Since the inception of the Oscars in 1929, awards for the best performances within a film have been separated into the binary categories of actor and actress. While the establishment of actress as an award distinction works to ensure that women are acknowledged for their acting talents, the academy needs to have more nuanced conversations about gender identity. It must rectify the transphobia in its award system and categorization.
As more nonbinary, transgender and gender nonconforming actors rise to stardom, the issue of binary award categories has become increasingly clear. This was evident in 2016 when Kelly Mantle, who identifies as genderfluid, had to request to be considered for both best supporting actor and actress. For the first time in Oscars history, the academy granted the request but told the actor he could only be nominated and win in one category. And though this is a small step in recognizing nonbinary performers, it merely addresses a symptom of the larger issue –– it’s binary gender categorization. By making it impossible for Mantle to be nominated for more than one of these categories, the academy then allows the voting members to decide whether he is an actor or an actress, forcing him into the category of either man or woman. This is ignorance being disguised as “progress.” By forcing nonbinary performers to identify with either actress or actor, the system is directly promoting the transphobic erasure of nonbinary identities.
This issue arose again in 2017 when Asia Kate Dillon, who identifies as nonbinary, was nominated for an Emmy and forced to identify as either an actor or actress. In an open letter to John Leverence, the senior vice president of awards at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Dillon stated that “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.” Thus, the awards ceremony shouldn’t force someone who doesn’t identify fully into a binary category to conform to an archaic notion of gender identity. This is something the academy must acknowledge and must make tangible efforts to fix.
The issue of representation for nonbinary and transgender actors within this system also reveals the bigger problem of the lack of transgender actors cast in lead roles in films. Not only do transgender actors struggle to fill roles unrelated to gender identity, but they also have to compete with cisgender people for the minimal opportunities that do exist for transgender and nonbinary people actors. Time and time again we’ve seen cisgender actors play transgender characters only to be met with praise rather than concern from the public and the academy alike.
The first step in remedying this problem is for the academy to address the limitations of its categories and to express a genuine understanding of how it perpetuates an oppressive gender binary. The next step is to find ways to acknowledge nonbinary actors without forcing them to identify as a specific gender.
This is something other awards shows are starting to catch onto. For instance, in 2017, the Video Music Awards made their best acting awards gender neutral. They even changed their iconic “moon man” award to “moon person” in a positive attempt to be inclusive of all gender identities –– something the academy should follow suit in doing.
While it’s valid to be concerned that women won’t receive acknowledgment for their work if the actress category is erased, this isn’t a matter of one or other. The academy cannot fall into yet another binary ideology –– uplifting women shouldn’t come at the cost of transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals. As one of the most prestigious entertainment organizations, the academy has the resources to recognize both historically marginalized groups. To start, the academy should more tangibly address the implicit gender bias that prevents groups from succeeding in the entertainment industry. The academy also needs to take steps to make sure that nominations are not impacted by implicit gender bias — and that starts with making sure that the organization’s members are a diverse body both in terms of race and gender.
The academy must actively acknowledge and eliminate the transphobia in the film industry. And unpacking the reinforcement of a rigid gender binary doesn’t end with awards categorization. Combating impacts of oppression are synonymous with providing more roles and space within Hollywood films for transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming actors — because they exist, a concept that Hollywood must recognize. And they shouldn’t have to compete with cisgender actors to tell their own stories.