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Best Performance: Is It Time For Gender Neutral Acting Awards?

Best Performance: Is It Time For Gender Neutral Acting Awards?

First of a Series for FF2 Media by Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

As many of you probably saw, the Golden Globe nominations were announced on Monday. You know what that means—time for this year’s gauntlet of award shows! And when I say “gauntlet,” I mean it in the medieval sense.

For those of you who don’t know, a gauntlet was the glove part of a knight’s armor, and there was a torture practiced in those days that involved the victim having to walk between two lines of knights, all of whom were repeatedly hitting the victim with their gauntlets. The gauntlets would have been solid metal, and large enough to be used as clubs—so when I say that the awards season is a gauntlet, what I mean is that the procession of awards shows coming up will feel to me like a succession of blows from large, blunt metal objects.

Why? If you’re a regular reader here at FF2, you’ll know that the Oscars, and how few of them are awarded to women, are a grievance with us every year. Out of all the tiny gold people handed out in March, the vast majority will be given to white men. Every award season, then, feels like a succession of blows to film critics such as ourselves. Every large, blunt metal object given out to a man, in a category where only men were nominated, and in which we have seen women excel all year with no recognition, feels at best like a slap to the face, and at worst, like a medieval torture.

Something tells me Anne Hathaway agrees.

This year, though, we’re not just thinking about #MakeOscarGold. FF2 is also interested in another question of Oscar diversity: should the categories for Best Actor and Best Actress (and their Best Supporting counterparts) be combined into a gender-neutral Best Performance Oscar? Is it time to remove this archaic gender division, not just from the Oscars, but from the whole gauntlet of awards shows that use it?

You may have missed it due to Jim Comey dominating the headlines at the time, but Emma Watson drew attention to this issue back in May, when she received MTV's first gender-neutral acting award. She was even called “the New Rosa Parks” by the National Review (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/447451/emma-watson-new-rosa-parks-gender-neutral-awards-hollywood-virtue-signaling), which, even among supporters of this progress, seems like a bit of a stretch. Watson’s previous record for ideological extremes was saying that patriarchy hurts men too with her He For She campaign, so this is a nice step in the right direction for her politics, at the very least.

Now that MTV has thrown down the gauntlet, as it were, to other awards shows to make the same change, we at FF2 have been getting our thoughts in order about this move. What effects could gender-neutral acting awards have on awards seasons going forward? Is this the right time for this kind of change? And how does this fit in with #MakeOscarGold?

Considering that the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories are the only ones where women are reliably represented, this cultural moment might not be great timing. Consider an Oscars where there were literally no women nominated! The Best Actress awards can be thought of as an affirmative action measure to make sure at least some (read: at least two) women in the industry are recognized.

Though one could also argue that the Best Actress categories are less affirmative action, and more tokenism—the presence of at least two women winning awards at the Oscars gives the appearance of gender parity, to those who aren’t looking very hard. And let’s face it, most of America doesn’t look very hard. A totally male Oscars would draw attention to itself, in ways past Oscar ceremonies that were totally male, except for two women, have not. And let’s not forget that if there was no reason for actresses to be at the Oscars, there might not be as big a kerfuffle over their dresses every year.

So women’s representation might not get better with this change, and could conceivably get worse. However, if acting awards were gender-neutral, there’s one group of people who would suddenly find themselves represented for the first time in Oscar history: genderqueer/ nonbinary people, who don’t identify as either male or female.

That means Asia Kate Dillon, a non-binary actor on the Showtime show Billions, would now be able to win awards for best performance that don’t identify them as the wrong gender (FYI, identifying someone as the wrong gender is called “misgendering”). Dillon called out the Emmys last year for keeping their awards binary (that means confining gender to the two options of “male” and “female”), though as yet the Emmys have not changed their award categories in response.Image result for asia kate dillon

One thing standing in the way here could be marketing: if there’s two fewer awards to give out, there will be two fewer reasons for people to tune in to the Oscars. And if the gender binary starts getting de-constructed, actresses might come to the Oscars in less extravagant outfits—or even normal clothes! That would make the red carpet walk pointless for all the tabloids that help to build hype for the Oscars, meaning they would lose a huge share of their publicity.

And finally, if people begin critiquing all the hegemonic structures, like the gender binary, on which our society is based, how will the Academy keep churning out media that supports those structures, either through implicit non-questioning, like the acceptance of capitalism in “La La Land,” or through outright propaganda for American imperialism, like “American Sniper?”

I digress. What you need to know, is that this is a problem that requires a lot of thought, and FF2 doesn’t want to rush to a conclusion. And since the Golden Globes nomination kicks off three months of awards shows, we have plenty of time to look at this issue from every angle! We’ll be bringing you four more features on this conversation, where we’ll hear from real women filmmakers, actors, and film critics as we investigate. My own opinion might even pop up at the end—if I make it through the gauntlet, that is.