And the Oscar Goes To...Cisgender Nominees Who Identify As Male or Female

This story was originally published on March 1, 2018.

The film and television industry is in the midst of a victory lap for the best of 2017 in their creative fields. After the Emmys, Golden Globes, and BAFTAs, all eyes are on the Oscars on March 4 because the Academy Awards can accelerate careers, turn films into instant classics, and launch a navy’s worth of thinkpieces. It is, as Joe Biden would say, a big fucking deal. Like other film and television awards, it’s also uniquely gendered. While many of the technical and behind-the-scenes Oscars, from Best Director to Best Original Soundtrack, are gender-neutral, the recognitions for onscreen talent remains divided between men and women. That leaves quite a lacuna for actors who are neither, and with the growing visibility of the gender nonconforming community, this will likely become a problem soon.

Nonbinary people already exist in Hollywood: Tilda Swinton has expressed ambiguous thoughts about her gender, and she also accepted a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Asia Kate Dillon, a nonbinary performer who plays nonbinary character Mason on Billions, challenged the Television Academy on the gendering of Emmy nominations, asking why it was necessary to split the awards between men and women. They expressed satisfaction with the outcome—people are allowed to enter either category, and they opted to go for “actor,” but that’s not a solution that all nonbinary people would be happy with. Nor is it one that nonbinary people should be forced to settle for, much as women have fought being collapsed into masculine gendered terms and generic pronouns for centuries.

The gender divide dates to the very first Oscars ceremony when Janet Gaynor won Best Actress. It’s unclear why these awards were gendered, but it indubitably provided women with more opportunities to thrive in Hollywood. If the industry just awarded a single “Best Performer,” it would likely be heavily stacked with men—and not just men, but cis, white, nondisabled men. When there’s only one award, it tends to end up in the hands of those who dominate society, as seen from Nobel honorees.

Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason in Billions

Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason in Billions (Photo credit: Showtime)

This is not an issue unique to the Oscars: When organizations offer gendered awards, nonbinary people and others who aren’t men or women are forced to make some tough choices during nomination season. Often, the goal is to promote opportunities and elevate women, so what happens for people assigned female at birth who aren’t women? Maybe it’s being offered a position in a “women’s accelerator” designed to increase diversity in tech by well-meaning people concerned about the white, cis male dominance of the industry. Or it’s a Women in Journalism Award. A listicle of the most badass female geographers. A fellowship honoring women in science. Meanwhile, people assigned male at birth are often left out of the conversation altogether.

Should they turn down nominations for awards that suppress their genders, thus honoring their own identities? Doing so could deprive them of professional opportunities, and have a potentially chilling effect on their careers; nonbinary people are treated as “special snowflakes” as it is, and someone refusing a coveted nomination because it doesn’t respect their gender might find themselves pushed even further to the margins. The lack of awards on a resume can also make it harder to find work, and more challenging to negotiate higher pay. This translates to fewer opportunities for nonbinary people, compounding the problem of lack of representation—whether it’s a genderqueer actor who never breaks into the big time, or an agender innovator who can’t land venture capitalist funding for a new company.

Gendering the Oscars allowed women to shine in a way they wouldn’t have before. At the same time, few people in Hollywood have broken the Oscars color barrier, and relatively few disabled people have won either acting or technical awards. An internecine series of categories would make awards ceremonies excruciating. (“And the Oscar for Best Disabled Latina In a Supporting Role Goes To…” “And the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay by a Black Woman Goes To…”) It would also defeat the purpose: This is about recognition for outstanding accomplishment in the field, and the diversity problem at the Oscars will not be solved by siloing the awards.

Yet, accepting such nominations can have a deeply othering effect, collapsing someone’s identity and experience into a category that doesn’t fit. It can feel like a painful pretense, and yet another reminder that nonbinary people are frequently expected to suppress who they are for the convenience of others.

“When it comes down to it,” the logic surrounding people who mistakenly believed to be women goes, “you’re really a woman, so what does it matter?” Nonbinary people who were assigned male genders at birth, meanwhile, are written off as beneficiaries of male privilege who don’t need support to advance in their fields. Nonbinary people become the great invisible, and simplistic, hamfisted attempts at “gender inclusion” like phrasing opportunities as “for women and nonbinary people” underscore the fact that society has a limited understanding of nonbinary identity.

Lee & Low's infographic about the Diversity Gap at the Academy Awards

Lee & Low’s infographic about the Diversity Gap at the Academy Awards (Photo credit: Twitter/Lee & Low Books)

Yet it’s telling that the Academy didn’t divide technical awards, and notable that most of these awards have gone to men. No women won Best Director until 2010, when Kathryn Bigelow took the trophy home, beating out her ex-husband. It’s not that women haven’t been working in technical roles: It’s just that their labor wasn’t considered worthy of recognition.

The only way to resolve it is to change the the Academy’s mindset. Why are so many Best Actress awards going to white women? Why are so many Best Original Score recognitions going to nondisabled people? In part, it’s because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a white, cis, nondisabled, masculine glad-handing event. Members of underrepresented groups are also not provided with the same opportunities for success, and are judged much more harshly than their privileged counterparts. The price of success is high: After a few prominent wins for Black talent in the Oscars, people seem to think “the race issue” is resolved.  

In an era of #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy is being called to task on the uniformity of its members and its awards. This could be a good moment to strike gendered awards from the Oscars, and other awards across the board, forcing us to consider the gender gap in accomplishments that people think are worth recognizing in film, television, and beyond. A single recognition for best performer in a leading role should mean that sometimes men don’t win. That white people are sometimes left off the dais. That nondisabled people have to wait their turn.

That might be scary to those who are used to seeing themselves overrepresented in awards ceremonies, but it would also truly diversify these awards and promote talent that’s often ignored. Simply degendering all awards, though, isn’t enough, because it doesn’t address the underlying inequality. It’s estimated that about 1.4 percent of the population in the United States is transgender, and hard numbers on nonbinary people are hard to get, but it’s safe to say that cis people, specifically cis men, are overrepresented across a slew of industries, including film and television.

Hollywood and other industries need to be thinking about how to explicitly promote gender diversity and inclusion to create more opportunities to be in a position to win an award in the first place—alongside tackling their race problems, their disability disparities, and their other inequalities. That requires proactively reaching out to talent and creating space for them, like using salary bands to equalize pay, offering employee resource groups as a source of mutual support, thinking beyond “feeder schools” for recruitment and networking, and developing codes of conduct to create clear behavioral expectations and consequences for violations. It is unjust to rely on trailblazers—who are, not coincidentally, often Black women like Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes—to “save us.” Those in positions of power need to wield that power responsibly, shifting to a model that tears down the old boys’ club and recognizes talent no matter where it lies. But for that, we need a lot of white men to face up to their own mediocrity.

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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