Awards Shows Need to Embrace Gender-Neutral Acting Categories — and Soon

With the Gotham Awards doing away with gendered acting categories, it's beyond time for the Emmys, Oscars, and more to follow suit.
Screen Actors Guild Awards
A Screen Actors Guild Award trophy, known as "The Actor"
Courtesy Image

♦ With the Gotham Awards moving to gender-neutral acting categories, the conversation shifts to when more awards shows will follow suit. IndieWire’s TV Awards Editor Libby Hill and Deputy Editor Ben Travers stopped for a Double Take to assess what might happen next — and what’s stopping it from happening sooner.

BEN TRAVERS: On Thursday, the Gotham Film and Media Institute announced its annual awards show, the Gotham Awards, would be eliminating the Best Actor and Best Actress categories in favor of gender-neutral groupings that highlight Lead and Supporting performers. In addition, it tweaked the title of its Breakthrough Actor honor to Breakthrough Performer (even though, as we’re reminded every year during the SAG Awards, “actor” is already a gender-neutral term) and added two additional TV categories: Outstanding Performance in a New Series (the Gotham’s first acting honor for television) and Breakthrough Nonfiction Series, both of which will join the pre-existing categories for Long-Form (60-minute episodes) and Short-Form (30 min) Breakthrough Series.

The Gotham Awards aren’t the first awards ceremony to incorporate inclusive categories — the TCA Awards, as you noted Libby, have been doing so since 1997 — but the most prominent entertainment honors still divide their nominees up by gender, including the SAG Awards, Emmys, and Oscars. The TV Academy, in particular, has ignored arguments favoring the change for years now. Libby, is this latest shift by the Gotham Awards sizable enough to push more awards shows in a similar direction, and what’s keeping the Emmys from following suit already?

LIBBY HILL: Not to go full “Fiddler on the Roof” on you, but I think tradition holds a lot of the blame when it comes to why legacy institutions are finding themselves slower to change their acting category designations than some of the younger, hipper groups. This year’s Emmy Awards is the Television Academy’s 73rd ceremony and with each passing year it seems less and less likely the organization will suddenly overhaul its top categories, doing away with gender designations. (The same goes for the Oscars, which have a cool two decades of history over the Emmys.)

And yet, it’s not impossible. With regards to the entertainment Grand Slam (Emmy Awards, Grammy Awards, Academy Awards, and Tony Awards), three of the four awards bodies still enforce gender delineation within their categories, but the same can’t be said for Grammys. In 2011, music’s crowning achievement did away with its gendered category distinctions, many of which had been in place for more than 40 years.

Honestly, I think the biggest obstacle toward seeing these changes implemented across the board is the inherent politicization of, well, everything in recent years. More on that in a bit.

Until then, I’ve seen some arguments against these changes suggesting that they will actually reduce the number of people being honored in the end. Is that a valid concern? How do you weigh those factors against changing up the playing field?

THE 72ND EMMY® AWARDS - Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, the "72nd Emmy® Awards" will broadcast SUNDAY, SEPT. 20 (8:00 p.m. EDT/6:00 p.m. MDT/5:00 p.m. PDT), on ABC. (ABC)JIMMY KIMMEL
The 72nd Emmy Awards and its many, many nomineesABC / Image Group LA

BEN: In the era of expansion — be it the Oscars’ 10 Best Picture nominees or eight supporting stars consistently competing at the Emmys — I can see why some might be concerned about limiting the nomination pool. To be clear, they shouldn’t be, but money and clout still weigh heavily on awards decisions, so calming the nerves of those worried about losing out on both is part of the path to progress.

While some might argue there are too many categories at the Emmys (if not the Oscars) already, that’s not a popular stance in Hollywood. Networks and studios are paying increased attention to their total nomination tallies, TV is still releasing an absurd number of programs (which makes anything that can elevate shows above the pack a valuable resource), and awards voters are facing more and more backlash for excluding critical and fan favorites. There’s a demand for expansion, and money driving those demands. Awards being run like a business, not just an honor, seems like a major obstacle to change.

Which is why I think the Gotham Awards news wasn’t just an announcement about gender-neutral categories; it was also an announcement about expansion. Last year, there were five nominees for Best Actor and five nominees for Best Actress; this year, there will be “up to 10” nominees each in Lead and Supporting Performance categories. Outstanding Performance in a New Series could also include up to 10 honored actors, which means there could be as many as 20 acting nominees for film (instead of 10) and 10 nominees for TV (instead of zero). Toss in the other new Unscripted category, and there will be way more nominees this year than last year.

The math isn’t so simple at the Emmys, but the Gothams, as well as the TCAs, still show it can be done. Take the Emmys’ Drama acting categories: This year, there are 38 nominees across Lead, Supporting, and Guest performers; if they shifted to gender-neutral categories and allowed for 10 nominees in each, there would still be 30 actors nominated for Drama. Apply that same number across the board, and you’ve got 30 for Comedy and 20 for Limited Series (where there are only 22 acting nominees this year and no Guest categories). We’d still have 80 performers nominated in a given year (vs. the 95 nominated in 2021), and considering the Emmys already implement a flexible number of nominees in each category depending on the number of submissions, it would be easy enough to shift those numbers to incorporate eight actors here or 12 actors there.

That being said, keeping the nominee count high might not be the main problem. Libby, how concerned should awards bodies be that in implementing gender-neutral categories, they create more controversy? Like, say, exposing their voters’ (if not the industry’s) gender bias by nominating more men than women?

LIBBY: There’s absolutely a fear of the industry looking foolish. We’ve seen this repeatedly with awards bodies even with the categories as they stand currently (#OscarsSoWhite), so it would make sense for there to be an innate concern about the TV Academy (for example) being proven less progressive than they seem if they were to nominate a crop of actors that was 98% male-identifying individuals, no matter how many nominations slots were available.

I absolutely understand the concern that women will be edged out of the narrative by forgoing acting divisions by gender, but the solution to that is not to continue excluding people whose identity doesn’t adhere to a clear cut “pink or blue” mentality. Feminism that is not intersectional is not feminism.

This is no longer a conversation just about our culture’s complicated relationship with men and women competing in the same spaces. As our collective understanding of identity grows, more and more individuals are opening up about their own relationships with gender and identity. This year’s crop of Emmy nominees featured Mj Rodriguez, who became the first openly transgender performer to be nominated in a lead acting category for her work on FX’s “Pose,” as well as several openly non-binary performers, including Emma Corrin, nominated in lead actress in a drama series for their work on Netflix’s “The Crown” and Carl Clemons-Hopkins, nominated in supporting actor in a comedy series for their performance on HBO Max’s “Hacks.”

Carl Clemons Hopkins in "Hacks" HBO Max
Carl Clemons Hopkins in “Hacks”Anne Marie Fox / HBO Max

And while all of that was great to see and feels like a step in the right direction, I am, as always, still concerned. In June, the TV Academy released an update that would allow for nominees and winners in Emmy acting categories to request that their nomination certificates and/or Emmy statuette would characterize them as a “performer” as opposed to the gendered term (actor or actress) it would typically feature.

I suppose that could feel like progress, but for the fact that this announcement began with something of a disclamatory statement reading, “No performer category titled ‘Actor’ or ‘Actress’ has ever had a gender requirement for submissions,” which feels a bit like a big “F you” to non-binary actors. Saying that someone has special permission to be called a performer on official paperwork but still forcing them to align themselves within the binary in order to compete is cruel, particularly when there’s no reason for it.

In June, Clemons-Hopkins penned a lovely essay for People talking about their role on “Hacks” and their journey to self-realization.

“The fact that I can exist in completion —that my skin, sexuality, and personhood does not need to be divided — is one of the greatest blessings of my life. And the fact that I can use that blessing to inform the characters I play is truly a joy,” the performer wrote.

Forcing someone into a pre-fabricated box for your own purposes is dehumanizing. That message of dehumanization is the message awards bodies are sending by cleaving to gender divisions.

Everything is just so broken, Ben. Is a sea change really possible at this point?

BEN: When it comes to the Emmys, I do believe change is not only possible, but on the horizon. As defensive as its statuette statement reads, the TV Academy has a history of adapting its Emmy rules and regulations, especially compared to its counterparts in film. Voters were quick to embrace streaming programs while the Oscars remain hostile toward streaming movies; there have been repeated category expansions made to match the “too much TV” era; certain categories are a mess (like TV Movie), but the Academy has repeatedly tried to course-correct, just as it has with genre placement for various shows that fall between comedies, dramas, and limited series. Considering the examples set by other awards bodies and the minimal imposition required to make the move — without losing many (or any) guests at the ceremony — I don’t feel like gender-neutral categories are too big of a hurdle for the Emmys to clear. It might take a few more years and a few more actors speaking out, but whatever arguments exist for keeping the status quo are outdated and exclusionary — they won’t be tolerated forever by Hollywood’s largely progressive talent pool. The Emmys should seize the chance to be a leader for change, while they still can.

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