Should acting prizes be gender neutral? The question has been percolating for years, with zealous arguments for and against.
But the biggest ceremonies that honor acting, aware that change would kick a cultural hornet’s nest, have adhered to tradition. Best actor. Best actress.
On Thursday, a significant stop on the annual road to the Oscars broke ranks. The Gotham Awards said that, beginning with its November ceremony, prizes for acting would no longer be broken out by gender. The Gothams will replace its best actress and best actor categories with a single category for outstanding lead performance. For the first time, there will be a category for supporting roles: outstanding supporting performance.
Each category can have up to 10 nominees, with the field chosen, per custom, by committees of film critics, festival programmers and film curators. Separate juries made up of writers, directors, actors, producers and other film professionals will determine the final recipients, the same as always. The acting categories at the Gothams previously had five nominees.
“There are so many talented nonbinary individuals, and it’s not fair to force them into male and female boxes,” said Jeffrey Sharp, the executive director of the Gotham Film and Media Institute in New York. “We have a really proud history of inclusivity. It’s part of our DNA. But it was time for us to evolve, too.”
Will other significant ceremonies follow?
“We can only speak for ourselves, but we do have a history of leading the conversation,” Mr. Sharp said, referring to the position the Gotham Awards has as the first significant ceremony of Hollywood’s prize-collecting season.
The influential Berlin Film Festival went gender neutral with its performance awards in the spring. Although not taken seriously as markers of artistic achievement, the MTV Movie & TV Awards stopped separating acting prizes by gender in 2017, along with MTV’s Video Music Awards. The Grammys did away with the division in 2012.
But none of the organizations behind the most prestigious acting awards — Oscars, BAFTAs, Tonys and Emmys — have indicated that they will take the same action. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which manages the Oscars, has perhaps gone the furthest, telling The New York Times in 2019 that, while it planned to keep its current structure in place, it would “continue to be sensitive to the evolving conversation.” The Academy Awards for best actress and best actor were first presented in 1929.
The debate has roots in older conversations about whether carving out places in a male-dominated field for one group, in this case women, comes at the cost of excluding others.
Those seeking change contend that, in addition to forcing nonbinary performers into boxes, gendered categories give the false appearance that prime roles for women are far more prevalent than they actually are.
“We should be more afraid of upholding a discriminatory, sexist policy than we are of abolishing it,” the nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon, known for their role on Showtime’s “Billions,” wrote in an essay last year. They added, “There are ultimately, two tangible obstacles to abolishing the actress category at awards shows, and they are — to be blunt — money and feelings.”
Supporters of gendered categories say that absent such distinctions, men would dominate the nominees and winners. There are also those who swat away potential change as an example of progressive ideology run amok.
Mr. Sharp said that the concern about maintaining an equitable mix of nominees when doing away with gendered categories was “valid.”
“In terms of the danger of being skewed one way or another, we have great faith in the individuals who make our nominations decisions,” he said, referring to the Gotham Awards’ committee system. (The New York Times is a corporate sponsor of the awards and had no role in the decision about the new categories.)
Mr. Sharp noted that his organization’s longtime “breakthrough actor” award, which will be renamed “breakthrough performer,” has always been gender neutral, having been given to stars like Amy Adams (“Junebug”), Elliot Page (“Juno”), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”) and Mya Taylor (“Tangerine”).
The most-recent Gotham Awards ceremony took place in January and was staged virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nicole Beharie was named best actress for her performance in “Miss Juneteenth” and Riz Ahmed won the best actor prize for “Sound of Metal.”
The Gotham Film and Media Institute (formerly the Independent Filmmaker Project) also said on Thursday that it had created two new television categories: breakthrough nonfiction series and outstanding performance in a new series.
Cara Buckley contributed reporting.