“There is no reason for there to be a man and a woman category in acting. There’s not — come on! There’s no reason. It’s not track and field. You don’t have to separate ‘em. Robert DeNiro’s never said, ‘I better slow this acting down so Meryl Streep could catch up.’”
Chris Rock said this during his opening monologue three years ago at the Oscars, and in a perfectly equal world, I would agree. In fact, before I started researching for this article, I even agreed with him.
But when I started looking at the numbers and saw how rare it was for women to win — or even be nominated — in other Oscars categories, I had second thoughts.
There are eight movies nominated for the Best Picture award. Only three of these movies — “Roma,” “The Favourite” and “A Star is Born” — center on a female character. This is odd, considering that a study from leading talent firm Creative Arts Agency shows that out of the highest-grossing movies between 2014 and 2017, those with an all-female cast raked in more money than movies with an all-male cast.
In general, there are more movies made about men than there are about women. Out of the 150 most popular movies of 2018 listed on IMDB, only 44 are centered on a female character or a primarily female cast.
As a result, if the categories for Best Lead Actress and Actor were merged into one, the Academy would likely choose less actresses because there are less movies about women, and therefore less opportunities to act in a winning role. So, the existence of female acting categories gives us a false sense of equality when we think about the number of opportunities that men and women have in film.
Of course, we forget all this when there are an equal number of actors and actresses up for respective acting categories. This is why the actress-specific awards are like training wheels for actually awarding women fairly.
Awards not separated by gender often completely cut women out of nominations. This year, the nominees for Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing and Music (Original Score) are all men.
Other than Best Lead Actress and Best Supporting Actress, women only dominate one category: Costume Design. While those costumes require immense skill, there is obviously no glass ceiling there.
The issue is not that women don’t have the potential to be as good as men in these positions. Women aren’t being given the same opportunities as men, and there aren’t enough women in these fields to begin with. Despite the general lackluster push for more women in traditional male roles, there is still no expectation for a woman to fill the role of director or cinematographer.
What would the awards show be like if there were male and female categories for these behind-the-scenes categories? Would it be possible that, like with the Oscars categories for Actress in a Leading Role and Actress in a Supporting Role, these female directors could get more opportunities as a result of being highlighted in a high-profile awards show?
Actresses who receive these awards have the title of “Academy Award winner” for the rest of their life. The title is placed into trailers of future movies they star in, and likely helps them get future roles.
If there were specific female categories for directors and cinematographers, could it change the expectations of who we think could be a director? Would we see these female directors be picked up for more projects as a result, just like receiving an Academy Award in acting does for its winners? And perhaps little girls might see something in all these female directors during awards shows and think, “Hey, I could do it too.”
These are all what-ifs, but hey, what if?
The MTV Movie and TV Awards merged its categories for women and men, and the results were pretty equitable. Women even swept a few categories. Un-gendering the categories also removes the confusion that non-binary people face in the award-winning process, since they are not confined to the two binary genders and can’t be put into one category. And while only 44 of 2018’s most popular movies were about women, I couldn’t identify any movies with non-binary characters or actors. That doesn’t mean non-binary people don’t work in film — it just means that Hollywood is completely blind to their abilities and stories.
However, because the change at the MTV Movie and TV Awards happened so recently, we haven’t seen the long-term effects it will have on the gender differences of nominated and winning performances. The MTV event also only awards individuals in movies and TV shows based on their acting performances, so the people behind the scenes remain behind the scenes and the gender differences there are not as easily highlighted.
If I accepted an award for best-female-anything, it would come with a harsh pang in my chest because I would only be compared to a handful of female peers and not to the entire field.
But for now, the Academy needs to keep the training wheels that are the actress-specific awards on, at least until the playing field is truly equal.