Is Oscar Nonbinary?
It’s time for the Gay Super Bowl once again—or, as straight people like to call it, the Oscars. This is my favorite part of the cinematic year, between the nominations and Oscar night itself. And I have questions. Will Ke Huy Quan top off the comeback story of the century with a gold statuette? Am I really going to have to stream Top Gun: Maverick this month? Is Angela Bassett FINALLY going to win an Oscar?
But there’s been another question brewing about the Oscars for a while. At first, it seemed like a silly question, and nobody paid much attention. But last year, the buzz around it started to get a little louder, and it’s gaining some traction. That question is: “Should the Academy get rid of gendered categories?”
People who say yes are essentially advocating reducing the category count by two. Instead of Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role, we’d simply have one category for Best Performance in a Leading Role, where men, women, and nonbinary performers would all compete against each other. Ditto for the Supporting Role categories.
To many movie fans, this all seems like much ado about nothing. These are silly awards anyway, they’ll say. They never nominate any movies I like, and it’s ridiculous to pit ROLE against ROLE, anyway. To you, I say…you have a point.
But consider: the Oscars aren’t just Hollywood patting itself on the back (though it’s partly that, certainly). The Oscars exist to sell movie tickets. If a film is nominated for one or several Oscars, it generates excitement, and folks might be willing to buy a ticket. And specifically, the Oscars tend to generate excitement over serious dramas which feature exactly zero costumed crimefighters with superpowers—the kinds of films that don’t generate much excitement during the rest of the calendar year. So for those of us who enjoy both kinds of movies, the Oscars are pretty important.
There are a lot of good reasons to support the idea of getting rid of the gendered categories. As Emma Corrin (who once won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, before coming out as nonbinary) points out, there’s a growing population for whom neither gender seems to fit, and a gender-neutral category would be more inclusive.
Also, while the Oscars have famously celebrated white artists but failed to include deserving artists of color, no category has ever been segregated by race. Much has been made of the difficulty of getting good roles as one gets older, but we’ve never had a category just for older actors, to make sure they’re sufficiently honored. (Though they used to give out miniature Oscars for Best Juvenile Performance; the last of those was handed out in 1960.)
Finally, halving the categories for actors might reduce the number of voting Academy members in the acting wing, which many feel is overpopulated. (This is why when a famous actor is nominated for Best Screenplay or Best Director, they very often win—actors like voting for other actors.)
Why, then, have there always been separate awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress? There are many possible justifications, but I tend to believe it boils down to this: If we didn’t segregate by gender, women would receive significantly fewer nominations and would hardly ever win. As a result (remember why the Oscars exist in the first place), fewer films featuring great roles for women will be made, and both women and men will suffer the lack of stories that put women at their center. And that’s a pretty good reason.
For myself, when I look at this question objectively, it seems clear that the right thing to do is to stop segregating the categories. I might argue that Performance categories, like the Best Picture category, might allow for up to 10 nominees, or perhaps introduce a third category along the lines of Best Debut Performance or (even better) Best Ensemble Award, like the SAG Awards do.
Of course, there’s still a small voice in the back of my head, whispering, “we’re not ready.” At least wait until Glenn Close has finally won an Oscar, it reasons, and maybe then. But I also know that progress happens when we take a step, however small, bravely into the future, and ask the times to catch up with us—not when we sit around and wait for things to change.
If I made the rules, the 2023 Oscars would be the last to feature gendered categories. And then yes, we’d probably see a decade or more of women being overlooked, and undercelebrated. But perhaps that would start a conversation, and spark a change.
Actually, what we’d likely find is the bias in our stories that has always existed, but was masked for a century by watching two female actors accept their Oscars each year. Perhaps we need to look at this truth, at ourselves, squarely in the mirror, if we ever expect real change to happen. ▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity and inclusion practitioner. His first novel (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth) is available online and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. His podcast, The Rewind Project, is available wherever you listen to podcasts.