The Washington Post
Will awards shows follow Spirit’s lead on gender?
At the conclusion of every awards season, the brain trust for Film Independent’s Spirit Awards gathers to decompress, debrief and consider the show’s future. At last spring’s meeting, president Jeff Welsh recalled, one question loomed over all others: Why were the acting awards still split into male and female categories?
The Spirit Awards have recognized excellence in independent film for nearly four decades, using categories such as best female lead and best supporting male, in line with the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. But with the increasing prominence of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming performers, many of whom are uncomfortable competing in gendered categories, the Film Independent brass struggled to justify why acting awards were split up when the technical prizes — including writing, directing, editing and cinematography — were not.
“There just didn’t seem to be a clear, compelling, convincing answer to that question,” Welsh said. “That’s just not acceptable, really, to require people to identify themselves in ways that are not truthful or that they don’t want to do, and it just seemed unwelcoming.”
In August, Film Independent announced that the 38th Spirit Awards — to be held Saturday in Santa Monica, Calif. — would be their first with gender-neutral acting categories. The show is not alone in phasing out gendered acting prizes: New York’s Gotham Awards, the Canadian
Screen Awards and the Berlin Film Festival made similar shifts in recent years. Several ceremonies recognizing achievement in theater, including the Outer Critics Circle Awards, off-broadway’s Lucille Lortel Awards and D.C.’S Helen Hayes Awards, have also moved to non-gendered acting categories.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me that [gender] would be how we separate people nowadays,” said Mason Alexander Park, a nonbinary actor who stars in the NBC series “Quantum Leap” and won a Helen Hayes Award in 2020 — the show’s first year with gender-neutral categories — for Olney Theatre Center’s “Cabaret.” “I understand in a certain moment in time how that helps a lot of things, but we are living in a very different world in which equity can only be reached if we all keep pushing forward to find the most inclusive way to invite everyone to the table.”
The conversation around gendered acting awards escalated last month, when Justin David Sullivan, a nonbinary actor starring in the Broadway musical “& Juliet,” announced they were withdrawing from Tonys consideration because the American Theatre Wing still uses gendered categories. In a social media post, Sullivan wrote: “I could not in good faith move forward with denying any part of my identity to conform to a system and structure that does not hold space for people like me.”
The Tonys responded with a statement that said it was too late to adjust the awards for the current season but acknowledged “the current acting categories are not fully inclusive” and said the show is “currently in discussion about how to best adjust them to address this.”
“I hope that [Sullivan] would be able to actually receive that award or receive that nomination in the fullness of themselves,” said Temidayo Amay, a nonbinary actor who won a Helen Hayes Award in 2020 for Round House Theatre’s “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play.” “But recognizing that that’s not where the Tonys is right now, it’s really disheartening because I want to be able to celebrate the incredible, beautiful, profound work that trans and nonbinary people are doing on these stages.”
The issue isn’t new. Asia Kate Dillon, a nonbinary actor on the Showtime series “Billions,” has spent years pushing for genderneutral categories, telling NPR in 2021 that being asked to compete in a male or female category constituted “erasure.” “It’s exclusionary,” Dillon added. “And it continues to uphold a binary that is ultimately really dangerous.”
Emma Corrin, who won a best actress Golden Globe for playing Princess Diana in the Netflix series “The Crown,” explained to the BBC in November that “it’s difficult for me at the moment trying to justify in my head being nonbinary and being nominated in female categories.” Fellow nonbinary performer Emma D’arcy, who stars in the HBO series “House of the Dragon,” told E! on the Golden Globes red carpet in January that their best actress nomination was “beautifully ironic.”
“It’s very strange because your talent feels almost reduced to archaic ideas of sex and gender,” said Park, the “Quantum Leap” actor, of deciding whether to compete in a gendered category or abstain from an awards show. “You’re no longer just an actor who is allowed to compete alongside other actors — you’re now a person that has to figure out how you’re going to best fit into not only the world’s understanding of you and your gender, but also this archaic structure of what that means.”
Asked about the issue by the New York Times at last weekend’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, actresses such as Patricia Arquette, Angela Bassett and Sally Field expressed varying levels of skepticism about gender-neutral acting categories. Their concerns largely centered on two possible consequences: that combining categories would result in less recognition for women and fewer winners overall.
Shows with non-gendered categories have experimented with solutions to the latter issue. After the Spirit Awards previously used four acting categories with five nominees apiece for its movie awards, Film Independent combined those prizes into two categories with 10 nominees each — lead performance and supporting performance — then added a third award for breakthrough performance. Film Independent also changed its two TV categories, which were just introduced last year, from male performance and female performance to lead and supporting.
The Helen Hayes Awards, on the other hand, went with a more straightforward revamp: for every pair of awards that were broken into male and female categories, with five nominees apiece, the show changed to a single category with 10 nominees and two winners.
“The awards are very competitive, and they’re very hard to get,” said Amy Austin, the president of Theatre Washington, the organization that stages the Helen Hayes Awards. “So the idea of making less awards available didn’t seem like the right direction to go in.”
Awards shows, however, have less control over the possibility of cisgender men dominating gender-neutral categories because they generally book richer roles. Welsh, the Film Independent president, acknowledged the concern and mentioned this year’s Brit Awards — a music ceremony that changed to a gender-neutral best artist category and ended up with all male nominees — as a cautionary tale.
But the Spirit Awards had no such issues with its acting categories, which nominated 26 female performers and 19 male performers this year. When it comes to the entertainment industry’s systemic issues providing opportunities for female storytellers, Welsh argued that “an awards show is not the vehicle to solve that problem.”
“It’s really not,” he said. “And having these antiquated gendered award categories is not the solution.”