Back in 1970, the legendary director George Cukor lead an industry campaign to get transgender Warhol Superstar Holly Woodlawn nominated in the Best Actress category at the Oscars for her work in Trash. While no such nomination came from it, the effort marked the first time a major Hollywood player pointed out that the gender binary enforced by awards show acting categories is even more restrictive than the gender binary that exists in the real world. It was, after all, a time when it wasn't clear that the Academy would recognize a trans woman in an actress category. The situation had simply never presented itself before.
Fast forward to today, to the plight of non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon, a previous unknown who is stealing the second season of the Showtime series Billions in her role as a non-binary whiz-kid intern. Their performance is generating serious Emmy buzz, but leads to the dilemma of which category they belong in. So Dillion wrote the Television academy, asking not just for clarification but whether gendered categories should even be necessary.
"The reason I’m hoping to engage you in a conversation about this is because if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are in fact supposed to represent ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a woman’ and ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a man’ then there is no room for my identity within that award system binary.”
The TV academy responded by pointing out that acting talent can be submitted for either category for any reason. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars, made a similar point last year when it clarified that Kelly Mantle, a gender-fluid veteran actor (who, among other things, once competed on RuPaul's Drag Race and is related to baseball legend Micky Mantle), could also apply for consideration in either male or female categories.
Though, that still doesn't necessarily make things easier for actors who don't identify as stricly male and female. Nor does it answer why acting categories are the only ones traditionally segregated by gender.
Enter, of all things, the MTV Movie and TV Awards. Not only did the recently-announced nominations do away with distinctions between television and movies in some categories for the first time, it also did away with distinctions between genders in all categories. Millie Bobby Brown will compete alongside Donald Glover for best actor in a show, for example. Long gone are the days when this same awards show had categories like "Most Desirable Male" and "Most Desirable Female." Yes, the VMA's little sibling is now woke.
Though, MTV awards shows aren't quite as steeped in tradition (or significance for that matter) as the major awards show players. Would the Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys ever follow suit with doing away with gendered awards for acting talent?
The real pushback against such a chance might not be because Hollywood has an interest in protecting the gender binary, but rather that they might want to protect the number of acting categories in general.
Acting races, after all, are why the general public tunes in. More acting categories puts more famous faces in the seats (and on the red carpet). Awards academies will not be eager to cut the number of actors it recognizes in half if it might mean a potential loss in star power.
But what if there was a way however to preserve the number of categories while also remedying other criticisms as well? It might actually be more obvious than one would think. Let's take the Oscars as our case study, and offer a few modest proposals:
1. Divide lead acting categories into dramatic and comedic/musical categories, instead.
Do actors and actresses actually require different skills to play dramatic parts? No, not really. They all attend the same acting classes, anyway.
But does it require different skills to succeed in comedic and musical roles than it does in serious dramatic roles? Often it does, and critics have long pointed that the Academy overlooks comedic performances. Indeed, it's the only major awards show that doesn't split up acting categories by genre (the Emmys, Tonys, and Golden Globes already do). So why not take a page out of those other awards shows' rule book, and introduce separate categories for dramatic, comedic, and musical roles while taking MTV's cue and eliminating the gendered categories.
It might not even shake things up too much. Take this past Oscars as an example: It would have been Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Meryl Streep, and Viggo Mortensen (already nominated in the gendered categories) competing in the comedy and musical category. It would have also left room for Annette Bening's overlooked performance in 20th Century Women (or perhaps even Ryan Reynold's in Deadpool). The remaining six nominees (and maybe, in a perfect world, Viola Davis, who really was a co-lead, not a supporting character) would have had to fight it out for a spot in the drama category. True, this might open up conversation about what really separates a somber comedy from a drama (the best, of course, are both), but the Emmys and Golden Globes seem to have made it work just fine.
2. Do the same with supporting acting categories.
The obvious answer is to divvy up supporting actors by their films' genres as well. That would work fine in many cases, but it's not all that uncommon for a standout supporting role in a drama to actually be a more comedic one that balances the tone out (this is the basis of Jonah Hill's career). Comedies, especially of the critically acclaimed caliber, also often feature someone in a more dramatic supporting role to ground the film. This could lead to some awkward situations, but, hey, at least it's better than category fraud.
3. Or add a category for sub-supporting roles.
You know what kind of work never gets awards glory? The small roles that matter. The truly supporting roles. In fact, these kinds of roles are the biggest victims of category fraud. They all too often get squeezed out of contention thanks to actors opting down to the supporting category to better their chances (all apologies to our two most recent Best Supporting Actress winners, Viola Davis and Alicia Vikander, but everyone knows those were lead roles). In fact, The Awl already made a pretty great case for such a category.
So why not introduce a category to recognize this kind of work? In some years it may serve to honor a veteran character actor who has been quietly enriching films in smaller roles throughout their careers. In other years, it might go to an actor who appears for just a scene or two that makes the movie. (The classic example might be Alec Baldwin in Glengary Glen Rose.) Perhaps this year, the category might have benefited Moonlight's Naomi Harris. Her role famously took just three days to film. While she did get an nod in the standard Supporting Actress category, she never really stood a chance against Davis.
With just two or three simple changes, the Oscars could not only eliminate the problems with gender-segregated categories, but they'd also find way to recognize the type of work they're all too often accused of overlooking, anyway. All this, while also preserving the total number of acting categories. And it wouldn't be hard for the Tonys and Emmys to follow suit with their own tweaks either.
Most of all, doesn't it just make more sense to divvy up actors by what kind of work they did onscreen, rather than what gender they happen to identify with?
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