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Awards shows have long been a platform to celebrate art while recognizing the current social climate. This year though, with the call to end systemic racism, get to 50-50 gender parity and generally “do better,” are organizations that continue to separate acting categories by gender ensuring equal representation, or are they perpetuating problematic industry-wide behaviors that also marginalize the non-binary and trans communities? There’s a growing contingent that believes it may be the latter.

When the 36th Television Critics Assn. (TCA) Awards, whose ceremony date is TBA, were announced this month, many noted that the association combines male and female actors into one performance category per genre: individual achievement in drama and individual achievement in comedy. This was established in 1997, and that summer Andre Braugher (“Homicide: Life on the Street”) and David Hyde Pierce (“Frasier”) took home the respective inaugural trophies. Of the 11 contenders, Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) was the sole female nominee at the time.

“There was never talk about making gender-specific awards because the real objective at the time was not to clutter up the awards with too many categories and make the ceremony overly long,” says former TCA president Eric Kohanik, who then served on the executive board as secretary. “And at that point, because it was just a small ceremony, the thought was to keep it as individual achievement and not judge it by gender.”

It is worth noting, though, that while the individual achievement categories predominantly feature performers (lead and/or supporting) in a regular TV program, TV movie or limited series, the categories are also open to producers, creators, directors or other craftspeople who have made significant contributions to the medium.

The TCA Awards are not alone in allowing both men and women to compete in the same category: In more recent years they have become an example for such awards shows as the MTV Video Music Awards and the MTV Movie and TV Awards, which merged gender categories in 2017, as well as the Grammys, which did the same in 2011. Theater companies in Canada have also eliminated gender-specific awards and the Brit Awards are reviewing their categories for 2021. In all other entertainment awards shows, acting categories are the only ones split by gender, which can be seen as a systemic way to relegate women to acting rather than expand into other crafts including directing or cinematography. It also continues to unconsciously endorse pay inequity.

“In a perfect world, we would all be treated equally in everything, including showbiz,” says Catherine O’Hara, a 2020 TCA Award nominee for individual achievement in comedy. “And I think everybody would be able to tell each other’s stories. It’s not that way now. We’ve been in the wrong direction for so long, and that’s not going to happen. But eventually, when there is a peaceful world where everybody feels appreciated and respected, then we can all tell each other’s stories.”

Asia Kate Dillon, the non-binary star of Showtime’s “Billions” (on which they play TV’s first non-binary character) has challenged the idea of gendered awards since their open letter to the Emmys in 2017 questioning the male and female distinction. At the time they accepted the Television Academy’s response that they could submit to the male or female category, but since then they have come to recognize the context of these categories enforces a problematic history.

“The fact is that the actor and actress categories have never held space for non-binary performers,” Dillon says. “I recognize now that being submitted or nominated within those categories reinforces the gender binary, and frankly should have been met with my outright rejection of those nominations alongside calling for change. The TCAs have never had gendered acting categories, so it’s possible.”

Dillon says they are having conversations with SAG about potential changes (the guild already favors the term “female actor” over “actress”), and they have had meaningful conversations with NATAS regarding the Daytime Emmys, as well. However those conversations are only a start.

“I applaud the TCA for their gender-neutral acting categories,” they add. “But it’s important to note that those categories have only ever included non-trans nominees. So yes, they’re gender neutral, which is great. Who selects the nominees and who votes at any award show must be heavily scrutinized and [it should be] a transparent process in order to guarantee recognition of a much broader swath of work created by non-binary and trans folks, especially Black, Indigenous and people of color.”

Putting disparity front and center into one category potentially forces voters to address the issues. In its 23-year history of awarding acting trophies, the TCA Awards have only honored a female winner roughly 37% of the time. Stats for BIPOC actors are worse. Yet in the past five years, women have won in each category four times out of five. The change could be credited to the quality of roles now being written for women, which wasn’t necessarily the case when these awards, or the Emmys, were established decades earlier.

Back then, separating males and female performers was a way of ensuring equal inclusion, while also putting more-famous faces in front of an audience — an important distinction between a televised and non-televised show such as the TCA Awards.

“The fact that TCA is doing this only helps to continue the conversation about inclusion, which is always important and needs to be pushed forward,” says MRC’s Michele Robertson. “When you’re talking about the Emmys and other things, they have more room in their shows to be able to include a best male and female category. Both offer an opportunity to be inclusive on many levels. Each show has to look at what makes sense for them. What we don’t want is a homogenization of the awards shows. The more diverse your voting body is, the more that these kinds of stories are also recognized and being made.”

“Some things are actually going in the right direction and the kind of awareness of people who have felt oppressed and not respected and not loved and not appreciated, they’re speaking up now,” adds O’Hara. “That’s always going to be a good thing. Eventually we won’t have to separate each other, because we will all accept our differences together.”
Ellise Shafer contributed to this report.