The long-running joke about the Oscars, which air this Sunday, is, well, how long-running they are, with the 2002 awards show breaking records when it clocked in at a merciless four hours and 20 minutes of airtime.
Now picture this: How long the Oscars would last if every category were divided in two by gender, as is the case for acting in leading and supporting roles. That would be like watching (1998 Best Picture-winner) Titantic at least twice in one sitting. Groan.
This thought experiment makes you wonder why top acting merits are split into male and female at all. There are not separate Nobel or Pulitzer prizes for women and men, and the same goes for pretty much all awards outside of athletics.
Gender identity in the entertainment industry, with awards season acting as a barometer, has made large strides in the past year, as performers and activists push back on the binary of actor and actress.
“The issue relies on the fact that we’re gendering so much,” says Ser Anzoategui, a nonbinary actor starring in the upcoming Starz series Vida. “People say, ‘Are you a doctor?’ They never say, ‘Are you a doctoress?’ Anzoategui laughs.
While awards shows can be vapid, vanilla, insular and aggressively mainstream, they are also—for better or worse—a reflection of social mores. Awards shows demonstrate where the power lies in Hollywood and where it may shift.
And it is shifting—albeit slowly.
Asia Kate Dillon, a non-binary actor, earned an Emmy nomination in 2017 for their role (playing a nonbinary character) on Showtime’s Billions. Dillon wrote an open letter to the Television Academy putting the gendered categories on blast, asking why a distinction needs to be made when identifying a winning performance. The Academy responded by saying Dillon could chose which category they identified with; Dillion chose actor.
Soon after, Dillon presented the MTV Movie Awards’ first non-gendered acting honor, which went to Beauty and the Beast star Emma Watson. All MTV awards are now genderless.
Meanwhile, the Golden Globes announced in January that it was redesignating the role of “Miss Golden Globe” or “Mr. Golden Globe”—the young star who helps hands out awards and usher winners offstage—as the Golden Globe Ambassador, to be more gender inclusive.
Then, there are the Oscars. For the first time ever, a transgender director, Yance Ford, has been nominated. The filmmaker is up for Best Documentary Feature for Strong Island, about the murder of Ford’s brother in 1992. Also nominated is A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean love story between a transgender woman (and, this is key, played by a transgender woman) and a cisgender man, that earned a nod for Best Foreign Film. The star, Daniela Vega, will be the first openly transgender presenter in Academy Awards history.
Christopher Racster, executive director of Outfest—an organization established in 1982 that promotes LGBTQ equality on screen—says these are important milestones.
“My opinion is that over time we will move to seeing award shows presenting non-gendered awards to performers,” Racster says. “I see it as a natural progression in our cultural understanding. I think it just takes longer to get through those large institutions. I think they have done a respectable job by starting to be more inclusive in their membership. It takes a lot to shift the course of that ship.”
Thus far, the Golden Globes and the Oscars have made no move towards eschewing gender in their award categories. Nor have they made an announcement, like the Television Academy did with the Emmy’s, that performers can choose a category based on how they identify.
And, in fact, Outfest’s Outie Awards are also just beginning to shed gender distinctions.
“We want to recognize as many performances as possible, but instead of gendered, it becomes Best Performance in a Comedy, Best Performance in a Drama. You don’t want to lose the opportunity to recognize a plurality of performances,” Racster says. “That’s a direction we’re moving in. I think it’s a very natural direction for all of the awards shows to move in and still allows them to recognize more than just a single performance once it becomes non-gendered.”
However, not everyone believes that the industry—an industry that is still aggressively white, cisgender and male-dominated—is ready for these changes. The awards categories that have never been divided by gender, e.g. Best Director, are overwhelmingly dominated by male nominees, which, of course, reflects a deeper systemic problem of women lacking the access to and resources for these positions. (Only four women have been nominated for Best Director since the Oscars began in 1929.)
As David Sims points out in his 2017 piece for The Atlantic, erasing gender from awards categories may need further reflection: “In an industry still rife with institutional sexism, where male stars still dominate the amount of lead roles available, it’s easy to imagine wild gender imbalances from year to year, even if the lead and supporting categories were expanded to 10 nominees.”
Rain Valdez, a transgender actress and director (Ryans, Lopez, Transparent), as well as a past consultant for Transparent, says there’s a lot of work to be done before this shift can take place with any real parity. If women are lumped in with male actors, she worries they won’t be recognized at all.
“I think it’s a good goal to have,” she says of non-gendered awards. “But at this time, with women still fighting for equal pay, equal opportunities, an equal playing field, it’s going to take a little time to figure out those nuances. Figuring out the best way to change the awards system and how the categories are placed is a conversation we can have once we figure out how we can work together.”
Valdez has another goal in mind. “Hopefully we’ll get to a point where the Best Actress category is inclusive to trans women,” she says. “That’s where I’d love to be. I just want to be seen as an actress.”
Valdez and Anzoategui say that while they want to see changes in award categories eventually, it’s more important to get into the roots of production. Vida—a new series that shines light on a queer Latinx community in L.A.—and Transparent, they say, have set a great example.
“When you’re on the Vida set, it’s like you step on a fluffy cloud,” Anzoategui says, adding that Vida creator and showrunner Tanya Saracho deliberately chose an inclusive staff. “The writers for the series have to be reflective of what she’s writing. In the writing room, they’re all Latinx writers. They are all brown people and the majority of them are women, and the majority of those women are lesbian or queer-identified. That is huge.”
Valdez had a similar experience while working on the set of Jill Soloway, the nonbinary writer and director behind Transparent. Valdez says Soloway made a point “to hire as many people behind the camera as well as in front of the camera of trans experience. That created this culture of positive inclusivity and showed that it was possible. That’s the only place I’ve seen it so far.” (Although, even a progressive set like Transparent can have serious problems, as seen with the sexual harassment claims against former star Jeffrey Tambor that led to his official firing in February.)
If younger generations are any indication, the gender binary will make way for a more fluid and flexible reality, and Hollywood sets—and awards shows—will eventually reflect that. Rhys Fehrenbacher is the star of the 2017 film They, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Fehrenbacher, a 16-year-old transgender man, played J, a gender-nonconforming teen born male.
“I’ve noticed that it’s all black and white in Hollywood right now,” he says. “I would definitely love to see people embracing more stuff that’s outside the binary, especially with awards. It doesn’t make sense that the actors are placed in different categories.”
He says, especially with his generation, the world does not fit into these neat boxes.
“People are finally getting more comfortable with people expressing themselves in ways different from what is stereotypically masculine or feminine,” he says. “Those things are always changing—what was considered masculine 100 years ago might not be considered what is masculine today. I think it’s interesting to see how that evolves.”
However slowly and begrudgingly, Hollywood is evolving too. It was not so long ago that the Oscars awarded films that perpetuated damaging transphobic tropes ( e.g., Silence of the Lambs) or cast cisgender actors as trans characters (Boys Don’t Cry, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl). The fact that this year the Oscars nominated A Fantastic Woman, a love story starring a trans woman as a trans woman, should be celebrated.
“It’s progress,” Racster says. “Here’s where I have great hope: The shift from studio-focused films to more independent, nuanced, crafted indie films to me signals more opportunity for trans, queer and non-binary stories to be recognized during awards season.”
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