The Slow Death of Gendered Acting Awards

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  • Aaron Netsky

This past Sunday, Bill Hader took home the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and Phoebe Waller-Bridge the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. They were up for different awards for their performances. Yet, they were competing against each other directly for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series (Waller-Bridge won). Why were their performances in separate categories, but not their writing? Why is acting different than writing? Hader was also up against Amy Sherman-Palladino in the Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series category. And her husband. Husband and wife competing against each other for an Emmy. Now that is a feminist marriage. But why is acting different than directing? Or designing? Or producing? I know these are all different crafts that require different skills, but not of men and women. Men and women need the same abilities to act, or to design, or to write, or to direct, etc. But only the acting categories are divided up by gender. That’s starting to change, and hopefully that change can permeate some of the tent pole awards shows in the coming months.

After 2012, there were no more gendered Solo Performance Grammy Awards. In 2017, the MTV Movie & TV Awards started giving out Best Actor in a Movie and Best Actor in a Show Awards to one person apiece, regardless of gender (actor was originally a gender-less word). Just this week it was reported that the Brit Awards, the British equivalent of the Grammys, are considering doing away with gender distinctions as well. And why shouldn’t they? We’re doing away with gender distinctions as a society. Increased visibility of trans and non-binary people in life is leading to increased representation in the arts, and while it is nowhere near where it should be, we need to be able to reward such art in a way that doesn’t leave the artists feeling like they have to squeeze into a category they don’t believe they fit into.

But even when it comes to cisgender men and women, who doesn’t want to see an Oscar showdown between Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington, competing against each other directly for the first time on Hollywood’s biggest night? Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster will butt heads in a revival of “The Music Man” on Broadway a little more than a year from now, but who would win the Tony if they had to compete against each other? It’s not like costars never do. At the first Tony ceremony I ever watched on TV, “The Producers” had two nominees for Best Leading Actor in a Musical and three for Best Featured Actor. “Hamilton” had a similar situation in 2016. Same-gender costars have to compete against each other for acting awards, why shouldn’t costars from the whole spectrum of genders?

And while it is clearly not the main reason to do something like this, couldn’t all such ceremonies do with some trimming, anyway? Isn’t that what’s always joked about, that they’re too long? Or maybe consolidating the acting awards could open up some space to include awards not deemed desirable for the broadcasts. Must Cinematography always be worried about being left out just so male and female actors can have separate awards? The ball has started to roll and it is going downhill (downhill is a good thing, in this case, it means it is going to pick up speed). Lesser-known, outside-of-the-establishment awards shows have to test the waters first, I understand that. How about if the Independent Spirit Awards shows some independent spirit and scraps gendered awards next year?

One reason artists constantly cite for not coming out as gay or trans or non-binary is that they worry about how it will affect their career. What if gendered awards are keeping people in the closet, forcing them to be untrue to themselves because their ultimate goal is Oscar gold or the Tony medallion, but they feel like they’ll only get them if they make it easier for the nominators to know which box to put them in? Awards should be about the craft, no more and no less.

Aaron Netsky (@AaronNetsky on Twitter, @aaron_netsky on Instagram) is a singer, writer, actor, and all-around theatre professional who has worked off and off-off Broadway and had writing published on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, Slate.com, StageLightMagazine.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com, as well as his own blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), and his Medium account.