Gender-neutral Oscars – It’s Time


It’s awards season again, and it’s a pet peeve of mine that the Academy insists on awarding separate Oscars to male and female actors.  Not many share my opinion. When I published my plea for gender-neutral Oscar Awards in The New York Times a few years ago, the response was overwhelmingly negative.  Arguments as to why this was a bad idea flooded my inbox.  From Fox News to NPR, everyone I spoke with seemed to think it was a ridiculous suggestion. One blogger even crowned me “Idiot of the Week,” for proposing such a ludicrous idea.

Objections to my plea for gender-neutral Oscars primarily fell into three categories.  The first centered around the fact that men and women are cast into different roles.  Cate Blanchett wouldn’t play Jordan Belfort from the Wolf of Wall Street and Jasmine from Blue Jasmine wouldn’t be the same if Leonardo DiCaprio had the role.  Clearly, my detractors said, different roles warrant different awards.   But I don’t believe the different role argument justifies separate awards.  Although men and women typically do play different roles, the same can be said for comedians and dramatic actors – Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t play Ron Burgundy from the Anchorman films and Will Ferrell wouldn’t be cast as Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort.  Yet separate awards don’t exist for comedians and dramatic actors.  These actors are judged side by side on how well they portrayed their particular role, just as male and female actors should be.

“Women wouldn’t win” was another popular rationale for retaining a female-only category.  Since women generally have fewer meatier roles in films, my critics said, female actors would be less likely to go home with a gold statuette.  Again, this claim just doesn’t hold water.   Female directors don’t win as frequently as men, but there’s no separate category for directresses.  Let’s see if women would win, and if there are inequities in Hollywood, we should highlight these injustices rather than hiding them in separate awards.

Finally, there were those who didn’t like the idea of an Oscar show with fewer awards.  (I guess these people just don’t have to get up in the morning).  But if the Academy wanted to preserve the number of awards, there are several reasonable alternatives.  Awarding separate Oscars for comedic and dramatic roles, for example, would preserve the number of awards without gender bias.

To be fair, not everyone hates the gender-neutral idea.  After reading my piece, Howard Stern commented on his radio program that it would be weird if the Academy offered an Oscar just for Jews, so why have a separate award just for women?  Recently, MSNBC host Krystal Ball asserted it’s sexist to have separate awards for men and women.  Stern and Ball, that’s a start.

One last reaction to my call for gender-neutral Oscars was “What difference does it make?”   Making this change would not only effect male and female actors, but would positively impact the perceptions of women in all professions.  From Beyoncé to Obama, everyone is discussing how to  help women’s status in the workplace.  Suggestions range from teaching women to lean in to offering even more childcare.  Yet we allow one of the most-watched television shows of the year to perpetuate stereotypes that men and women are so different that they can’t compete for the same acting awards.  If we want things to change for women, we have to make sure we practice gender equity everywhere, particularly in an awards program that is such an integral part of American culture.

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