Feminist ideas are breaking into the mainstream via the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, leading society to question longstanding gender norms. Ahead of the Academy Awards on Sunday, it’s clear that one such outmoded norm is the practice of separately evaluating men’s and women’s performances in motion pictures.
Now is the right time to end the division of best actor and best actress categories and provide one award to the best person who performed in a film role—whether they’re female or male.
As ideas about gender have evolved, so has language. We no longer say poetess, sculptress, executrix, aviatrix, comedienne, lady novelist, or priestess—so why actress? In William Shakespeare’s time, before women were allowed on the stage, performers were most often called “players.” The word “actor” was used decades later, and when the ban on women on stage was lifted in 1660, women were referred to as both actor and actress, the latter term being reserved for female actors who were rumored to be prostitutes or sexually promiscuous, according to Katherine M. Quinsey in Broken Boundaries: Women & Feminism in Restoration Drama.
It has become increasingly common nowadays to refer to both men and women performers as actors. The Screen Actors Guild doesn’t use the word “actress” in is public materials and gives out its awards to female actors, not actresses—therefore a major legal entity in the film industry has essentially already abolished the actor and actress distinction. (The SAG Awards still do separate performers by gender, though.)
So why have a best actress award at all? Only the major entertainment industry awards—which also include the Tonys, Emmys, and Grammys—distinguish by gender. It would be unthinkable to have separate gender categories for the Nobel, Pulitzer, or MacArthur “Genius” awards. And in the entertainment industry itself, the only gender-specific awards are for performers—there is no specific award for best screenplay written by a woman.
Language that separates women from men has consequences, even when the words are meant as compliments or honorifics. “Separate but equal” was never true or just. It’s no surprise, then, that in general, top female performers in the entertainment industry are likely paid less than men, and have trouble entering certain male-dominated fields such as directing and cinematography.
None of the difficulties women in Hollywood face are caused by the word “actress,” but they are the product of the language and thinking that creates and reinforces a false separation between men and women—almost always to the detriment of women. Surrendering the use of “actress” will not solve this problem, but it will begin to reshape how we think about it.
Another compelling reason to ditch “actress” as a category is that in this age of gender fluidity, the term is not just inexact, but irrelevant. Performers are rejecting gender labels, and some may not fit into either category. This is not new. In the 1970s famed Hollywood director George Cukor lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to nominate Holly Woodlawn, cross-dressing star of the underground hit Trash, for a best actress award. Woodlawn, who eventually identified as a transgender woman, famously quipped when asked if she were a man or a woman: “Oh—who cares? As long as you look fabulous!”
Delaying this category change could create a confusing situation in the near future: It’s only a matter of time before a brilliant performer who eschews gender identity and restrictive pronouns is nominated for an Academy Award.
Jettisoning gendered award classifications should be done both for the sake of justice—which feminists have sought for over a century—and for the integrity of the awards. The Oscars should simply be about superlative acting and nothing else.
Michael Bronski is a professor of the practice in activism and media studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University.