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Commentary: Why Does the Oscars Still Divide Men and Women for the Best Actor Award?

In the midst of an interestingly reflective period within the entertainment industry—especially given the current #MeToo and Times Up movements—many have wondered if—and how—Hollywood organizations like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will respond. Ahead of the Oscars, it’s worth noting that there is one way to bridge the gender divide that continues to be at the root of the industry’s many issues: eliminating the Best Actor/Actress/Supporting Actor/Actress categories.

The Academy should give out awards for the best performance in a leading role or a supporting role, regardless of an individual’s biological sex. After all, the gendered bifurcation of actor and actress Academy Award categories has become more and more peculiar as a means of classifying the performances we see in films every year. Like so many other areas of life that were separated based on the sex of the members or users (brotherhoods and sisterhoods, fraternities and sororities, even bathrooms), the best actor/best supporting actor and best actress/best supporting actress demarcations don’t make much sense when we consider the work that actors and actresses do on screen. Advocacy for more diversity in general among actors and actresses, from body types and ableness to racial and ethnic identification, contributes to a broadening of all kinds in terms of the images and individuals we see on screen in a film, and these sex-based categorizations become more arbitrary when considered in this context. Gender-fluid identification will likely further complicate the way that Academy voters select and position individuals as opposed to performances within these binary (and exclusive) categories.

Our own gender is often performative in and of itself—we, as individuals, are biologically categorized, but we also choose to perform our gender in a whole host of conscious and unconscious ways. Likewise, an actor or actress takes on the role as written, directed, and costumed, but they inhabit the role and interpret it—this is the performance we see in a film. Why should such performances be shifted into biological categories? It certainly expands the field of nominees and winners by having these binary categories, but to what end? Cate Blanchett was nominated in the best supporting actress category in 2008 for playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. William Hurt won an Academy Award in 1986 for playing a transgendered man in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Jaye Davidson was nominated for his portrayal of a transgender woman in The Crying Game. Hilary Swank won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance as Brandon Teena in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. Does the actor or actress’s sex define their capacities to play these more gender-fluid or gender-opposite roles? It’s really no different than assessing Meryl Streep’s rendering of Katharine Graham and Gary Oldman’s interpretation of Winston Churchill. Is there any real reason why audiences and Academy voters should not judge these performances side by side as opposed to within separate categories that have little to do with the performance as experienced?

While the body-basic divisions are both obvious and natural on some level, we don’t apply it elsewhere in the Academy Awards—Greta Gerwig is not nominated for best female director, nor is Jordan Peele nominated for best African-American director. They are both among the nominees for best director. And while there have been complaints about #OscarSoWhite (and #OscarSoMale), these problems are not solved by gating off people of color into separately defined categories. They’re solved by drawing attention to the problem and diversifying the Academy—and the industry.

The Golden Globes divides the awards into the “type” of category of acting, as opposed to the sex of the performer. And while there is often controversy about the blurred lines between comedy and drama, this, at least, focuses on the performance itself as opposed to the biological sex of the actor. The Grammys have eliminated this bifurcation as well, as have other music awards. If the Oscars were to do away with these sex-based categories, it is likely that other awards like the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) awards, the BAFTA awards, the Critics Choice Awards, and others would follow suit.

 

The Academy has, of late, made some changes to both categories and structures. The Best Picture category has been expanded to include more films, the structure for voting has been reformed to include more new members—beyond just replacing those members who have passed away. Thus, the actual number of voting members of the Academy has recently expanded and diversified, at least to a degree. All of these changes were made within the last five years, and were made, in part, because of the ongoing complaints and concerns about the narrowness of the voting base, and the narrow and homogenous results that came from that base.

The elimination of the sex-based categories would conclude a long-standing tradition, but it would provide the opportunity for the focus to be on the individual’s performance—an assessment of the way that the role was inhabited and how a character was interpreted. None of these qualities and capacities need to be segregated by an individual’s biological sex, nor should they. There is no need to keep these segregated categories—they are from an older, more segregated, less inclusive Hollywood.

Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University.