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

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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