Gender-Neutral Oscars?

Kim Elsesser maintains that we should stop having separate categories for actors and actresses in the Oscar awards.  I’m really not so sure. 

Elsesser argues that the separate categories are insulting, perpetuate stereotypes and, given the growning success of women in other aspects of film-making, unnecessary.

But separate is not equal. While it is certainly acceptable for sports competitions like the Olympics to have separate events for male and female athletes, the biological differences do not affect acting performances. The divided Oscar categories merely insult women, because they suggest that women would not be victorious if the categories were combined. In addition, this segregation helps perpetuate the stereotype that the differences between men and women are so great that the two sexes cannot be evaluated as equals in their professions.  (My stress.)

Today, the number of female-run production companies, female directors and great roles for women continues to increase. Four of the five films represented in this year’s best actress category center on strong female characters.

Here’s a worry:  Will they be evaluated as equals?  Remember Publisher’s Weekly’s list of the top ten books of 2009; all were by men.  One plausible explanation is that those making the decision regarded what the men had written about as more serious and weighty.  The typical concerns of half the human race – supposing there are such – might just not count as all that important and interesting.

If that’s a way implicit bias works itself out in artistic judgments, it would surely be right to expect it to happen in the selection of awards for the film industry.  And it might well apply to actresses more than it would to women directors, for example. 

Now, the thing that puzzles me is whether this is a good enough reason for supporting keeping the oscars the same as they are, explicitly gendered for actors.  And if it is, are there other areas of evaluation where we might push for separate evaluations?

Now the last seems to me so problematic that it could provide an argument  for introducing gender-neutral oscars.  You know the sort of argument:  “But if you do approve of that then by similarity of reasoning you should support X; but X is not acceptable; therefore you should not approve…”.  If X  is making the author’s gender explicit on doctoral theses (“outstanding woman’s doctorate thesis”), then there are obvious downsides, perhaps offput a bit by the category of “outstanding man’s doctorate thesis.”

What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Gender-Neutral Oscars?

  1. I think it’s a tricky issue, but I think there is a disparity between cinema/theater and most other fields, namely, that (given audience expectations) the occupation itself is not gender-neutral. The range of roles is not the same for both; costuming and the like do not always work the same for both. There are occasional exceptions, but as a rule it’s a field in which women are competing against women, not against men — when Hollywood isn’t giving a sufficient number of good roles to women (which happens often), it’s a problem that is created by production and writing, not by casting. In principle, at least, this is rarely the case with race; unless race is a plot point in the movie there is no fundamental reason why race would be a consideration. Likewise, in principle it would almost never be the case with directors. I think it actually makes much more sense to have gendered divisions for acting than for sports; gendered divisions in sports clearly often lead to female athletes being relatively underfunded and sexually objectified in comparison with male athletes (with their accomplishments often being disparaged as inferior), whereas acting awards involve a much greater degree of symmetry — women may not usually get the top roles, but nobody thinks (I would imagine) that Best Supporting Actress is less an honor than Best Supporting Actor. My inclination is to say that the level of awards is pretty much the only point at which Hollywood does a (sometimes) decent job with regard to women and minorities; at least, it’s the only point at which they clearly make an effort.

    But I confess I’m not sure I follow Elesser’s argument; for instance, we do, in fact, have awards that are race- or ethnicity-specific, although not at the Oscars — ALMA awards, and the like. Separate will certainly not be equal in a matter of fundamental goods like education, or in any case in which the separation is clearly made in such a way as to send the signal that one half of it is inferior; but in many areas it can be equalizing, as a transition to a more equitable situation, and on occasion it can be empowering.

  2. Brandon –

    I agree with most of what you’ve said about acting, but I’m curious as to why you’re opposed to gender divisions in sports. Even granting your points about sexual objectification, underfunding and low regard for women’s sports, isn’t it clear that the effect of having women compete openly with men would be to eliminate women from most high level sports altogether?

  3. yep, women get crap roles in films. they’re always the needy hangers-on, never the movers. men would always win because men are always the lead characters. -i’d like to know, btw, how she’s come to know that ‘the biological differences do not affect acting performances.’ says who? and what exactly are “the” biological differences?

  4. lp: That strikes me as a hasty judgment. I’m not familiar enough with movie history to reach very far back, but it seems obvious to me that recent winners of the Oscar for best actress (Hilary Swank, Nicole Kidman, Helen Mirren etc.) did not win by playing the best needy hangers-on. Consider also that the single person most readily identified with Oscar success is not a man but a woman–Meryl Streep.

  5. yes, i’m sure there are some good roles for women. and hopefully it’s true that that trend is changing. but it does still seem the case that, in most films, the main character is male. i mean, even if there are two outstanding female roles in a year, there’ll be five male ones. -and most years, i suspect there’s at best one lead part written for a woman that’s really good. i think the sorts of stories that are told in cinema should change first; then change the oscars.

  6. Shira, thanks for the link. One of the statistics suggests to me that the men would have an advantage at getting the Oscar for acting::

    Only 6 of the top 50 grossing films (12 of the top 100 films) starred or were focused on women.

  7. Moll,

    It depends very much on the sport, because each of them are rather different. There’s no obvious reason why bowling should be gendered (Kelly Kulick has recently been proving that in a thundering way), unless it’s just as a temporary transition to more equitable competition. I have simply never understood why there were men’s and women’s divisions in curling, to give another example. In many other sports men/women’s divisions could easily be replaced by something like weight/strength divisions instead, since the disadvantage of women in a wide array of sports is often merely the disadvantage of being more likely to have a lighter frame. And for that handful of sports where it really does make good sense to have gendered divisions, I think the division still shouldn’t be absolute: cross-over should be allowed as long as the athletic requirements are met. Sports is a results-oriented field; as long as the results are above a certain threshold, gender divisions make no sense.

  8. Brandon (and Moll)- ditto for ski jumping given the current world record holder is a woman.

  9. Best Achievement in Directing has always been gender neutral and look how long that took for a woman to win. However, perhaps this is a signal that it is time to start looking at Actor (gender neutral) awards.

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