Twice in one day, I read or heard someone suggesting that it’s weird and outdated for the Golden Globes, Oscars, and other awards like that to break up the acting awards by gender. They idly wondered why the separate categories on Overthinking It podcast and then I saw Sybil at Bitch, PhD post about it. Sybil’s points summarize the issue nicely:
Is it not so strange that all the awards shows for non-music, that is, all the completely performance based awards (because at least in theory things like Best Album are about writing) segregate the actual performance awards by gender? Not Best Screenplay by a Man or Best Cinematography by a Woman, but always and across the board Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor. What’s the deal with that?
It’s all about the performance aspect, no? The writing and directing and score and costuming awards we can think of as awarding a discreet skill. But performativity, as I figure it, is so inextricably linked to gender that we cant think of ways to compare performances across those lines. I admit it’s hard for me to conceive, because of conditioning, of the nominees being Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet, and Mickey Rourke. And if such a thing ever were the case, wouldn’t it be fascinating to see how the gender allocation of award winners broke down? How else to make clear the relative dearth of choice roles for women?
They had similar questions on Overthinking It—by separating the genders, are we saying there’s something fundamentally different in the way men and women act? I don’t think that’s true now, nor do I think that was really the reason they created the categories in the first place. I think the real reason was that it was understood when they created these awards that due to the sexism of the industry, women would almost never get nominated or win in a non-gendered category, which meant that the stream of people accepting awards on stage would be nothing but men. This conflicts directly with the Hollywood need to have female movie stars. If the only movie stars were male, that would put a wrench in the tabloid/paparazzi system that has, since the beginning of Hollywood, been a major form of marketing the Hollywood product. Our society respects men more, but we like to stare at women more. In most areas of life, there’s no conflict between the two—most women learn early on how often we’re expected to be seen and not heard—but, as Sybil indicates, actors are about being seen as much as heard. This, I think, was the original reason, but in the years since it’s become the only way that the many talented but under-utilized actresses of Hollywood even have a chance of getting that recognized with awards.
I disagree with Sybil on one issue. Combining the categories would highlight squat. The annual scrambling for enough nominees to fill the slots for the actress categories doesn’t drive home the message that there aren’t enough parts for women. The fact that Kate Winslet won for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes won’t wake people up to the fact that Kate Winslet is one of the few women who gets good roles. (She deserves them, too, but she gets them all because there aren’t that many.) In all honesty, if they combined the two, I think that the nominating committees would be relieved that they don’t even have to pay attention to women anymore. They’d feel like they have blanket permission to nominate mostly or only men. Actresses like Winslet or Meryl Streep would routinely turn in the best performances of the year without ever seeing an award, because there’s such a stereotype that women are there mostly for eye candy.
Worse, I think the few meaty roles that go out to women now are largely the result not of some deep respect for women from the studios, but from the studios deep desire to advertise their movies with the number of Oscars on the cover. Without a Best Actress category to shoot for, the few good roles for women, especially anything that puts older women in roles other than “suffering mother”, would probably dry right up. Men dominate as directors and writers, and so the tendency is to write parts for women based on how much you’d want to fuck them,* and also to write women who are primarily defined through their relationships to men. TV is getting a little better about this problem. Fans like myself who want to see female characters who are defined as themselves, not by their relationships, get to see shows like “Battlestar Galactica”, “30 Rock”, and “Ugly Betty”, where women get to be more fully realized characters. Even “Mad Men”, which is largely about how women were forced to define themselves through men in the 60s, has a character who is busy defining herself as an independent woman with a creative career. I can’t help but think award shows have pushed us into this direction, amongst other things. Actresses play characters that are more than The Girlfriend, The Mother, or The Wife, and then those actresses are covered in awards (because playing fully realized characters is what you get awards for), and then they get magazine covers and therefore ratings. Really, it shows that the much-maligned quota system works—by making sure that 5 actresses a year get nominated, you make space for 5 actresses who fully deserve it to get the attention that they otherwise wouldn’t get due to the sexist system.
*This tendency makes reading or listening to film criticism, which is male-dominated as well, hard on me sometimes. I just wish these men would try, just once, to reverse the genders on how they describe actors and actresses, and praise men’s acting by talking about how beautiful and luminous they were, and talk about women strictly in terms of performance.