Half-Baked Policies: De-Segregating the Academy Awards
Since the Academy Awards began in the late 1920s – just a few years after women secured the right to vote – there have always been separate categories for excellence in acting. There are actors and actresses. Separate. It's weird when you think about it beyond the surface level maxim of "well this is the way we've always done it," because it doesn't quite make sense. Why should there be different awards for men and women? Is it because the performances are on some level judged differently? Is it because there are different expectations for Actors and Actresses. Is one group on some entirely different level than the other? Are they so vastly different such that they are impossible to compare? Or is it just because we're comfortable with the structure we've lived by for so long?
Of the sixteen major award ceremonies that take place every year – Gotham Awards, People's Choice Awards, Hollywood Film Awards, MTV Movie & TV Awards, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Society of Film Critics, Critics' Choice Movie Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Satellite Awards, British Academy Film Awards, Independent Spirit Awards, Teen Choice Awards and of course the Academy Awards – only one does not make a gendered distinction, and that's MTV! Even the Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies), the 'honor' given to the worst work in filmmaking that year, have separate categories.
Acting doesn't have different playing fields for men and women (of course, the treatment and hardships that actresses face in the industry are quite different from what actors have to deal with, but that's a separate conversation entirely). Acting is acting. In sports, we have to have different leagues for men and women because of inherent physical differences and limitations – if we just had an NBA and no WNBA, there would be no women playing professional basketball, which we can see from the fact that no women have (yet) made it to the NBA (the closest was Brittany Griner in 2013). But this isn't sports.
In almost any other field, there is no such distinction because there is no need for one. The Nobel Prize is categorized by discipline (Physics, Chemistry, Physiology, Literature, Peace, Economics). While this has resulted in a staggering disparity of prizes awarded (48 total women vs. 844 total men) since the award's creation over a hundred years ago (attributable to some combination of a lack of women in science and the time lag between a discovery and widespread recognition of impact), it recognizes the most impactful science regardless of the gender of the scientist (it's worth noting that women do chair three of the six selection committees). The Grammy Awards have a similar category structure, which has likewise resulted in a gender divide, though in this case a bit narrower (23% of award winners have been women). Despite that, music continues to be an industry dominated by stars, many of whom are female (like Adele, Taylor Swift, and Nicki Minaj among others). We can go on – the Booker Prize for Fiction, the Palme d'Or, the Pulitzer, and the BRIT awards all don't have separate fields for men and women.
Quick Tangent: Another dramatic Oscars shake-up idea would be to have the eligibility period for a movie be not from the last year, but from the year before the last year. So for example in the upcoming 2019 Academy Awards, the movies that came out in the 2017 calendar year would be the ones considered and nominated (as opposed to the movies from 2018). The intention here is to get some separation from these movies which we've *just* watched, discussed, analyzed to the bone. Perhaps with a year of new films, we can get some clarity on what was truly the best film, and which were the most outstanding performances. Plus, it also allows for the possibility of a second wind for these movies, a general sentiment of "oh I remember hearing about that movie, let me go check it out now." And it would be an interesting case study on changing perceptions, comparing what people think at the end of a calendar year vs. the week leading up to the awards. Would The Shape of Water still be the winner in 2019? Moonlight might have still won this year, but Spotlight might have been dethroned by The Martian in last year's awards. And besides, shouldn't that be the spirit of the award – something considered the Best Picture in that year should still be held in the same regard after some time has passed.
If anything, it's likely that Hollywood (in its apparent liberalness) would see the smallest gap between male and female award winners. And it makes sense – like in science, or music, or journalism, or literature, we want to see who is the best one. Such a proposed change comes with the built-in assumption that you have an informed voting body and no anti-female bias, factors which are far from guaranteed in practical terms. And if you think that uniting the categories would be bad for women, consider the same construct but in terms of race. We don't have a 'Best White Actor' and 'Best Nonwhite Actor', although it might as well be called 'Best White Actor' considering that the last black 'Best Actor' was Forest Whitaker in 2007 (with Jamie Foxx and couple of years before him). When the #oscarssowhite controversy was spurred by Jada Pinkett Smith (at least partially motivated by the her husband Will Smith's nomination snub for his role in Concussion), there was no discussion of splitting the category in two; rather, the conversation centered around the increasing need to cast black actors and actresses, and to give younger actors of color more opportunities.
And if you really wanted to keep the number of awards the same (because there shouldn't be a limit on recognizing excellence), you can even extend it to a runner-up and a winner (or a Silver Oscar and a Gold Oscar). There could even be a point count to compare yourself to the all-timers – 1 point for a nomination, 3 points for a runner-up, and 5 points for a win! Maybe in some years it would be one man and one woman, but it could just as well be two women or two men! In 2015, both Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) and Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) could have beaten out male winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) in the Supporting field.
Slightly-Quicker Tangent: If the Oscars are going to add a 'Best Popular Film' category, doesn't it also make sense to add an award for 'Best Popular Actor'? It's not like Ocean's 8 is going to get too much love from the serious-movie-folk, but Anne Hathaway's performance was very enjoyable. And all the Best Actor nominees only come from the serious movies anyway.
We can also go back in time to see how this exercise plays out. Frances McDormand probably beats Gary Oldman in this year's awards, and Julianne Moore would beat out Eddie Redmayne in 2015. We'd also get all-time matchups, like Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) vs. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), or Denzel Washington (Training Day) vs. Halle Berry (Monster's Ball). Extending it to the Supporting categories makes it even more interesting – you'd get to see Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) vs. Viola Davis (Fences), Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave) vs. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), and Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) vs. Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), all from just this decade!
As former Best Actor winner Russell Crowe might paraphrase it, would you not be entertained?