It's time to remove gendered categories from awards shows

As more actors identify as non-binary and give award-worthy performances, why force them into outdated boxes?

As more actors identify as non-binary and give award-worthy performances, why force them into outdated boxes?

Alex Newell in Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. (Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

With the Emmy nominations being announced this morning, it seems as good an occasion as any to address a concern that all major awards shows are going to face sooner than later: gendered acting categories and why it's time to get rid of them forever.

First, let's address a wonderful thing that did happen with this year's Emmys: Mj Rodriguez becoming the first openly transgender person to ever be nominated for a lead acting prize. Her work over the past three seasons of Pose has been spectacular, and with this nomination coming for its final season, the nomination was the Emmys' last chance to honour it. Rodriquez follows Laverne Cox and Rain Valdez as only the third transgender performer to be nominated in Emmys history (Cox being the first, in 2014).

While there was plenty of other notable queer representation across the nominations (Bowen Yang, RuPaul's Drag Race, Dan Levy, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Rodriguez's Pose co-star Billy Porter), there were also notable snubs: Alex Newell (Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist), Cole Escola (Search Party) and Theo Germaine (The Politician), all competing in the best supporting actor category. While Escola and Germaine were admittedly long shots, Newell was being predicted by many folks to be nominated. And even though they weren't in the end, the possibility still presented a problem: Newell, Escola and Germaine all identity as non-binary, and were forced to choose which gender they wanted to be submitted for. 

The Emmys have not remained totally silent on the issue. They even made a small adjustment to their process last month, making it so a nominee or winner of any actor or actress category can request that their nomination and Emmy statuette be recognized with the more gender-neutral title "performer." But even though this is a step in the right direction, it doesn't really seem like enough at a time when the idea of the gender binary is finally, and rightfully, being smashed.

Mj Rodriguez in Pose. (FX)

This conversation was in large part started in 2017, when non-binary identifying Billions performer Asia Kate Dillion (who was not eligible for this year's Emmys due to the pandemic delaying their series' latest season) wrote a letter to the Television Academy:

"I'd like to know if in your eyes 'actor' and 'actress' denote anatomy or identity and why it is necessary to denote either in the first place? The reason I'm hoping to engage you in a conversation about this is because if the categories of 'actor' and 'actress' are in fact supposed to represent 'best performance by a person who identifies as a woman' and 'best performance by a person who identifies as a man' then there is no room for my identity within that award system binary. Furthermore, if the categories of 'actor' and 'actress' are meant to denote assigned sex I ask, respectfully, why is that necessary?"

While it may seem like currently only a handful of non-binary performers exist in film and television, this is changing — quickly. The inroads that have been made in the past few years as far as trans and non-binary representation has genuinely been remarkable. And the more that continues, the more people will feel comfortable coming out as non-binary or gender-fluid in their industry. Besides Dillon, Escola, Germaine, and Newell, some examples of folks who have done so in the recent past include Demi Lovato, Olly Alexander, Rhea Butcher, Cara Delevingne, Eddie Izzard, Rose McGowan, Sara Ramirez and Amandla Stenberg.

Not too long ago, I myself was of the (admittedly problematic) opinion that you simply can't mess with the tradition of a 'best actress' and a 'best actor' award. But tradition is just not an acceptable reason for making non-binary performers choose a gender they don't identify with as they are being honoured for their work.- Peter Knegt

Award shows have historically been a bit behind the times in adapting to societal change (though in large part it's also been the industries they honour that have been the problem). Think of how long it took the Oscars to nominate more than one woman in a given year for best director (93 years!). But this seems like something that the organizations responsible for handing out these awards might want to get ahead of. It could only be a few years before a non-binary performer is nominated for a gendered acting Oscar and #Oscarssogendered becomes a whole thing. This also just seems like a good time to buck "tradition" in general. Think of how much of it already has been in the past year: the Emmys were on Zoom, the Oscars were held in train station, the Tonys still haven't even happened yet and the Golden Globes may never happen again!

Asia Kate Dillon in Billions. (Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME)

Both the Emmys and the Golden Globes separate their acting awards by both gender and genre, which is not the case for the Oscars (or the SAGs or the Critics Choice or the Tonys). There are simply two gendered lead awards and two supporting. Merging them would mean we'd only get two acting winners, which would be a major downside for awards shows where the acting winners are often the most exciting thing about the night. 

One obvious solution for the Oscars in particular would be to to follow the Emmys and the Globes and separate by genre, but I'm not really into this idea. It creates a whole other binary (drama/comedy) that itself is hard to define and narrows all movies to just two genres when there are clearly many, many more than that. But another idea that could work for pretty much every award show is to simply remove gender from the categories and merge them into one: "best actor" and "best actress" become "best performance." Expand the amount of nominees (to, say, 10) and then instead of handing out one trophy, hand out two or even three. They could be ranked. There could be so much added fun and suspense. I personally love the idea of a gold, silver and bronze trophy à la the Olympics. Or we could simply just never know the ranking. The presenter announces one winner, and then the other, and both are equally recognized as the winner of that "best performance" award.

I do realize there is one major possible problem with this switch: that male-identifying performers will dominate as a result, which is a very fair argument. Few other categories besides acting are gendered in these awards, and historically that led to male-centric nominees and winners in most categories (see the aforementioned history of the best director Oscar). Certainly if this had been the process in the past, there's little doubt we would have had many years where all four "best performance" Oscars went to men. But things have progressed pretty significantly. Take this year's Emmy nominations. The female categories were exponentially more competitive than the male categories pretty much across the board. The best actress in miniseries/TV movie category, for example, has one of the most impressive list of acting nominees I've ever seen (Kate Winslet! Michaela Coel!) despite snubbing the worthy likes of Thuso Mbedu (The Underground Railroad) and Nicole Kidman (The Undoing). Had these merged with with the much more lacklustre male equivalent, I suspect almost all of the nominees would be female-identifying. 

Cole Escola in Search Party. (Jon Pack/HBO Max)

Maybe I'm being wildly optimistic and trusting the voting bodies of these awards way too much, but I suspect the winners would more or less even out. Some years, there will be more men than women; some years, there will be the opposite. If the Emmys had implemented this system this year, I'm fairly certain women would win way more of the 12 acting trophies than men (my completely non-scientific hypothetical would be that Jason Sudekis, Michael K. Williams and Bowen Yang would probably be the only male-identifying winners). 

So yes, there was so much to celebrate about this year's Emmy nominations. Rodriguez's nomination was historic and important, and queer representation across the board continues to be a step in the right direction. But to me, the obvious next step — and it is indeed a big one — is to do away with dividing the acting categories by gender.

Look, I understand why there will likely be a pushback as this continues to gains traction. Not too long ago, I myself was of the (admittedly problematic) opinion that you simply can't mess with the tradition of a "best actress" and a "best actor" award. But tradition is just not an acceptable reason for making non-binary performers choose a gender they don't identify with as they are being honoured for their work. Do you know what also used to be considered an impenetrable tradition in which there were only two options? Gender itself.


Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt five Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the curator and host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @peterknegt.

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