Culture

What Would Actually Happen If The Oscars Got Rid of Gendered Categories?

It Could Get Ugly at First

By Cait Munro ·
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Photo: Getty Images

In 2016, the MTV Movie & TV Awards made the very woke decision to remove gender designations from their categories, so there would no longer be, for example, Best Actor and Best Actress, but one single category that included performers from both genders. A similar decision was made the following year regarding the VMAs, which are also produced by MTV. The Grammys did away with the distinction as far back as 2011, in part due to the fact that with a whopping 84 trophies to distribute, breaking up categories by gender didn’t feel necessary.

There’s no denying that we’re living in an increasingly post-gender world, and there’s been a push for the Oscars, the 90th edition of which takes place this Sunday, to follow suit. It’s a good idea, in theory, but have you ever considered what it might actually look like—the good and the bad—if the most prestigious film acting award in the world wiped gender from the equation?  Below, some of our predictions for what might happen during the first few years of a post-gender Oscars...

Women would be shut out—at least at first.
There’s almost no question that, at least initially, women would find themselves with fewer nominations than their male counterparts. While MTV was able to safeguard against this due to the fact that nominees are handpicked by the show’s producers (fans then vote for category winners), Oscar nominees and winners are chosen by The Academy, a group of people who, in 2016, were 91% white and 76% male, according to the Los Angeles Times (it has since expanded and made a conscious effort to diversify). This group’s antiquated preferences are revealed in everything from how overwhelmingly white the list of nominees has historically been to the fact that, until this year, no woman was ever nominated for Best Cinematography. So yeah, it seems unlikely that combining the now-gendered categories would result in anything but less nominations for women.

The potential silver lining is that having an entirely or mostly male ballot would shed some very unflattering light on the sexism that has long run rampant in Hollywood, especially when it comes to awards, potentially sparking an outcry like the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that kicked off during the 2015 awards cycle. Following two years of intense backlash, this year’s list of nominees is notably more diverse, with nods going to actors Daniel Kaluuya, Denzel Washington, Mary J. Blige and Octavia Spencer, and directors Greta Gerwig, Guillermo del Toro and Jordan Peele. It’s still far from equal, but it does show that some progress has been made, and perhaps if The Academy’s sexism were laid similarly bare, it would help speed up this shift. After all, with #MeToo and Time’s Up, the women of Hollywood’s A-list have proven to be strong self-advocates who are clearly tired of putting up with people's shit.

Because of all this, there would likely be a lot of back and forth in the media and on Twitter over whether or not eliminating gendered categories was the correct thing to do. It would hurt to see talented women snubbed. Some would argue it wasn’t worth it, others would say it was. There would be hashtags. There might be a red carpet protest where a man guilty of the same degree of sexism being protested was photographed wearing a pin or ribbon in support of the cause. You know, not unlike this image. The whole thing might finally kill the term “actress,” a word which I am fairly certain most female actors loathe to be called. Eventually, one hopes, things would even out.

There would be some epic battles of the sexes.
Can you imagine the level of tabloid fracas that would ensue if a famous—like, we’re talking Brangelina level famous—couple were both nominated for the same category? It would be so good! Both parties would give soundbites in the weeks leading up to the ceremony about how talented their partner is and how, no matter what happens, they’ll just be so happy and proud. Heck, they don’t even want the damn thing, they hope their partner wins! US Weekly would then run a story where a "source close to the couple" reveals that he’s threatened by her success, or she cheated on him with her co-star and now they’re barely speaking and it's all just for show. Every single camera in the house would pan to said couple holding hands mock-anxiously during eventual announcement of the award, and when one of them inevitably won, they would plant a big kiss on their partner and maybe even invite them to the stage. It would, in short, be truly excellent television. Not to mention a ratings boost. 

There would also be the potential for a Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs-style rivalry, in which a young, female upstart threatens to overshadow an established, male industry veteran. (I suppose it could go the other way—male newcomer goes up against big-name actress—but that doesn’t play on the same kind of cultural hang-ups.) The media coverage on this would likely be equally as intense as in the aforementioned Hollywood couple scenario, with both parties asked multiple times to address the situation on red carpets and the talk show circuit. Something tells me she’d be more gracious about it than he. Unfortunately, because this is a subjective award ceremony and not an objective athletic competition, he would probably win.

It would shed some much-needed light on the concept of gender fluidity.
Not everyone identifies as male or female. We know that, most of us recognize it, and many of us even know—or are—people for whom this is the case. Gender is increasingly perceived as a spectrum, not a binary. However, Hollywood is behind when it comes to representing this reality, both in terms of the characters that are being written and the actors that are being hired. There are a lot of reasons for this, of course, but removing the concept of gender from the industry’s highest awards could certainly both encourage writers, directors and casting execs to be more inclusive in their portrayals of gender, as well as inspire more non-binary people to pursue careers in the industry. This was the point Billions star Asia Kate Dillon was trying to make in 2017, when they encouraged the Emmys to consider moving to a gender non-binary structure. “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?” Dillon asked in an open letter to the Television Academy.

As an increasing number of performers openly identify as non-binary, sacking gendered categories would also save the Academy the awkward struggle of having to figure out where to place people who don’t fit into either gender category. Because guessing at how someone would like to have their gender, or lack thereof, publicly represented isn’t fun for anyone. Especially 70-year-old white dudes who don't really understand the concept to begin with. 

There would be some really good speeches.
Okay, so nobody watches award shows for the speeches (or do they?), but every year there are a few that stand out —usually because the person in question either says something super inspiring or is slightly too intoxicated—and you can only imagine how riveting a speech by the first woman to win a non-gendered Best Actor category would be. Knowing America, within the hour we’d probably all be begging her via Twitter to run for president.

It would be a fashion bloodbath.
Even if there were just as many female nominees in the major acting categories as male nominees, less categories means less nominees across the board, which means the major fashion houses would have to duke it out to dress someone on the whittled-down list of possible winners. Many of prominent actresses have contracts with major houses that stipulate they will always wear that designer on red carpets—that's why you always see Jennifer Lawrence in Dior, for example. But many don't, and there's always a lot of drama surrounding who will wear what. Remember when Meryl Streep deigned to pass on a Chanel dress and Karl Lagerfeld called her "cheap"? Yeah, that kind of drama. 

On the flip side, it might encourage some of major fashion houses to be more open-minded about dressing lesser-known actors and plus-size women, who have historically been relegated to only working with certain designers or even shopping off the rack. 

It would make the notoriously long Oscars ceremony (slightly) shorter.
And who among us wouldn’t be on board for that?

Cait Munro is a freelance writer, editor, and digital content creator who obsesses about art, fashion, entertainment, and culture both pop and otherwise. Her work has appeared on Vice, New York Magazine, Artnet News, xoJane, BULLETT, and elsewhere.

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