Is it Time for Gender-Neutral Awards at the Emmys?

girls lena dunham
Image courtesy of HBO

The idea actually came to mind in April, watching a college all-star basketball event. After the men and women’s three-point shooting contests, Portland’s Cassandra Brown edged Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos in a gender-neutral faceoff.

Like sports, acting awards remain almost entirely stratified by men and women. But as that showdown suggests, the reason for that is mostly arbitrary. So why not let male and females compete by designating, say, a “performance of the year,” without regard to gender?

If that sounds wacky, actually, a trip through the TV Academy’s archives provides an ancient bit of precedent for precisely that. The very first Emmys anointed a Most Outstanding Television Personality, a category that consisted of three women and two men. The next year, there were awards for Most Outstanding Kinescoped Personality (one woman, two men) and Outstanding Live Personality (as it turned out, an all-male sweep).

In 1951, the gender split began with the introduction of awards for lead actor and actress. Yet while entertainment in general and TV in particular have in some ways looped back to their infancy — such as the greater influence of advertisers in presenting branded and wholly sponsored programs — in many ways the growing complexity of the medium provides a logical foundation for exploring ways to erase the division.

Actually, there’s history for that, too. In the mid-1970s, the academy tried introducing a “super Emmy,” honoring over-arching achievement in various genres. Yet the conclusion was made that the award not only provided double kudos to the winners for the same work (Alan Alda and Telly Savalas, for “MASH” and “Kojak,” respectively), but also risked diminishing victories in other acting categories.

Obviously, the academy doesn’t want to do anything that would reduce the number of performers on the screen ratings-wise, and there’s legitimate concern about a further proliferation of statuettes. Still, the other challenge plaguing TV awards has been how “comedy” and drama” no longer adequately define the breadth of programming, with a term coined in the ‘80s, “dramedy,” rather awkwardly seeking to plug the gap.

So just to float one intriguing scenario, without adding to the award tally, there could be gender-neutral categories for comedy, drama and dramedy, with a fourth for procedural drama, a genre that once dominated the awards but that, understandably, has been chased into retreat by the more elaborate character arcs created by serialized fare. (As a bonus, the major broadcasters who have chafed at being largely shut out of the drama balloting would have a category that plays to one of their strengths.)

Put another way: In tone, at least, the title character in “Louie” has a lot more in common with the women of “Girls” or “Nurse Jackie” than he does with the guys on “The Big Bang Theory.”

For that matter, wouldn’t it be interesting if the Oscars anointed a “performance of the year,” male or female, lead or supporting — letting people chew over whether Meryl Streep or Julianne Moore were better than Benedict Cumberbatch or David Oyelowo? And in TV, could anyone or anything this year, episodic or longform, hold a candle to Queen Latifah’s work in the HBO movie “Bessie?”

As those early “super” categories indicate, women were almost surely at a disadvantage in decades past. Yet the range of work being done today would hopefully obliterate such distinctions. And if it hasn’t, frankly — if men were to conspicuously dominate gender-neutral voting — that would tell us something too, not just in regard to where we’ve been but how much farther we have to go, especially in the context of actresses still receiving unequal pay.

At this point, with such an explosion of options available, there’s no such thing as an awards category that doesn’t risk producing strange bedfellows and apples-to-oranges comparisons. When presented with such ingredients, though, why not try to make a fruit salad?

Besides, given all the self-importance and seriousness that tends to surround awards, letting men and women shoot it out against each other might bring one flavor to the process that too often seems to be in short supply: Fun.

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  1. Awesome says:

    Stupidest. Idea. Ever.

  2. EK says:

    You were doing fine for a while with the history lesson but then stepped into a quagmire trying to make today, especially in the enlightened multi-sexual, by-sexual, transgender, a-sexual we find ourselves in. Nice try though.

  3. Alex says:

    Is “Best Homosexual in a Drama” far off?

  4. James NYC says:

    The Critics’ Choice Awards have gender neutral categories and the men swept it, undeservedly if you look at the nominees. There’s your answer.

  5. Nanny Mo says:

    No, not until there are enough to make a category about something more than shock value. These awards are only important because they are based on (or are believed to be based on by the masses) on talent alone. If you create an award and there are only 2 people who qualify the award is cheapened for everybody and public value of the award is gone. Think about it, why not create an award only for people who are half-Asian, half-Eskomo? Silly right? It’s the same idea, until internal versus external (birth) gender-identification becomes “mainstream,” there is so real competition, thus there is no talent-based award. Until then, it’s the wrong time to do it.

  6. Beckstle says:

    Being able to shoot a basketball is a straightforward and gender-neutral task. Acting is not. For instance, in looking at who to choose as best actor and actress one factor that comes up are value judgments one makes about the importance of the role. Who wants to have to decide about which is more meaningful: motherhood or war heroes from World War II? That’s not a decision I’d want to wrestle with.

    The other problem with this idea is that the awards process is as much about behind-the-scenes politics and lobbying as it is talent. Being that Hollywood’s track record on valuing the work of women vs. that of men is still dismal (two words: Jennifer Lawrence) a gender neutral award is one that would end up skewing towards men and become another way to diminish the worth of a woman’s onscreen performance. Of all the gender equality issues that exist in this business, the fact that there are separate awards for men and women may not even qualify. If it does, it’s certainly last on the list.

  7. Holden says:

    A great idea on paper, but can you imagine the outcry when more men than women get nominated in that category and/or a man wins? The Emmy people will be flooded with sexism accusations for months! Not to mention all those “How sexist are the Emmys” thinkpieces and editorials.

  8. Ruth Deutsch says:

    I’m so glad my Emmy nominations read “Outstanding Achievement in Writing” without adding “By a Woman Writer”!!!!

  9. J.K. says:

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

    Next I imagine animal rights activists would get in line and would begin promoting animate object parity. Then Lassie and Flipper can compete alongside Nicole Kidman and Daniel Day Lewis.

  10. That will be a great idea when there is gender parity on television. But while there has been progress, there are still FAR more roles for men than for women, and those roles are far more nuanced. We’re finally starting to have that conversation in the industry. Now is not the time for the Emmys to pretend it’s a level playing field, which is what gender-neutral awards would amount to.

  11. Bill B. says:

    Utterly pointless and possibly damaging when one sex or the other gets overlooked. I do think that at some point in time the comedy and drama categories might be eliminated as TV has become more and more sophisticated over time and in many cases there is no clear cut way of categorizing them as easily as in the past. Maybe it would be best to have the categories changed to simply how long they are regardless of their content. Best hour long series, best hour long actor, actress, supporting roles, guest roles, writing, directing, etc. Same pattern for a half hour series along with the usual categories for TV movie & mini-series (which already do not distinguish between drama and comedy) plus the usual assortment of other awards.

  12. Duke says:

    Because it opens up the possibility that there be fewer male or female nominees in a single year, which would be a PR nightmare. Just like the last Oscars where everyone complained because there wasn’t a single black nominee.

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