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Putting the “-ess” in “Sexist”: Why Do We Have a Best Actress Award?

The fact that no woman was nominated for Best Director (after Kathryn Bigelow became the first female to win last year) has caused a stir at this year’s Oscars. I’m not an excessively politically correct individual (just read the blog), but I like to think I’m sensitive to issues like that. Presumably the presumptive female directing nominees would have been either Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone or Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right, and – to be honest – I don’t think either was better than any of the five existing nominees. The continued snubbing of Christopher Nolan bothers me far more.

As I thought about the complaint more and more, part of me wondered when the gender of an individual becomes important for awards like this – my gut feeling is “never.” The best is the best, why should we handicap or install quotas? Except for the fact that we do have gender quotas for certain awards. This train of thought led me wonder why we still have a Best Actress and a Best Supporting Actress category… And, to cut a long story short, I really couldn’t think of a good reason.

Are we kidding ourselves?

I understand that, these days, there’s some discussion as to what the politically correct term for a female performer is. Some argue that “actress” is a term which creates an artificial distinction between “actor” and “actress”. I’m not sure I’d agree with this logic – I think it’s just a word which specifies gender (like “mister” and “miss”), and that these artificial distinctions are created by actions rather than language. I’d have no problem calling a female performer an “actor”, but I don’t object to the term “actress” – I just accept it as one of those quirks of language.

We don’t distinguish director based upon the gender of the person nominated, so why do we distinguish performances? Admittedly, this has been the way that it has been done since the very first Academy Awards in 1929 (which was, admittedly, less than a decade after women were given the right to vote), and it’s a format followed by virtually every major awards show in the world (even outside the field of entertainment), but I like to think that we need a more important reason than “it’s always been that way” or “that’s the way that everybody else does it” to validate a rule. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going on some angry rant about institutionalised sexism or anything so melodramatic – it’s just a question which occurs to me, and a train of thought I’m following.

Should we Penn a letter?

Imagine, for example, the Academy proposing that – in response to this year’s relatively small controversy over the lack of African-American talent nominated – they would be introducing several new categories. Suppose that “Best Caucasian Actor”, “Best Black Actor” and “Best Asian Actor” were all mooted – possibly among others. There would be a tremendous backlash – I suspect the internet might actually explode. Hyperbole aside, it would the subject of huge criticism – and rightly so. To borrow a cliché, actors shouldn’t be judged upon the colour of their skin, but on the content of their performance. Whether it’s Denzel Washington in Training Day or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, a great performance is a great performance. So why do we distinguish based on gender, when we wouldn’t dare to do so on race?

Is there anything more to a man’s performance than that of a woman, or vice-versa? Is the difference between an actress’ approach to her craft any different that the difference between two male actors? Is this a case of a handicap? Do we, for example, believe that women are typically stronger or weaker than men at their craft, and does this delineation between the categories represent an attempt to “balance” the tables?

Is true sexual equality a dream?

Last year, the Los Angeles Times tried to defend the distinction by arguing that an actor has fundamental distinctions based solely on their gender:

Central casting does not send a petite young woman to play a sumo wrestler, or a muscular hunk to play someone’s sweet aged mother. This isn’t sexism; it is the human condition. Drama and comedy do on occasion call for cross-dressing roles, but even these depend in the first place on our deep sense of the differences between the sexes: Cross-dressing does not obliterate the differences but rather heightens them.

Let’s ignore that fact the prosthetics makes it possible for an actor to play a character of a different race or gender. Let’s ignore the fact that Hilary Swank won her first Oscar for playing a character who identified himself as a man. Let’s ignore Robert Downey Jr.’s supporting nomination for playing a black character in Tropic Thunder. Even if you believe that gender informs the way that a person approaches their craft (and, to be honest, I suspect it does), it’s only one of several key factors.

Now I kinda want to see Christian Bale in the role...

A person’s background also defines their approach, their life experiences, their social status, their religion. You wouldn’t ask Christian Bale to play the role of ballerina Nina in Black Swan, but you also wouldn’t ask Clint Eastwood to play Nelson Mandela. If you accept that there are differences based on sex, you also should accept differences based on race – and I wouldn’t.

There’s also the slightly more convincing argument that introducing equality in these categories would be “unfair”, because of larger problems within the movie industry:

The Oscars aren’t a level playing field because the movies aren’t a level playing field. It would be silly to change the awards process until the movies themselves change — and that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

This logic sounds convincing. Helen Mirren also made a very eloquent case that female actors simply don’t get the same good roles that their male counterparts do. However, she also made a very convincing case that Hollywood is just as ageist as it is sexist. And, I’m going to throw my own opinion into the ring, it’s probably racist too. So should we introduce as “Best Actor over 50” award?

Growing old disgracefully...

In fairness, if you did abolish Best Actress and combine the genders into one ten-nominee category, a lot of people out there would worry that you’d end up with a field of nine male leads and one token female lead (or worse). I’m not entirely convinced, if only because Oscar voters don’t typically “trend” towards mainstream box office fare (for example, they tend to nominate and award older performers, despite that there are fewer movies starring actors over a certain age).

Still, even if that happened, what do you think the response would be? It would reveal a massive amount of inherent sexism within the Hollywood studio system, provoke a huge media outcry and maybe spark some genuine discussion in the media (and in the Academy itself) about why Hollywood doesn’t give good roles to women. The failure to nominate The Dark Knight led to an expanded Best Picture field, so it’s foolish to think that a snubbing of women could continue in the long-term.

Should older stars be put out to pasture?

This also ignores the fact that the Oscars do more than simply react to Hollywood trends. To pretend that the Awards exist purely to recognise last year’s films is a bit short-sighted. Money and box office drive films and sequels into production, but studios also actively pursue Oscar gold. That’s why we get films with older characters in them, even though they aren’t the most commercially viable films in the world. Crazy Heart was never going to make the Box Office explode, but it would win an Oscar because it starred an actor who was “past his use-by date” in box office terms. The Academy Awards actually shape the films that we get produced – that’s why we use the term “Oscar bait”.

If the Oscars make a conscious point that we need stronger roles for women, then Hollywood will follow. The problem is that, as the system is at the moment, we’re always going to nominate five women as leads – even if their roles or performances aren’t anything special. This sends the message that nothing is wrong and that nothing needs to be fixed.

Is giving Toy Story a Best Picture nomination just toying with us?

Though obviously not to the same extent, one can see similar logical at play with the “Best Animated Film” category, designed to keep animated films from interfering with the “real five Best Picture nominees” (and this continues to the present day, where I’ll eat my hat if an animated feature picks up a Director nod in the next five years. In that case, rather than acknowledging that animated films could be just as impressive as live action films, they shunted them off into their own category. With female leads, they avoid the issue of whether or not Hollywood is producing juicy enough roles by giving them their own category.

I don’t know, all of this is just me thinking out loud, but I can’t really come up with a reason to keep the division. Surely it’s sexist to reinforce the idea that men and women can’t compete in “acting” (though presumably they can in “directing”). I can’t think of a reason to keep the status quo, other than pandering to an existing sexism within the system – and institutionalised sexism is not something that you should abide. It’s the kind of problem which needs to be tackled head-on. It won’t go away if you ignore it.

You know, the more I think about it, the sillier that category sounds.

18 Responses

  1. It’s not sexist. Should women be allowed to compete in the Olympics against men? Sometimes I think political correctness has gone too far – there are differences between men & women, and that’s the way it is. Why is it wrong to admit that?

    • Well, that’s the difference between acting and the Olympic games, men are phsyically stronger, so their differences do matter. Acting wise, I don’t think, for example, Jack nicholson or Meryll Streep can’t compete against one another.

  2. Good article. I quite liked Winter’s Bone, but had some issues with the Kid’s Are All Right – but I think it’s crazy to argue that a woman deserves an Oscar nomination because she’s a woman rather than because she’s one of the best five directors of the year. It’ll happen (perhaps frequently, thanks to how Hollywood works), that the top five directors are men – but that’s not an issue with the Oscars. We should be asking why there aren’t more women directors in Hollywood (and why there aren’t more bigger names).

  3. I think it’s the Oscars. I think they just opened up the “Best Picture” category to include 10 pictures, and only the last four years have seen real quality pictures win the award over obvious award show bait films. In other words, change comes very slowly for the Academy, so I wouldn’t expect to see the Actor/Actress category merged into one.

    Regardless, I don’t think we should want that, if only because having Natalie Portman compete directly against the likes of Colin Firth would probably cause a lot of outrage among various groups of people. If Firth wins, then the Academy is totally sexist, but if Portman wins, then she’s just winning because she’s a woman. Personally, I’d rather never see an actress’s talents be denigrated in that sort of fashion, and if keeping the genders divided by separate categories achieves that then so be it. I would rather see women be awarded in a “fair” contest than have to listen to sexist assholes argue the previous type of point, you know?

    Of course I think that there should be a distinction between male and female directors for the same reason, but it’ll never happen if only because none of us can name as many successful working female directors as male directors. Which is because there are more of the latter than the former. I mean, out of the 40 or so movies I watched in 2010, less than one fifth were directed by women. If there becomes a need to use gender divisions in the Best Director category, I say go for it, but there isn’t the same pressing need to do so.

    • Here’s a question though: all of your concerns can be shifted around to be about actors of different ethnicities, the same basic principle applies. Would you split on lines tahtw eren’t gender?

      People are going to begrudge winners anyway – hell, you could argue Ledger only won Supporting Actor last year because he died, or Firth will only win Actor this year because he’s due. I say let the complaints go on, peopel will complain about anything anyway. It’s not fair to the actors, but it will always happen anyway.

      • I’d argue that ethnicity is a totally different beast from gender and the two can’t really be easily compared on a head-to-head basis. King George VI couldn’t be played by anyone other than a white male of at least vaguely British (English) descent. Nina Sayers could have been played by any woman regardless of the color of her skin. The critical differentiating factor there is gender-based; only a man could have played Albert, and only a woman could have played Nina. Of course, this year’s crop of Best Actor nominees is difficult to evaluate in this discussion because 3 of the 5 nominees played roles based on real-life characters, which makes skin color a genuine issue, but the point still stands.

        But the more important point, to me, is that there are two ways to interpret the gender divide in the separate Best Actor/Actress categories. One way is to see it as a sign that the Academy doesn’t believe that women can compete with men and separates them by category accordingly, much in the same way that there’s an NBA and a WNBA. The other way is to see the Best Actress category as a sign that the Academy believes that the talents of leading ladies deserve to be recognized in their own right and on their own platform, and that women don’t need to be compared to men in order to be considered equally deserving of the same recognition.

      • I think with the NBA and WNBA, you acknowledge the genuine physically differences between men and women, differences I don’t think exist in the physical process of acting.

        You argue above (and I’d agree) that the ethnicity of various characters has no bearing – so Will Smith is as likely to play a standard action lead as Bruce Willis, or whatever. However, I think the fluidity exists not just across ethnic lines, but gender ones as well. It’s just as easy to make an action movie with a female lead as a male one – it just doesn’t happen too often. And the arguments continue into other genres. Hell, Julie Taymor’s version of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest opted to cast Helen Mirren as Prospero (well, Prospera) and the movie was none the worse for it. In fact, Mirren’s performance was the best thing about the film.

        Obviously there are exceptions – like Black Swan is about the sexism in the entertainment industry (and the way it treats women), so it needs a female lead – but this works on any line. True Grit needs an old actor to play Rooster, so a younger actor can’t take the role. An exploration of the African American experience needs and African American lead. So there are obviously cases where the actor’s sex defines their work, but also their age and ethnicity as well. Why is one more important or distinct than any of the others?

        I think the reason that people delineate between “male” and “female” roles by archetypes (so, for example, why we see so many male action leads and so many female romantic leads – and then into various Oscar bait subgenres) is because the distinction reinforces the difference between the two. So you end up with situations like last year, where Helen Mirren picked up a “lead” actress nomination for what was a supporting role to a male lead (Christopher Plummer). It would never happen the wother way around.

        That said, I don’t really feel too strongly about it, it just occurred to me that I hadn’t really heard a good argument for keeping them. Thanks for the responses, Andy.

  4. This is a terrific article. Very clear thinking. As I was reading, the only objection I had initially that you didn’t address is that combining Best Actor and Actress would reduce the number of acting awards, which I think the actors wouldn’t like. Perhaps a more meaningful division would be “Best Actor in a Drama” and “Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical” as the Golden Globes do it.

    • Thanks Brian.

      I actually quite like the idea of the night being one award shorter. It’s long enough as it is, but I know the Academy wouldn’t go for it. I’d cut the second award and add another honorary award, if I had to. However, if you split acting awards that way, surely you’ll need to start splitting Best Picture that way too, as it’s clearly skewed to drama?

  5. I don’t mind the separation (but then I’m not a woman) if there was 10 slots available both men and women I think the slots would skew to more men. The five and five keeps everything fair.

    • I understand the logic, and it might happen for a few years, but I suspect that the outrage if the category would skew towards men would provoke a response of Oscar bait films with strong female leads (certainly more than at the moment, where women are already more represented as leads than in mainstream fare). However, if Hollywood can’t consistent produce roles for women which rank within the top ten performances of the year, then surely that brings to attention a problem which could easily fester and go on unnoticed with the two different categories (as five women will always be nominated).

  6. It’s hard to make progress on this topic in a brief note, but here’s an outline of how to answer you:

    q1. Why should there be sexed acting awards but not sexed directing, writing, etc. awards?
    a1. Because the content of the job is sexed in the former case but not in the latter. Follow the lines of competition: female actors are overwhelmingly in competition just with one another for one pool of roles, and male actors compete with one another for an almost completely disjoint set of roles. The sexed awards then just preserve and extend the actual, bifurcated structure of competition that’s prevailed the rest of the year, as it were, as part of normal business. Directors, writers, editors etc., by way of contrast, all compete for the same jobs, regardless of sex. [compare: sex-neutral fashion designers, choreographers etc. vs. sexed models/dancers etc.. Film isn’t anything out of ordinary – performance generally is sexed, production/creation isn’t. Of course, one can always ignore all this sexed competitive sub-structure if one wants to or for certain purposes, e.g., one could try to rank the top models or top ballet dancers from 1 to 10 regardless of sex. But those sorts of overall comparisons are done relatively infrequently and feel artificial when they are done. Within-sex comparisons and rankings, by way of contrast, are commonplaces and feel routine and well-judged precisely because that’s the level at which close competitive comparisons are made every day in performance industries. Sex-neutral Best Thespian awards at the Oscars *in addition to* M/F awards have little appeal for this reason I believe. It’s interesting, however, that people can find sex-neutral *only* award regimes more tempting despite the fact they pose the same not-rooted-in-actual-competitive sub-structure problems as awards in the *in addition to* case.]

    q2. But race/age etc. are also part of the content of performance jobs, why not have separate awards in those cases too?
    a2. Sex is more fundamental and stationary (see below) than the other divisions, so any proposal for further divisions would have to be ‘in addition to’ M/F. But then on one level the answer can be strictly practical: that would be too many acting awards (‘and the Oscar for best white actress over 50 goes to….’).

    That said, turning to the hyper-loaded race case …. even *if* anyone really understood what race is (are Jews or Roma a race? is charlize theron african-american? and so on) and even *if* there weren’t huge numbers of people in indefinitely many intermediate and overlapping racial categories, still racial divisions *don’t*, except as a v. rare empirical fluke, *equally* partition the pop.. Sex ratios are (normally/almost always) 1:1 whereas racial blocs can be any relative size and can vary a lot over time. A racial quota for awards wouldn’t provide a basis for equal numbers of awards. Wanna have 1/n of all acting awards go to a group that’s 1/n of the pop.? Be my guest (but which pop.’s ratios sets the base-line – the Academy’s , SAG’s, the US’s, the world’s? And how often do we remeasure this? Remember that unlike the M/F partition there’s no species level invariant that settles things once and for all, so you have to keep measuring and adjusting if things are to stay proportionate).

    Age categories are *more* stationary and well-formed than race categories (hence junior and senior tournaments and tours in sports) and with a bit of care one could I suppose make something like that work in acting awards. But it wouldn’t be *that* easy to get anything that seemed just and natural would be my prediction (life-spans vary quite a lot, some people age well and some don’t, etc. – Tommy Lee Jones and Bill macy would have had to go straight onto the senior tour out of college, as it were!).

    Anyhow there’s lots more to be said that there isn’t time for here… I’ve had to cut corners to get key considerations on the table quickly. But the bottom line is that the status quo on actors’ Oscars is much more defensible that you suppose.

    • Thanks Swanstep, for a thorough and considered response. If you want to add more, later, please do.

      I’ll respond the second point first. Your arguments that awards based on race/age would be tougher to manage than the standard male/female divide make sense. BUT, were one to moot a new category based on race or age, I don’t think these would be the primary concerns.

      I don’t think “How are they going to do it?” would adorn the LA Times editorial pages, nor any other major paper. The words we’d hear would be “racist”, “ageist”, maybe even “ghetto” (in the sense of isolating a demographic, not in the more literal usage). The primary arguments would stem from first principles, and – while undoubtedly practicalities would be raised – even if it were easy, most would accept it would still be wrong.

      And that’s my logic.

      Now to your first point. You argue that actresses are in competition with one another for roles, and so the distinction makes sense. However, any number of minority actors find themselves competing with one another (in that Matt Damon is never going to play Alex Cross or Nelson Mandela), but it’s not acceptable to single them out based on ethnicity.

      You make the argument that women and men are on more even footing BEHIND the camera, but the stats don’t bear this out. While one can point to any number of great women movie writers and directors, they are clearly outnumbered greatly. While male and female actors compete on roughly an equal footing, that isn’t true behind the scenes. However, as you say, it’s the same job – and I agree. I’d also argue that acting is the same job.

      Good points, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.

  7. Tackling your reply points in order:

    1. Although I’m happy to avoid principled (and in my view, necesarily inconclusive) discussion as much as possible, I didn’t take my objections to racial award etc. to be strictly practical. That racial ideas aren’t well-formed enough to make for a legalized structure isn’t just a practical difference with sex and age. That the vast majority of roles are sexed (so that it’ almost certain that, say, Streep has never competed with Pacino for a role (to use one of your examples) whereas only a small minority of roles are racially specific – Will Smith and Larry Fishburne and Denzel compete every day with Keanu and Clooney and Crowe etc. for roles (e.g,, Crowe turned down the part of Morpheus in the Matrix movies before Fishburne got it; and reportedly everything gets offered first to Will Smith these days) – is also not a practical point, rather it’s telling us something about the relative substantiality of the divisions in question.

    But, hell, if one really must get awesomely principled about everything, then well, of course, racial, national origin, religion, creed categories have ghastly histories associated with them so we’re very right to be wary. And why do they have ghastly potential? Because they’re real bases for separate communities, i.e., that could leave/secede or be driven out/exterminated etc.. Age, sex, sex orientation and the like are v. different – they’re features of life within any and every human family and community. Separate, distinct treatment of the potentially separable is dangerous in a way that making special provisions for non-separable classes, need not be. Of course, ensuring equal flourishing/fulfilling of potential for women, elderly, gays etc. isn’t automatic or easy but ultimately it doesn’t seem to require the utter seamlessness of treatment that can seem required by race, national origin, religion, creed etc.,
    Thus it’s no surprise that there can be separate but equal sexed awards for performance and that there are lots of important awards, e.g., fields and bates medals for mathematicians and economists under 40, that classify by age; that there are single-sex schools, prisons and hospitals, that green & left-wing political parties around the world often have and require male and female co-leaders (and some poitical systems require party candidates to be alternately male and female) and that there can be all manner of age-restricted institutions (can’t be president until 35, can’t pick up social security until 65, and so on.).

    2. I think that directors, writers etc., like choreographers and fashion designers compete directly with each other for glory – those jobs aren’t sexed any more than being a mathematician or an engineer is – whereas performing tend to be strongly sexed. And, contrary to what you suggest, that women might be underrepresented in these very prestigious areas doesn’t change that (although it *might* show that are lots of sexist forces still in play). No woman has ever won a Fields medal in mathematics but all a woman has to do win one tomorrow is do work of the right quality (possibly overcoming lots of sexism en route). Bigelow won her big award fair and square against all-comers. End of story. Performing – acting, like dancing and modeling doesn’t work that way. Mirren is a great actress: turn Prospero into a woman – bring Propero to her – and she’s front of the line for the role (although I think I might actually take Angelica Huston over her for that role- she’s more magicky and also warmer finally to me than Mirren is), But if the role stays a man then Mirren is out of luck. But that’s the same luck that almost all actors are out of almost all of the time – they’re sex/gendered and so are most roles and of a role that doesn’t *come to them* in that basic dimension, it isn’t open to them. Sexed acting awards reflect that reality.

  8. I can’t stop pouting over Christopher Nolan. I will never forget!

    • I think it’s a massive oversight, and it perhaps indicates how out of touch the institution is, but I just really dislike the hypocrisy of it. They’ll mention popular films to lure in viewers to geenrate advertising, but they won’t sully themselves by acknowledging the success of these films? I dislike that, immensely. Just because something is popular does not mean it is not good, just as because something is unpopular doesn not mean it is not good either.

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