Seriously, why do we still have different Academy Awards for male and female actors?

Seriously, why do we still have different Academy Awards for male and female actors?

I hate gender-specific job titles with the power of a thousand suns. As well as perpetuating the idea that there are only two genders that everyone has to fit themselves into, it seems so derogatory to shove an ‘-ess’ on the end of a regular job title just because somebody who identifies as a woman is doing it.

Binary gender distinctions have been troubled within the film-making industry itself for a long while now: in last week’s 2016 Oscar nominations Eddie Redmayne joined an (admittedly pretty short) list of actors, both male and female, who’ve been nominated for their portrayal of transgender characters, including Jared Leto for The Dallas Buyer’s Club (2014), Felicity Huffman for Transamerica (2006) and Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry (2000). While the portrayal of transgender characters by cisgender actors is itself problematic and has often been criticised by the transgender community, the presence of these characters in critically respected films and their recognition at the film industry’s most respected awards ceremony is at the very least making minority gender identities more visible to a wider public.

Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne as transgender woman Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (the organisation whose members decide the Oscar nominees and winners) makes no distinction between whether its members are ‘actors’ or ‘actresses’. The Academy is made up of 17 different branches that represent different occupations within the film industry, and actors of all genders are represented by a single branch: ‘Actors’. So, why is there an ongoing separation of actors and actresses in the Oscar award categories? Wouldn’t it be fairer to introduce a single non-gender-specific category that doesn’t discriminate against people with transgender or non-binary gender identities?

Well at the moment, sadly not. It’s well known that there’s currently various biases against non-males and people of colour within the film industry, which is reflected in the annual Oscar nominations and in the Academy membership itself. Women and people of colour are under-represented in practically every area of the film-making industry, including acting (particularly in leading roles), directing, screenwriting, and highly respected technical roles such as cinematography and editing. According to statistics published in The LA Times in 2012, less than 4% of the Oscars for acting have been awarded to African Americans, and this year’s acting nominations have again sparked controversy for featuring not a single person of colour in any of its four categories. On top of this, during the entire 87 years of the Oscars only one woman has won the Best Director award – Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2010). This won’t be changing this year, as yet again the entire shortlist of Best Director nominees is made up of men.

Halle Berry

In 2002 Halle Berry became the first African American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar, for her role in Monster’s Ball

Oscar nominations also reflect age biases against women actors in the film industry: the average age of male actors nominated for the Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor award is 43 and 47 respectively, while the average age of female actors nominated for the corresponding Best Actress or Best Support Actress awards is 37 and 40. That’s an average age different of 6-7 years between male and female actors nominated for the most prestigious award in their field, reflecting the shortage of roles available for older female actors in the film industry.

These discrepancies aren’t really surprising considering the lack of diversity within the Academy itself. Although the list of Academy members isn’t publicly available, the results of a study published in the same LA Times article mentioned above found that of the almost 6,000 people who vote on the Oscar nominees and winners nearly 94% are white and 77% are male. At the time of the study (2012) its executive branch was 98% white and of their 43 board members only 6 were women – although they do currently have a female African American president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (also their first ever African American president).

Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry

Hilary Swank as transgender man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry

All of this suggests that if the separate Best Actress / Best Supporting Actress categories are scrapped it will likely just lead to even less recognition for non-male actors, leaving an uncomfortable choice between taking this risk or continuing to partition female actors into their own separate-but-not-equal ‘-ess’ category. Both of these options continue to be problematic for transgender and non-binary-gender actors who will face difficulties in being recognised under either system.

The solution surely can’t be to introduce separate award categories for every under-represented group: while dedicated Best Actor / Actress of Colour and Best LGBTQIA+ Actor / Actress awards might lead to temporary recognition of actors from these communities and ensure their representation within their field, they will not ultimately lead to their equal standing with white cisgender male actors without tackling the underlying systemic issues within the film industry and within society more widely that continue to treat people differently based on their gender, race, age or sexuality.