only when transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming actors get more opportunities to perform but also when the movies featuring them receive as much spotlight as the white cisgender drama and/ or comedy deserves. By virtue of their original screenplays, two of the movies mentioned previously (Boyhood and Get Out) could have been projected as the story of a transgender person or non-binary or gender nonconforming person. These stories too deserve to reach out to a wider audience. The viewers need to be made aware of their work before they can be appreciated. It is also through greater representation and recognition of these identities (at award shows, for starters) that we can hope for a normalisation of their existence.
Supriyo Dey graduated with a Master’s in Sociology in 2019. His interests include political sociology, feminism, popular culture, and the environment ans is currently preparing for PhD. He can be found on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Author’s note: I am extremely grateful to Debdatta Chakraborty for helping me out with this article.
Featured Image Source: CNBC