- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2023

The winner of this year’s Oscar for best actress could be the last as the entertainment industry marches toward gender neutrality, eliminating sex-specific honors in a bow to the gender identity movement.

The Academy Awards face mounting pressure to follow the Grammys, the MTV Movie & TV Awards, the Gotham Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards by replacing the male and female acting awards with “best performer” or “best performance” as entertainers increasingly identify as nonbinary and transgender.

The trend has opened another front in the debate over fairness versus inclusion, raising concerns that actresses, much like female athletes, may wind up bearing the costs of the campaign to reconfigure sex and gender classifications.

“It’s the ultimate sign of the times, and it may come back to bite the various awards groups,” said conservative film critic Christian Toto, host of the “Hollywood in Toto” podcast. “We’ve already seen genderless categories where mostly men scored the nominations in a given category. That’s problematic to those counting up the winners by gender.”

Throwing down the gauntlet was the Los Angeles Times editorial board, which called the award for best actress a “sexist Hollywood relic.” It urged the Oscars to “get rid of gendered awards.”

“It makes sense for every awards organization that still uses it to scotch this outdated categorization,” the Dec. 21 staff editorial said. “Why shouldn’t performances by all actors, regardless of gender designation, be judged together? They all work together in a movie or TV show. And the categorizations don’t fit every performer.”

Those advocating for gender-neutral acting awards inside the industry include nonbinary performers Emma Corrin, who played Princess Diana in the Netflix series “The Crown,” and Asia Kate Dillon of Showtime’s “Billions.”

“I don’t think the categories are inclusive enough at the moment,” Corrin, who uses they/them pronouns, told the BBC in November. “It’s about everyone being able to feel acknowledged and represented.”

Others are uneasy about casting off nearly 100 years of tradition at a time when entertainment awards extravaganzas are losing their cachet with television audiences.

The Nielsen ratings for the 2021 Academy Awards fell to an all-time low, with 10.5 million viewers. The show rebounded somewhat last year by drawing an audience of 16.6 million, which was the second-worst ratings in the awards show’s history, according to Variety.

Oscar blogger Sasha Stone, who runs AwardsDaily.com, urged the Academy Awards to resist the push, warning that the Oscars, “if they’re to survive, must stand firm against reimagining themselves as a ‘Woketopia.’”

The Academy Awards did not respond immediately to a request for comment. This year’s awards show at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood airs Sunday on ABC-TV.

Mr. Toto said the gender-neutral current “pushes traditional viewers away from the various awards shows, a movement well underway in recent years.”

“The new categories similarly disconnect the awards from decades of history,” said Mr. Toto, a former features writer for The Washington Times. “That matters, culturally speaking, and it also suggests the powers that be behind the scenes care more about a few, loud voices than the majority. Here’s betting most artists prefer the status quo, even if they’re frightened to say so aloud.”

A few have spoken up, particularly actresses concerned about reduced opportunities and honors for female performers in the male-dominated film and television industry.

Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Arquette raised the fairness issue during a red-carpet interview with Variety at the Gotham Awards in November.

“I don’t know if it would be even fair at this moment still because I do feel like the vast majority of the projects still have men leading them and a lot of the parts are still written and are better for men,” Ms. Arquette said.

British actress Joanna Lumley told TalkTV in February: “I know that if my name was just put up as ‘best actor’ against lots of men, I wouldn’t have a chance. But as ‘best actress,’ you might.”

Such concerns have a basis. In 2021, the BRIT Awards for British pop music eliminated its male and female categories in favor of “U.K. artist of the year.” This year, all five nominees for best artist were male. Singer Harry Styles won the top award at last month’s ceremony.

“I’m really, really grateful for this, and I’m very aware of my privilege up here tonight,” Mr. Styles said in his acceptance speech, which he dedicated to five female singers who were not nominated.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives sex-specific awards for best actor and actress and for best supporting actor and actress, but most of the categories are gender-neutral, including writing, producing, editing, sound effects and directing.

In those fields, men dominate. The Women’s Media Center released a report last week showing that men received 78% of the Oscar nominations in the non-acting categories in the past 17 years, compared with 22% for women.

“It turns out that the Oscar awards for non-acting jobs are gender-neutral and our report shows that even then, with gender-neutral awards, White men receive most of the nominations,” said Women’s Media Center President and CEO Julie Burton. “Why is that? It could be because most of the people who vote for these awards are White men. Changing the mix of who gets to vote might change the outcome of who gets recognized.”

Another concern is that replacing the actor and actress categories with one all-inclusive award reduces the number of honors. The Film Independent Spirit Awards addressed the issue by expanding the number of nominees to 10 and adding a category for “breakthrough performance.”

“We’re thrilled to join the other festivals and award shows that are already moving to celebrate great acting without reference to gender,” Film Independent President Josh Welsh said in an August press release. “We’re also happy to welcome non-binary performers into the Spirit Awards without forcing them to choose to identify as male or female.”

Going gender-neutral does resolve at least one headache by heading off the inevitable outcry after a male-to-female transgender performer wins in the female category, as “Pose” star Michaela Jae Rodriguez did last year by taking honors at the Golden Globes for best television actress.

Kelsey Bolar, a senior policy analyst at the right-of-center Independent Women’s Forum, agreed that creating gender-neutral categories “is a better solution than allowing men to compete in the women’s category.”

“But it’s a sad reflection that we’re such a woke, fragile society, we can no longer acknowledge distinctions between the two sexes in the space of acting,” Ms. Bolar said. “Clearly, men and women are qualified for different roles, and that should be embraced, not erased, in award shows.”

The Oscars aren’t the only entertainment awards feeling the heat. Justin David Sullivan, star of Broadway’s “& Juliet,” dropped out of the running for the Tony Awards last month rather than be nominated for a sex-specific honor, telling Playbill that “I didn’t feel right being in either category.”

Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes said the switch to degendered acting categories is probably “inevitable.”

“I have total sympathy with it, yeah, and I think it might well be inevitable in the end,” Mr. Mendes told the BBC in January. “I think that’s the way it’s moving, and I think that it’s perfectly reasonable.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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