Why you should care
Because men are still dominating most every “gender neutral” award category at the Oscars.
A high school essay contest first tipped me off to the implicit sexism of separating awards by gender. I had made it all the way to the state championship and won, and even though my score was higher than that of the male winner, I was still only the “Best Female Essay Writer” in the state. I felt a twinge of bitterness knowing my clear victory would never be acknowledged because of something as arbitrary (and fluid) as gender.
I didn’t know it then, but gender categories, especially for awards like the Oscars, have long been a point of contention in feminist conversations. It’s painfully clear that the current system of honoring talent is antiquated. MTV dropped gender-based awards from both of its awards shows in 2017 to much fanfare. So far, it’s managed to grant women somewhat equal visibility in nominations, but perhaps that’s because progressivism is a major part of MTV’s brand. For more conservative, historically exclusive institutions like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, we have to consider other, more gender-fluid options.
Today’s rigid Oscar categories imply that men’s and women’s work are inherently incapable of being compared, a premise offensive to all genders. Culture critic Delia Harrington agrees. These categories “can ensure visibility and inclusion,” she says. “But they can also relegate achievement to a separate, less prestigious category.” Such divisions also exclude nonbinary and transgender community members, leaving little to no room for identities that don’t fit inside binary boxes.
There are no women nominated for best director, best cinematography or for best original score, among others.
The alternative is just as problematic. With no guaranteed space for women, gender-neutral awards further benefit men by potentially excluding women altogether. And that’s not the only risk. “The danger is that we will lose the capacity for advocates like me to compare the award-giving’s potential bias,” says Eva Cox, an advocate for feminist policy and research who sees such changes as a hindrance to her work collecting data on disparities between awards by gender.
In recent years, the academy has been highly criticized for its lack of inclusion (remember the viral #OscarsSoWhite?). Yet it continues to nominate predominantly White male actors and directors, leaving little to no room for people of color or for female, nonbinary or trans creatives, even in gender-neutral award categories like best director or best cinematography.
While it’s true that this year’s nominations are the most representative yet, major strides still need to be made, especially if the awards want to remain relevant. A move that balances the gender gap at the Oscars could appease those who want to see additional progressive changes to the almost 100-year-old show (and thereby boost ratings, especially among younger viewers). But this requires a move away from its long history of empowering and recognizing mostly White men: The academy’s voting base in 2016 was 91 percent White and 76 percent male; those figures were very similar to ones from 2012.
Even the gender-neutral categories predominantly favor men. There are no women nominated this year for best director, best cinematography or best original score, among others. Outside of the 10 women nominated for acting, women make up only 25 percent of total nominations this year.
Inclusivity advocate Alyssa Royse disagrees with the idea of reducing the number of categories, but she is in favor of changing them. “Gender categories are more about trying to equalize an unjust situation” than anything else, she explains, noting that more specific categories could actually help alleviate the problem. Cox agrees with her. “We need to expand, change, and define categories.… We need to look at nonbinary and trans issues but maybe by collecting more categories rather than less,” she says.
One bold suggestion? Award actors, male or female, based on the gender of the character they play. That would’ve meant Eddie Redmayne being nominated for best actress, not actor, for his portrayal of Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. Had the role been played by a transgender actor, such an award setup would have still allowed for inclusion, whether the artist identified as male or female.
The academy might also consider placing more representative requirements on nominations, guaranteeing proportional recognition. A bit like affirmative action quotas of old, ensuring that the academy offers a minimum number of accolades for female and male roles could help redress the imbalance rather quickly. Likewise, more subcategories could be added to each award to specifically include female, nonbinary and transgender artists.
Others suggest implementing legacy achievement awards for actors who might otherwise be “coronated” for an award where a newcomer might have won instead. That way, awards can more readily be offered to newcomers and nontraditional actors. “Separate the acting categories into those representing a historical/contemporary person, versus those portraying a fictional role,” offers Harrington, explaining that the Oscars have a tendency to favor method actors who undergo extreme physical transformation for typically historical roles (like Christian Bale, nominated for his performance as Dick Cheney in Vice), often ignoring the stellar acting in fully realized films that might be smaller in scale.
As we expand our understanding of gender and identity, our cultural institutions should adapt to reflect that growth. It’s time for the Oscars to catch up and start honoring talent in a truly representative way.