As the awards season nears its end, there have been many soaring highs and troubling lows.
The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies swept the board at the Emmys, and then went on to do the same at the Golden Globes, amongst other big winners centred on the stories of women, such as The Shape of Water and Lady Bird. And yet the Globes saw only four men of colour and four women of colour nominated across all the acting categories (out of 35 nominees each for Actor and Actress). The Grammys spent a great deal of effort declaring its support of women, but the list of nominees speaks to a different reality. And while many women used their time on stage to bring attention to the #timesup campaign and speak out against sexual misconduct in Hollywood and other industries, effectively no men did at any of the awards shows.
For all the successes the season has brought, diversity remains limited. And one reason is the long-standing gendered performance awards.
The basis of the Actor/Actress divide is so weak that one is led to believe it’s due to some fundamental difference in the quality and value of performances given by men and women. While trans performers such as Laverne Cox have been nominated according to their gender, which is definitely a step toward wider recognition for trans artists and stories, this recognition still functions within an arbitrary gender binary to the exclusion of all those who exist outside it.
Even the stories that do focus on trans characters continue to cast cisgender performers in their place. Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent (all the more problematic for Tambor’s alleged sexual misconduct toward transgender colleagues), Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, David Duchovny in Twin Peaks… again and again we see trans experiences treated as an elaborate game of dress ups. This is not to say that cis performers shouldn’t be allowed to explore gender and expression through their work. Gender expression and identity are two separate, yet interrelated concepts after all. For many people the chance to experiment with their expression can help them to better understand their own identity, and to deny such opportunity is harmful to all questioning people and those who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable being publicly out.
But when Jeffrey Tambor was once again nominated at the Emmys for his role as Maura Pfefferman (for which he has won a Golden Globe and two Emmys) alongside Louie Anderson (in another Emmy-winning performance as a character whom the show Baskets established as a cis woman, played by a male actor) it’s clear that gender diversity and exploration is not what’s being celebrated. These men were nominated in ‘Outstanding Actor’ categories. We are valuing the feat of an actor playing across perceived gender boundaries whilst directly undermining the value of the character they are portraying. We are saying that a cis man who can dress and act as a woman is inherently more skilful and worthy of praise than a trans woman who can bring empathy and lived experience to the same role. We conflate gender expression with gender identity through an uncomfortable ‘gender blindness’ that only further erases the experiences of trans people. We tell trans people that their reality is a role to step in and out of.
And all the while, trans people continue to be overlooked. The Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman marks this year’s only Golden Globe nomination honouring the work of a transgender person, and one of only two Oscar nominees.
And for those whose identities exist outside the binary, the categories pose even more problems. Billions’ star Asia Kate Dillon articulated the troubles with the current Actor and Actress categories in their open letter to the Television Academy prior to the Emmys. The Academy responded by stating Dillon could apply for both the male and female categories but would only be considered in one of them. This echoes the response given to genderfluid actor Kelly Mantle when applying for last year’s Oscars. The call for a gender neutral alternative was ignored.
Folding the categories into one ‘Best Performance’ award raises the understandable concern that women will receive even less recognition than they already do in the industry. Considering how few women get a look in, as highlighted by Natalie Portman’s excellent introduction for Best Director at the Golden Globes, it may seem far too risky to have gender neutral categories for performance. However, the lack of women being awarded for their work stems from deep-rooted biases in the industry. These are apparent both in the creation of projects, when deciding whom to hire, and in recognising their achievements down the line. These biases must be challenged and changed, as we are seeing done by hundreds of women right now. Having spaces focused on women is incredibly important. But it is dangerous to let these much deeper biases define the framework in which we recognise artistic achievements.
Ultimately, gender neutral categories can help to make clear the underrepresentation of women that already plagues the industry. It can galvanise people to act on it. Beyond this, our fear that women may go unrecognised in a gender neutral award category cannot justify a system that guarantees non-binary performers will go unrecognised.
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that directing, writing, design, and all other categories allow people of all genders to be recognised alongside each other. Even voice acting and narration are gender neutral. It seems the idea of physical performance is so gendered, so intrinsically linked to the assumptions we make about bodies that we simply must separate nominees where otherwise we do not.
So when non-binary people such as Asia Kate Dillon are told they are only eligible if they ‘pick a side’, we don’t question it. It’s an honour to be nominated at all. People like Dillon are forced to break down the linguistics of what defines ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ in order to decide which category to be considered under. But many non-binary people cannot make such arbitrary choices without experiencing distress and dysphoria.
Regardless, no one should have to experience gender dysphoria in order to validate their gender. We are asking performers to either ‘admit’ that they are ‘more’ the gender they were assigned at birth or ‘more’ binary trans. This is both reductive and exclusionary of people who are overwhelmingly told they cannot be acknowledged for who they are.
It’s easy to dismiss the issue as a minor grievance, but the impact of these kinds of unquestioned systems is real. It’s these very systems that keep us from affecting change elsewhere on a broader scale. Just as it is important that women see themselves reflected in the art they love, it’s important that people of colour, and disabled people, and those in the LGBTQIA+ community, and everyone at the intersections of these identities, can see themselves reflected too.
There is much work needed to create more inclusive spaces. We cannot afford to use the progress we’ve made as a reason to forget, dismiss, and erase all those who have yet to be acknowledged.
F Ocean is a non-binary Melbourne writer and musician. They are quiet and like puzzles – especially that nine-letter word in 'The Age'.