MTV made a big splash when it announced in April that the MTV Movie Awards would be widening its scope to include TV, and eliminating the Best Actress category in favor of a non-binary Best Actor category, which would include all acting nominees, regardless of their gender.
For many, the news was initially met with a mix of enthusiasm and trepidation. The former, because any push for a more progressive approach in recognizing and rewarding talent is to be applauded. The latter, because like it or not, gendered categories are a surefire way to ensure that women — if a very limited scope of women — get at least some of the spotlight. Would eliminating the Best Actress category lead to an overwhelmingly male nominee pool?
As it turns out, the film nominations were split evenly between three men (Daniel Kaluuya, Hugh Jackman, and James McAvoy), and three women, (Emma Watson, Hailee Steinfeld, and Taraji P. Henson). And on the big night, Emma Watson made history when she became the first woman to win Best Actor In A Movie, an award presented by Asia Kate Dillon, the first openly non-binary actor to play a non-binary character on a major television show, Showtime's Billions.
In a speech preceding the award, Dillon praised MTV's decision. "Tonight we celebrate portrayals of the human existence, because the only distinction we should be making when it comes to awards should be between each outstanding performance," they said. "I am honored to give this golden popcorn trophy to one of these talented nominees."
Dillon largely started the conversation about issues inherent in gendered categories when they wrote a letter to the Television Academy earlier this year asking whether or not they should be submitted in the Best Supporting Actor or Best Supporting Actress category at the Emmys for their role on Billions. The Academy responded, telling Dillon that they were free to choose which category they wanted to be represented in. At the time, Dillon told Variety that they "couldn’t have been happier," with the outcome. But still, the question remains: Should they have had to choose?
As we push for more diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, awards shows remain bastions of conservatism. The popular hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, started by activist April Reign in 2015 in response to the lack of nominees of color put forward by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences voters, has highlighted how far we still need to go in ensuring the racial make-up of this country is represented in Hollywood. Certain categories, like Best Cinematography at the Oscars, have yet to even see a female nominee, let alone a woman of color. And we are woefully unprepared for the conversations currently taking place about the limiting nature of our binary gender understanding.
"Our binary understanding of gender as a society erases large portions of our population. It erases gender-non-conforming folks, it leads to a confusing narrative around trans folks, and it's just not true to our lived society," said Cristina Escobar, Director of Communications at The Representation Project. "We need to do a better job at understanding that gender is a social construct, and stop building whole aspects of our culture and our society around this false narrative."
Some point out that gender non-conforming people make up a only a tiny fraction of the population, let alone Hollywood. Peter Howell, a movie critic for The Star, claimed earlier this year that, over his 20-plus-years in the business interviewing Hollywood performers, "not once have I heard one object to the binary classifications of actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress." If that's the case, some people say, why should the entire system be changed?
Kaitlyn Alexander, a Canadian non-binary actor who discovered the term when they were cast as a non-binary character in a web series called Carmilla, argues that opening up acting categories would have benefits beyond the inclusion of gender non-confirming people.
"Actor should just be the category," they said in a phone interview. "I know a lot of female actresses who also don’t really like the term 'actress' to begin with. Also, there’s already problems with men playing trans women in media, but it’s even more problematic when some award shows award them Best Actor, which is a male category, for playing a female role. So, I think it would eliminate issues like that as well."
Jared Leto's portrayal of Rayon, a transgender woman with AIDS, in Dallas Buyer's Club, seemed revolutionary only three years ago, when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the role. But times are changing — fast. It's no longer enough to simply show transgender or gender non-confirming characters on screen. Those roles need to be filled by actors who truly understand and represent that experience.
Alexander has had some personal run-ins with the problems inherent in binary gender categories. "I’ve been in instances where I had to submit as Best Actor or Best Actress, and was told that they would consider me in the actor category, but at the end of the day, that wasn’t passed along to whoever was looking at the nominations, and [they] just immediately assume, ‘Oh they were considered in the wrong category,'" they explained. "Asking somebody like myself to put myself in a preferred gender category, even though my gender is not male or female, is kind of asking me to classify myself into a box that works for them, rather than actually changing the way things work."
Having just received an email from an unspecified source asking whether they wanted to be considered in one of three categories — "Female," "Male," or "Boys" — Alexander was especially concerned. "If I allow myself to be categorized under any of these, I'm just proving that my gender doesn't matter," they said.
For this story, I reached out to several organizations in charge of major awards shows, including the Television Academy (The Emmys), the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (The Oscars), and the Hollywood Foreign Press (The Golden Globes). Only Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, which puts on the Film Independent Spirit Awards, agreed to comment. (The others did not respond to the request.)
"At the end of the day, while awards shows are important, ultimately they are a reflection of the industry, and of the decisions made by the people in the industry all year long," he wrote in an emailed statement to Refinery29. "For the reason, Film Independent's efforts are focused on supporting women filmmakers, and other underrepresented filmmakers, all year long across all of our programs."
Welsh pointed to Film Independent's Artist Development programs, where last year 50% of the Fellows were women, 61%t were people of color, and 13% identified as LGBT; the LA Film Festival, where 42% of the competition titles in 2017 were directed by women, and 40% by people of color. What's more, in 2016, Mya Taylor became the first transgender actress to win at a major awards show, when she won a Spirit Award for her performance in Tangerine.
"There's obviously an enormous amount of work still to be done, but we feel that the best way to address gender inequity in film and television is to support emerging talent – writers, directors, and producers – all year long," Welsh continued. Though there won't be any changes made to the main Independent Spirit Awards categories this year, Welsh did add that they would be introducing the Bonnie Award, a $50,000 cash grant funded by American Airlines, which will be given to a mid-career female director.
A final concern pointed out in his statement is that, in a world where male actors are grossly overrepresented onscreen, eliminating gendered acting categories might contribute to the erasure of women and gender non-conforming people.
This is a worry shared by Escobar. "We do live in a society that is built around what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be outside of that box. We see a lot of problems with that. We see limited roles for women in Hollywood, we see the vast majority of roles going to white folks and not people of color, and unrepresentative story. In some ways, having the acting roles be gendered allows us to see a greater amount of women and people who identify as women up there on the stage. Because if we had one category only, we'd be likely to see a lot of men, because they're more likely to get the speaking roles."
"Our binary understanding of gender as a society erases large portions of our population."
This isn't an unreasonable hangup. As The Atlantic pointed out in April, after looking at the Television Critics' Awards, which has given awards for “individual achievement” in drama and comedy to a single actor every year since 1997, 15 of the 20 drama awards have gone to men. In comedy, numbers were only slightly better, with 13 out of 20 going to male performances.
But for Alexander, the ideal scenario would be to have "Best Actor" categories for each genre — drama, comedy, etc — and to simply put rules in place to ensure that they aren't male dominated. "I think it would be as easy as doubling the nominations per category, and having a bigger set of people to choose from, rather than a small sub-set for gender." they said.
Expanding the pool of nominees would not only give voice to those who have traditionally been marginalized, but also allow for greater visibility for groups who are often ignored. Alexander points to their own web-series, Couple-ish, which they created after realizing that there were almost no roles that spoke about their experience. The've gotten reactions from fans who, like them, were surprised to realize that there was a term out there for what they felt about their identity, and thanking them for creating a medium with which to explain it to those around them. "The ability to show these characters to their family members and normalize it; to be like, hey, there's this person on this show that I watch, and everybody in their universe accepts them. There's a language around it, and here are the tough conversations that have happened.' I think that's super important," Alexander said.
Awards shows could serve largely the same function — if they cared to. People in charge, Alexander argued, can no longer continue to plead ignorance when it comes to diversity and representation. They need to take an active role in ensuring that these institutions are fair, and reflect the society that we want to live in. "The internet is holding people accountable for that now more than ever before," they said. "Now people can say, 'Here are female performers, or non-binary performers, that did just as well, or even better.' We can see through that and we’re going to call it out."
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.