Discuss: gender-neutral acting awards

March 10, 2023 • 10:00 am

Reader Wayne called my attention to a Washington Times article about how the Oscars are “under pressure to replace actor, actress awards with gender-neutral honors”.  Indeed, the Los Angeles Times, published at the home of the Academy Awards, ran this op-ed (by the whole editorial board) last December (click to read):

The Times article gives the pros and cons in two paragraphs:

The Academy Awards face mounting pressure to follow the Grammys, the MTV Movie & TV Awards, the Gotham Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards by replacing the male and female acting awards with “best performer” or “best performance” as entertainers increasingly identify as nonbinary and transgender.

The trend has opened another front in the debate over fairness versus inclusion, raising concerns that actresses, much like female athletes, may wind up bearing the costs of the campaign to reconfigure sex and gender classifications.

One difference is that almost nobody wants a single category for athletic competitions, while a lot of actors favor eliminating sex-specific awards (see below).

Now if you create just two non-gender-specified awards for winners in categories that were previously “best male” and “best female,” that’s an explicit nod to the sex binary, something that may not fly in today’s woke Hollywood. But that’s what the L.A. Film Critics Association did.

Further, if you create just one award, a lack of gender equity in the industry will mean that it’s likely to go to a male, and that doesn’t look good either. Many people think that in the Oscars, like athletics, women should be given an equal chance to shine. But since there’s no reason that women can’t be as competitive as men in acting (though there may be barriers to success that men don’t face), this is not identical to the situation women face in athletics.

However, the L.A. Times feels that women don’t have equal acting opportunity: even though they make up between 45% and 47% of scripted leads, only 25% of Oscar-winning movies have female leads. The paper still recommends ditching the gender-based solution:

Dissolving gendered categories for Oscars or Emmys would not magically give women parity with men in accessing substantial acting roles and being celebrated for their work. Despite some notable recent gains for women, the entertainment industry is still weighted in favor of men. The last thing we would want to see are nongendered acting categories full of male nominees and winners.

. . .But as Josh Welsh, the president of Film Independent, which puts on the Spirit Awards, said, “Keeping gendered award categories is not a solution to the problem. The change needs to come with diversifying the gatekeepers who make decisions about what films and shows get financed and marketed.”

This assumes, of course, that the gatekeepers are more likely to recognize or nominate acting talent in their own gender or ethnic group. The article continues:

He’s right, but awards still play a part in the ecosystem of Hollywood. An acting award can raise the profile and influence of the winner. It would be unsettling if a new approach to award-bestowing makes it even more difficult for women to win an award and achieve that profile.

But it’s past time to get rid of these categories — and we believe that awards shows can smartly lay out a plan to do that.

In a survey of actors, the NY Times showed them to be split: all favored “inclusivity”, but women in particular expressed worries about being shut out of acting awards.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, so I don’t much care what they do so long as everyone is given equal opportunity to succeed in directing, acting, and so on, and awards are based on merit. There does seem to be something hypocritical in eliminating gendered awards but still retaining two categories. It would seem better that if you don’t want gender categories there should be just one winner.

One difference between acting and athletics, though, is that if you combine the sexes in sports, the winner is invariably going to be male, and the unfairness of that is much more evident than it would be for acting. Given their sterling performances to date (e.g., Cate Blanchett in Tár), surely many women could win a the single acting Oscar.

Another solution is just to eliminate awards altogether, but few would go for that (I wouldn’t care).

So if the Oscars can “smartly lay out a plan” for the Academy Awards that recognizes actors of any gender or sex, what is it to be? Readers?

43 thoughts on “Discuss: gender-neutral acting awards

  1. In an ideal world in which bias on the part of judges didn’t play a role, I’d think that two awards for “best performer” might be a solution. However, my reason for suggesting it has nothing to do with ideology; rather there are many times in which to actors of the same gender are deserving of recognition more than are any actors of the other. But, of course, that world is likely a fantasy.

    1. I was thinking something similar. Or just get rid of the idea of “Best” when we’re talking about something subjective as an actor’s performance, and simply present a handful of awards for exemplary performance. That way you could eliminate the leading/supporting role distinction, too.

    2. I have no problem with gender neutral awards. It’s not done for Nobel prizes or Fields medals, acting is much less important.

        1. But they are still actors. I saw a movie of The Tempest with Helen Mirren playing Prospero and it was brilliant. A woman playing a role always given to a man. Is that an actor or an actress award?
          Only the Best Actor/Actress and best Supporting Actor/Actress are gendered. Just reduce to one and award each and watch them complain about it not being given equally.

          1. An interesting example, but an award would be given to the actor playing the part, not to the gendered character that they play.
            My only concern is to make sure that women get equal representation in awards. Whatever does that is fine by me.

  2. It’s worth pointing out that changing to gender-neutral awards instantly halves the number of winners. Not sure that that would be popular …

    1. But it would automatically boost the bragging rights associated with any Oscar, which a lot of existing holders would like.
      Or do the awardees have to hand the silver statue back at the end of their year’s custodianship?

  3. Best actor/best actress Oscars are like the anglophone phrases that can’t be justified on their face, but that HW Fowler called “sturdy indefensibles.”

    Just how sturdy, we’re about to find out, seems like.

  4. Various reasons against this idea. A big reason about unequal opportunities for women is that their peak careers tend to be shorter. As they age, they lose leading roles in most movies while men can hit their most lucrative years with some craggy wrinkles and silvery sideburns.

    1. Even at their peak, viewers find them less interesting. What woman has ever achieved the box office draw of male action stars like Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tom Cruise?

        1. Of the three mdap mentions, none’s won a best-actor Oscar. Cruise has been nominated a few times (including this year), but he’s 0-fer so far. Clintwood was nominated for acting once, but he walked away emptyhanded (though he’s got a pair each of best-director and best-picture Oscars — for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby).

          And Ahnold … well, Ahnold won a bunch of body-building awards in his younger days, but he’s never been nominated for an Oscar, and I don’t expect he ever will be.

          1. but he’s never been nominated for an Oscar, and I don’t expect he ever will be.

            Isn’t there a “lifetime achievement” gong, or “lifetime’s contribution to cinema”, or just “biggest bribe to awarding committee” award?
            Although I would suspect that you could make a case that Arnie’s post-acting career in politics has done a lot to redeem the profession form the stain brought on it by Ronnie RayGun, so his publicist could actually make a decent case for him getting a gong of some sort without having to sprinkle the green papery confetti of consideration outrageously widely.

  5. Won’t it be up to the advertisers to decide? Viewers stay up late watching all those ads to see four acting awards. If you halve the number of times the presenter says “The Envelope please…” for those high-interest categories, advertising revenue will fall. No one is going to care who came in second best, especially since it’ll probably be just another guy anyway. In Hollywood, runner-up means “loser”, worse than being nominated.

    I don’t care what they do. All I know is this isn’t about what you or I think. It’ll be about money. But as always, the women will get shafted.

  6. The Brit awards introduced an Artist of the Year category as a gender-neutral replacement for Best Male and Best Female Artist category. Then faced criticism because all five nominees this year were men. I don’t imagine that this sort of thing would go down well in Hollywood. While stripping out two awards from an already too long line up is appealing, I’m not sure this proposal is a step forward.
    I liked the bronze, silver, gold idea proposed above (comment 2) but that adds awards, so my “already too long” proviso kicks in.

  7. Commission a genuinely anonymous survey of actresses – one where it’s impossible to trace who said what – and see what they prefer as a group. The result may well be different to the survey where it wasn’t anonymous. Let them choose.

    1. What is the voting procedure for the awards? Anything like anonymous? Is it a ballot of members of a professional body with entry by the proposal and secondment of existing members, or is it a ballot of people who’ve paid the five dollar entry fee for this year’s membership of the club, and are rather more likely to send their ballot paper to “Casting Central” to be filled out, before they sign it, cash the cheque and send it back to the Oscar committee?

  8. I’m just waiting for the day when men win both Best Actor and Best Actress. It’s only a matter of time.

    1. Yes, DrB, I think the awards industry wants to get these “reforms” rammed through before what you predict actually happens, but they don’t want to admit that’s what they’re afraid of. Still, I would love to see the reaction of JK Rowling-hater Emma Thompson to that very thing, when a male actor stiffs one of her protégées for Best Actress.

    2. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis could’ve won one each in Mr. Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, had the rules been changed in time.

    3. What’s that story about the Pick.A.Pope Party in the Vatican City? Just before the black (or white …. hmmm there’s a PR problem waiting to happen) smoke, the candidate sits on a special chair and gets eyeballed by a fistful of Cardinals to confirm they’re not picking another Pope Joan. “Duo testicoli habat, e bene pendente.”

      So there will be a “nominations stool” to determine which category an actor gets entered under?
      The advertisers would love that. Lots of “but before we get the stool result, here’s a word from our sponsors …”

  9. Given the rainbow spectrum that we are told characterizes human sex/gender, surely only two award categories (male and female) is far too few. We will need an award for every category in LGBTQQIP2SA+ , and god only knows how many more for the +’s.

  10. I’m in favor of women, yes, women, reclaiming all our -ette and -ess words, from barista to victress. Helen Mirren made a wonderful Prospero and deserves a Best Actress award for it.

  11. It seems like gender neutral is the wave of the future. Already it is a sin against equity to refer to female actors as actresses. Everyone who acts is now an actor. I suspect the next frontier will be to remake a bunch of male-dominated action movies with all female (or mostly female with maybe a few trans-women thrown in for their virtue-signalling benefits) casts. Wasn’t something like that done with a remake of “Oceans 11”?? Until there is wider push-back against Woke insanity, I expect we’ll see the Oscars capitulate to this demand just like they have to every other instance of offense against Woke norms. Like in athletics, look for a spate of B-list male actors suddenly reinventing themselves as trans-women actors so that they make the A-list due to producers need to virtue signal 🙂

    1. Fortunately, unlike in collegiate women’s sport, movies actually have to make money. That money comes from people who buy theatre tickets or rentals or whatever the income stream is now. A B-list male actor doesn’t become solid box-office by “coming out” as a trans actress. He’ll just look pathetic vying for A-list parts against the likes of Cate Blanchett or against any other B-list actress with a prettier face and a better body.

      Yes, theoretically the awards industry could give awards to male actresses acting in female roles, or in trans roles created specially for them (like briefly in Orange is the New Black) but if the awards go year after year to actors in movies that no one wants to see, the fad will die out as fans lose interest in the awards shows.

    2. “Like in athletics, look for a spate of B-list male actors suddenly reinventing themselves as trans-women actors so that they make the A-list due to producers need to virtue signal”

      I don’t like to throw the word “transphobe” around, because it is regularly misused, but your comment above is textbook transphobia. If you can’t see how irrational it is to think that sub-par actors will suddenly identify as women to make the A-list, then you are lost.

      I’m sure you’ll claim that your tongue was planted firmly in cheek, but your opening “Like in athletics” suggests you seriously believe that second-rate male athletes are transitioning for the express purpose of being competitive in women’s sports. I’m sure there is a nonzero probability of this happening, but it is without a doubt transphobic to believe that this is widespread.

      1. “Like in athletics” suggests you seriously believe that second-rate male athletes are transitioning for the express purpose of being competitive in women’s sports. I’m sure there is a nonzero probability of this happening, but it is without a doubt transphobic to believe that this is widespread.

        It is an empirically testable question as to whether this is widespread, Dean. You just have to interrogate every male person who wants to compete as a woman to find out if he is sincere or if he is gaming. But we don’t do that. We don’t even make him take hormones unless he wants to. So absent any test, it remains an open question. You are not entitled to cast moral aspersion on people by calling them transphobic who suggest the true fraction is higher than you think it is, just because you want us to believe that it is low. You yourself acknowledge that it is surely not zero. I don’t know what the true figure is. But it costs the mediocre male athlete very little to self-identify as female. When there is money involved as in elite sport, the incentive to dissemble is strong, given that his alternative is athletic obscurity.

        A socialist Member of the Canadian Parliament (and Native activist) has introduced a bill that would make it a crime to express doubts that the Canadian government systematically murdered Native children in the Indian Residential Schools as an act of genocide. There is no evidence that this claim is true, yet if the bill becomes law (unlikely, fortunately), it will become illegal ever to demand that any be produced. And our Prime Minster, I guess to honour International Women’s Day, just said that it is transphobic hate to dispute that transwomen are women.

        I don’t mean to be badgering you and I apologize for an over-comment. The assertion that skepticism about the truth of a factual claim is racist, transphobic, whatever, can’t go unchallenged. The stakes are high.

      1. I still think one of the funniest lines in Ricky Gervais’s After Life came when he returned to the Tambury Gazzette offices after reporting on the bloke who thought the water stain on his wall looked like Kenneth Branagh and was asked by his young apprentice about the assignment:

        “Do you know who Kenneth Branagh is?” he asks her.


        “He was married to Emma Thompson. Do you know who she is?”


        “Branagh would hate that.”

  12. I rarely ever watch a Hollywood movie, but when I do, I am surprised and annoyed almost every time by the age difference between male/female leading couples that tends to be far greater than usual in average people’s lives. Typically, the male actor is 20 years older and this is portrayed as unremarkable and never explained and nobody seems to notice despite all the feminist and gender “equity” talk. The last US production I managed to watch to the end was “A walk in the woods” with Robert Redford, and it took me along long time to realize the woman wasn’t his daughter but his wife. Also, roles for (surgically unaltered) older women seem to be rarer than in other film cultures. So I would love to see a special category for surgically untreated wrinklies (if need be of any sex), but they won’t give me that.
    Maybe make separate categories action/non action movies.

  13. Erasing women’s awards in this way is nonsense. It destroys the ability of women to win 50% of the major awards and reduces the chances of women actually receiving any recognition at all. The Brit music awards just went “gender-neutral” and none of the nominees for the main awards were female, and this in a male-dominated industry in which women struggle for equality.

    It’s the sex equivalent of “Oscars so white”. Except that some men identifying as women or non-binary are actively seeking to remove awards for biological women and this is accepted as fair and reasonable. FFS!

  14. Gender neutral awards would have one irresistible (to me) benefit that was hinted at several times above but not stated explicitly. It would shorten the TV awards ceremony by half.

  15. Would an actor that identifies as non-binary be happy at receiving a best actor/actress award?

    (I truly don’t know the answer, just came up with the question)

    1. The reason that the Brits went gender-neutral was because the “non-binary” singer Sam Smith complained that the sexed categories excluded him they.

Leave a Reply