Two more awards shows went gender neutral last week, fueling further speculation about the day when major awards shows — think Oscars, Emmys and (yes) Golden Globes — might follow suit and drop the distinction between “actor” and “actress” in their respective competitions.
Organizers behind the Spirit Awards and the Canadian Screen Awards are following the examples set by the Recording Academy, MTV and the Gotham Film & Media Institute. The announcements by Film Independent on Aug. 23 and the Canadian Academy on Aug. 25 follow the July decision by backers of the British Independent Film Awards to eliminate gendered categories with this year’s competition.
I’ve been writing about this trend for several years, including my 2019 column “It’s Time for the Emmys to Eliminate Gender-Specific Acting Categories,” which garnered the most attention of anything I wrote that year. I followed that up with a piece in 2020 (“The Emmys and Other Awards Should Eliminate Gender Divisions, and Here’s How to Do It“), which suggested ways it could be done.
The idea of non-gendered awards shows began to pick up steam when the MTV Movie & TV Awards dropped gender-specific categories in 2017, but organizers of the Grammy Awards did away with gendered categories even earlier, removing female pop vocal performance and male pop vocal performance distinctions more than a decade ago. And the Television Critics Assn. has always awarded “individual achievement” in comedy and drama.
Last year, the Gotham Awards converted to a gender-free approach after eight years of hand- ing out separate actor and actress trophies.
“It’s something we’ve been discussing for a while,” Film Independent president Josh Welsh says of the Spirit shift. “There was a lot of enthusiasm for it for a while, but there was also some apprehension about it. It’s a big change, and I think we really wanted to talk it through carefully and make sure that it was the right thing to do.”
He notes the majority of trophies are gender neutral. “Just to keep it on the Spirit Awards, for almost 40 years we honored writers, directors, producers, editors, cinematographers without reference to gender,” he says.
The switch is more accommodating for the nonbinary acting community. In 2017, “Billions” star Asia Kate Dillon, the first gender-nonbinary performer to play a nonbinary character on a major TV show, asked the TV Academy to clarify its gender distinctions. Ultimately, Dillon asked to be entered into the “supporting actor” category at the Emmys; they later asked the SAG Awards to also drop gendered awards.
“There are lots of great performers, and I think we’ll see more who don’t identify as male or female,” Welsh says. “For award shows to be in the position of telling one of those performers, ‘If you get nominated, you have to choose male or female’ — that’s just not a good approach.”
Merging the acting fields raises the question of how many performers will be honored: The Spirit Awards expanded its nomination field among performers to 10 (up from five each for actor and actress), adding a supporting performer category in TV — which means there will at least still be multiple honorees.
Moving forward, there are potential unintended consequences — including gender imbalance. But Welsh says that Film Independent will keep an eye on such issues. “That’s a real, legitimate concern,” he says. “But I feel like the issue is not award shows; the issue is the industry. It’s not a level playing field in film and television for female creators. It’s the decisions that are made all year long.”
He notes that Film Independent voters are far from monolithic, skewing female and with a high percentage of both people of color and those that identify as LGBTQ. “If there were ever an awards body that has a strong, diverse voting body that can handle this approach to voting, I think it’s Film Independent.”
[Photo: Taylour Paige won this year’s Spirit female lead award in film for her performance in “Zola.”]