With the Academy Awards coming up this Sunday, I’ve been thinking about my acting picks and wondering why we separate the awards between male and female actors. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve pretty much taken this tradition for granted and accepted it without examination. But the more I think about it, the more it seems strange to divide the field in this way. I don’t think anyone would argue that men and women practice the craft of acting in markedly different ways, or that men or women are naturally better at acting, giving one sex an advantage over another. There’s also the question of where actors who identify as gender non-binary would fit into these categories.
The main argument for separating the categories between men and women is that Hollywood is simply too sexist for unisex categories, and that the female acting awards insure that women will be recognized. Those who make this argument theorize that if the awards were unisex, men would almost always win, because the voters are biased toward men. In addition, the parts available to men are also generally larger than the parts available to women, with more lines and screen time, so if men and women were to compete against each other, men might be more likely to win by virtue of having bigger, more impressive roles. For a lot of people, more acting means better acting.
Then again, it could be argued that women’s roles have a greater degree of difficulty, since they are generally smaller and underwritten. The female actor has to do a lot with a little. Is this the harder skill?
One solution would be to have a larger field of actors competing against each other, but to require that half the nominees are male and half female. This would ensure that women would at least be nominated in equal numbers. With the acting awards narrowed down to a unisex field, there would also be room to create new acting awards, such as best actor in a comedic role, or best acting ensemble, which are featured in other awards programs. I’ve always thought there should be an award for best voice performance in an animated film, and I’ve heard arguments that child performances should be its own category. Or, if best child performance is too limiting, there could be a “best debut” performance. The point is, there’s room to rethink all of the categories, and after 90 years, I think the Academy Awards are due for more serious reform.
Why does any of this matter? Mainly it matters because the audience for the Academy Awards show is huge—around 33 millions viewers last year, (and that was one of the smallest audiences in the past decade). It would be a big statement if the Academy allowed men and women to compete with each other, especially if that meant that it would also have to confront some its sexism. The Oscars has been losing younger viewers for the past few years, and one reason may be that it just seems old-fashioned, with old-fashioned traditions—like giving separate awards for male and female performances.