There was a time not so long ago when use of the word actress — and by extension “Best Actress” awards — began to feel representative of gender inequality. Why not just call women what they are: “actors?” As Kim Elsesser, a lecturer at UCLA and author of the book Sex and the Office, wrote in a 2010 New York Times op-ed, “In the 21st century women contend with men for titles ranging from the American president to the American Idol. Clearly, there is no reason to still segregate acting Oscars by sex.”
But now even that simple argument seems dated, as new scrutiny around the Best Actress category turns its focus to gender identity, not simply a this-or- that equality. As Elsesser told The Outline this week, “The binary distinction between male and female is disappearing, [which] makes it even more ridiculous to have separate categories and try to box people into male and female categories.”
The trigger for this round of discussion came from Asia Kate Dillon, a standout performer in the Showtime series Billions, who wrote a letter to the Television Academy in advance of Emmy season. As a nonbinary person, Dillon wondered where they fit.
“I’d like to know if in your eyes ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ denote anatomy or identity and why it is necessary to denote either in the first place?” Dillon wrote. “The reason I’m hoping to engage you in a conversation about this is because if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are in fact supposed to represent ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a woman’ and ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a man’ then there is no room for my identity within that award system binary. Furthermore, if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are meant to denote assigned sex I ask, respectfully, why is that necessary?”
Dillon, after what they described as a “supportive” conversation with the Academy, decided to enter as an actor, because it was more of a gender-neutral term than actress. The episode was not in fact the first of its kind; in a decision that generated less publicity, genderfluid actor Kelly Mantle was considered in both the best actor and actress categories for this year’s Academy Awards for their performance in the film Confessions of a Womanizer. (In the end, Mantle was not nominated for an award.)
Because those actors were still forced to remain within a binary formulation, their cases represent only marginal progress. MTV has taken it a step further, recently announcing the elimination of gendered categories at this year’s Movie & TV Awards. “This audience actually doesn’t see male-female dividing lines, so we said, ‘Let’s take that down,’” MTV president Chris McCarthy told Vulture. In a broad overhaul aimed at consolidating its categories in 2011, the Grammys also eliminated some gendered awards.
While this may be positive movement toward a more nuanced understanding of identity, there is a counter-argument that removing gender distinctions will prevent women from being nominated. As research by the Huffington Post showed last year, men tend to dominate non-gendered Oscar categories. For example, only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director.
Elsesser does not believe that the concern should prevent the elimination of gendered awards. “If women were recognized less as a result of eliminating the gender distinctions, then at least that would highlight the inequities in Hollywood instead of covering them up with separate awards,” she said.
This renewed push for more precise language in awards shows comes at a time of increased awareness of gender identity in politics and pop culture. Last year, Laverne Cox became the first transgender actor to receive an Emmy nomination, which came for her work in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Ruby Rose, who has spoken about her gender fluidity, is a cast member on the same show. Just this week, Survivor contestant Jeff Varner took heavy criticism for outing fellow contestant Zeke Smith as transgender.
Elsewhere, trans and nonbinary Americans are fighting for their rights to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, and be counted in the census. Now, awards shows have become another battleground in the struggle for respect and recognition.