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Best actor or actress? Gender-sensitive performers are forced to choose

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This week’s Emmy nominations include a first.

Mj Rodriguez became the first openly transgender performer to be nominated in a lead actor category for her role in the FX drama series. Pose. Her appointment is hailed as a milestone for trans inclusion.

Meanwhile, some who identify as non-binary are wondering why entertainment rewards are split by gender in the first place.

For non-binary actors, gendered actor / actress categories for awards, including Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys, ignore their identity.

“When opposed to each other in an awards ceremony, they only mean a man or a woman, or a man or a woman,” says actress Asia Kate Dillon, who is not binary. “When presented with these options, I am neither of those things.”

Dillon, 36, stars in the Showtime drama series Billion, where they play a non-binary character, a financial prodigy in the ruthless world of New York hedge funds.

They are arguably the most vocal artists calling for an end to gender award categories, a campaign they have been waging for several years.

“It’s an erasure. It’s an exclusion. And it continues to maintain a binary that’s ultimately really dangerous,” says Dillon.

In 2017, when Showtime asked Dillon which Emmy category they wanted to be in to support the actor or actress, they balked.

Dillon challenged the organization that runs the Emmys, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, to explain what category they, as a non-binary actor, would fall into. The Academy’s response? Go ahead and enter whatever Emmy category you prefer, actor or actress. There is no gender requirement for either category, the Academy explained.

At the time, Dillon said, “I was like, well, great! Then I’m going to get in there as a supporting actor.” But now they see it as a wrong choice.

If there really is no gender requirement for the actor / actress categories, Dillon offers this hypothesis: “So you mean Denzel Washington could submit as an actress, and Viola Davis could submit as an actress. actress and that would be good? And what does it mean then why categories exist? “

This means, argues Dillon, that the categories are arbitrary and absurd, and that it is high time they were abolished.

This year, the Board of Directors of the Television Academy made announce a slight change: nominees and Emmy winners can now choose to have the word “performer” on their certificate or statuette, instead of actor or actress. But the categories themselves remain unchanged.

The Academy of Television and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which run the Oscars, declined to comment for this story.

Other awards shows and festivals have moved to gender-neutral categories.

The MTV Movie & TV Awards eliminated the separate categories of male and female actor in 2017, and it was Dillon who was chosen to present the first gender-neutral award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture.

“It’s so cool to be here to present the very first actor award that celebrates performance regardless of gender,” a beaming Dillon said, before granting the Golden Popcorn Award for Best Actor on winner Emma Watson.

Likewise, the Berlin Film Festival awarded its first non-sexist actor awards in March 2021, and Spain San Sebastian Film Festival will follow suit with its acting awards in September.

When the Berlin Film Festival announced its decision to go gender-neutral, actress Tilda Swinton applauded the movement. “I think it’s pretty much inevitable that everyone will follow. It’s just obvious to me,” Swinton said. Actor Cate Blanchett also welcomed the change. “I have always described myself as an actress,” she said. “I’m from the generation where the word actress was almost always used in a derogatory sense. So I claim the other space.”

Will women be the losers?

Those who are hesitant to combine acting awards into a gender-neutral category fear that it will be the women who will end up losing out.

Preserving the award categories for women ensures some gender parity, they argue, in entertainment industries that have long been dominated by men.

After all, having separate categories of actors ensures that women will win. If these categories become gender neutral, who knows?

“I’m still not convinced we won’t be inundated with men. But I could be wrong,” says Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of Women and Hollywood, which advocates for gender diversity in the film industry.

“I don’t think it’s patronizing to have a category that reflects the contribution of women to the industry,” she said. “I don’t think we’re at a point yet where we can just throw this away.”

To prevent the pool of winners from halving if the actor categories are combined, one suggestion is to expand each category to, say, 10 nominees. Then, two winners could be chosen per category, using a ranking vote.

For Silverstein, however, the discussion of rewards is ancillary to a larger issue. If you want the rewards process to be really fair, she says, you have to build a bigger pipeline and create an industry that is not, as she puts it, a “guys party.”

This means ensuring that women, and especially women of color, have roles worthy of an Oscar or Emmy, she says, and it means incorporating transparency and diversity into the nomination process and to vote.

“[Awards are] just a piece of the inclusion conversation that needs to take place, ”says Silverstein,“ in an industry that shows the world what it could be. “

Grammys go gender-neutral

Music industry awards have largely preserved genre categories. The Country Music Association, Academy of Country Music, Billboard, Soul Train, and American Music awards all have separate categories for male and female artists.

But the biggest and most prestigious Grammy Awards have been completely gender neutral for a decade. They eliminated the last remaining male / female categories when they won awards as part of a global restructuring.

“As we looked at each area, the question arose: why do we have these categories? Recalls Bill Freimuth, director of awards at the Recording Academy, which runs the Grammys.

What is the difference between a country singer and a country singer? And no, this is not the start of a joke. I don’t have a punch line! It’s just a matter of fact: they both sing. So why do we have to separate this? And the answer was, we don’t know why. – Bill Freimuth, Awards Director, The Recording Academy

“What’s the difference between a male country singer and a country singer?” ” he keeps on. “And no, that’s not the start of a joke. I don’t have a punch line! It’s just a matter of fact: they both sing. So why do we have to separate that? And the answer was, we don’t know why. “

In the 10 years since the change, male and female performers have come out pretty much even winning Grammys for Best Pop, R&B, and Country Performances.

Additionally, Freimuth notes, as definitions of gender loosen, broad categories take on more and more meaning. “In this age of gender fluidity,” he said, “we were coming to a point [of] where to put someone who chose not to identify with the binary genre? I’m actually very proud that we sort of got ahead. “

This is not the case for the BRIT, the British popular music awards. Pop star Sam Smith, who identifies as non-binary, was excluded gendered categories for this year’s Brits.

In a statement on Instagram, Smith said, “Music for me has always been about unification, not division. I look forward to a time when the awards show can reflect the society we live in.”

Responding to Smith, a spokesperson for the BRIT Award said in a statement: “Sam is an extraordinary British artist and we agree with what they said today. The British are committed to changing the series and gender categories are under review. But any changes to be more inclusive should simply be that if a change unintentionally leads to less inclusion, it risks being counterproductive for diversity and equality. . We need to consult more broadly before making any changes to make sure we are making the right choices. “

Actress Asia Kate Dillon predicts that the widespread elimination of gendered entertainment categories is only a matter of time.

“I don’t think it will take too many more years,” they say, “before we look back and go, which is why we did what was this? Wasn’t it weird that we separated people like this historically? Besides, aren’t we glad we did something about it. “

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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