Two more awards shows went gender-neutral last week, fueling further speculation about the day the big awards — think Oscars, Emmys and (yes) Golden Globes — could follow suit and drop the distinction between “actor” and “actress” in the respective competitions.
The organizers behind the Spirit Awards and the Canadian Screen Awards follow the examples set by the Recording Academy, MTV and the Gotham Film & Media Institute. The announcements by Film Independent on August 23 and the Canadian Academy on August 25 follow a decision in July by promoters of the British Independent Film Awards to eliminate gender-based categories with this year’s competition.
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I’ve been writing about this trend for several years, including my 2019 column “It’s Time for the Emmys to Eliminate Gender-Specific Acting Categories,” which garnered the most attention of anything I wrote that year. I followed that up with a piece in 2020 (“The Emmys and Other Awards Should Eliminate Gender Divisions, and Here’s How to Do It”), which suggested ways it could be done.
The idea of genderless awards shows began to emerge when the MTV Movie & TV Awards dropped gender-specific categories in 2017, but Grammy organizers scrapped gender categories even earlier, removing the female pop vocal performance and male pop vocal awards performance more than a decade ago. And the Television Critics Assn. always awards “individual achievement” in comedy and drama.
Last year, the Gotham Awards switched to a genderless approach after eight years of handing out separate actor and actress trophies.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for a while,” Film Independent president Josh Wells says of Spirit’s move. “There was a lot of excitement about it for a while, but there was also some apprehension about it. It’s a big change and I think we really wanted to talk it through carefully and make sure it was the right thing to do.”
She notes that most trophies are gender neutral. “To keep it at the Spirit Awards, for almost 40 years we’ve honored writers, directors, producers, editors, cinematographers regardless of gender,” he says.
The switch is more accommodating to the non-binary acting community. In 2017, “Billions” star Asia Kate Dillon, the first non-binary performer to play a non-binary character on a major television show, asked the TV Academy to clarify its gender discrimination. Eventually, Dillon asked to enter the “Supporting Actor” category at the Emmys. They later asked the SAG Awards to drop the gender-based awards as well.
“There are a lot of good performers, and I think we’re going to see more who don’t identify as male or female,” says Welsh. “For the awards to be able to say to one of these performers, ‘If you’re nominated, you have to choose male or female’ — that’s not a good approach.”
The merging of the acting fields raises the question of how many performers will be honored: The Spirit Awards expanded its performer field to 10 (five each for an actor and actress), adding a TV supporting performer category — meaning it will At least there are still many honorees.
Moving forward, there are potential unintended consequences — including gender imbalance. But Welsh says Film Independent will monitor such matters. “This is a real, legitimate concern,” he says. “But I feel it’s not about the awards. the issue is the industry. It’s not a level playing field in film and television for female creators. It’s the decisions that are made all year long.”
She notes that Film Independent’s voters are far from monolithic, skewing female and with a high percentage of both people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ. “If there was ever an awards organization that has a strong, diverse electorate that can handle this approach to voting, I think it’s Film Independent.”
[Photo: Taylour Paige won this year’s Spirit female lead award in film for her performance in “Zola.”]
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