For film, television and theater stars, there can be no greater achievement than winning an acting award — say, an Oscar, Emmy or Tony. But the matter of gender has been inextricably tied to these industry honors in the form of separate categories for best actor and best actress.
Now, in an era of growing awareness and inclusivity of transgender and non-binary people, some say it’s time to remove the labels in favor of a gender-neutral category for performers.
The issue arose again earlier this week when Justin David Sullivan, a prominent performer in the new Broadway musical “& Juliet,” withdrew from consideration for the gendered acting categories in the Tony Awards, which are scheduled for June 11.
“I felt I had no choice but to abstain from being considered for a nomination this season,” Sullivan, who is trans non-binary, said in a statement reported by the New York Times. “I hope that award shows across the industry will expand their reach to be able to honor and award people of all gender identities.”
Representatives for “& Juliet” didn’t immediately respond to a MarketWatch request for comment from Sullivan.
Sullivan’s statement came after some awards programs have announced plans to indeed do away with gendered categories.
The Gotham Awards, which recognize the best in independent film and television, made the change with their 2021 event. And the Lucille Lortel Awards, which honor achievement in New York’s Off-Broadway community, went gender-neutral in 2022.
Peppermint, a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” performer who broke ground as the first transgender woman to star in a principal role on Broadway when she appeared in the musical “Head Over Heels” a few seasons ago, said awards programs simply have to change with the times. She said she supports the move to gender-neutral categorization.
“Gay people, trans people and a host of other types of people exist,” Peppermint told MarketWatch. “The award shows need to reflect what’s going on in society.”
George Forbes, the executive director of the Lucille Lortel Theatre, which produces the Lortel Awards with the Off-Broadway League, said discussions about the category change with his organization were set in motion several years ago and were fueled by gender-fluid performers who felt they shouldn’t be forced to identify as male or female for their work to receive recognition. The program ultimately agreed.
The craft of presenting work onstage isn’t defined by gender, Forbes noted, but by the skill of the artists involved. “Acting is acting,” he told MarketWatch.
To that end, Forbes said, gender distinctions aren’t made in other industry award categories, such as directing, choreography and design. “Why should performing awards be treated differently?” Forbes said.
Other awards programs have also made the change to gender-neutral acting categories. The most notable is MTV’s Movie & TV Awards, which did so in 2017.
Some in the show-business world say it’s possible that the big three awards — the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys — will eventually follow suit. But change is still far from guaranteed, as there’s plenty of history in the industry of doing things a certain way, entertainment professionals say.
“These other organizations have been around a long time,” said Jeffrey Sharp, the executive director of the Gotham Film & Media Institute, which produces the Gotham Awards. But, Sharp added, “we’re looking forward to progress of all kinds.”
“‘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?’”
— ‘Billions’ star Asia Kate Dillon
Ben Travers, who covers TV for the entertainment publication IndieWire, said that he sees a strong chance of at least the Emmys going to gender-neutral categories, noting the awards program’s history of adapting rules.
“I do believe change is not only possible, but on the horizon,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for the Television Academy, the organization behind the Emmys, said, “Though we do not anticipate merging the various actor/actress award categories for the upcoming eligibility period, the Television Academy celebrates inclusiveness and always welcomes dialogue on the subject.”
Similarly, a spokesperson for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the Oscars, said conversations around representation and inclusivity are ongoing.
Representatives for the Tony Awards declined to comment.
Certainly, many performers continue to speak out on the issue of rethinking awards categories currently based on gender. One of the most vocal has been Asia Kate Dillon, a nonbinary performer who plays a nonbinary character on the hit Showtime series “Billions.”
When Dillon, who uses the pronouns they and them, was being submitted by Showtime for Emmy consideration, they challenged the Television Academy about the gendered categorizations. “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 wrote in a letter to the academy.
Ultimately, Dillon chose to be identified as an actor because the term is a more generic one often used to categorize performers regardless of gender. They didn’t end up earning an Emmy nomination, but have earned nominations — for supporting actor — with other awards programs.
More recently, Dillon also withdrew from Tony Award consideration in the actor and actress categories for their turn in the Broadway production of “Macbeth” last season, the New York Times reported.
Some have argued to keep the gendered categories as they are. Chief among their concerns: If best-actress categories are eliminated in favor of gender-neutral alternatives, “there’s the very real possibility that men would end up dominating the slates,” as one writer for the Atlantic noted.
Many in the entertainment industry point to the fact that women haven’t received as many nods as men in other non-gendered categories, such as best director. Even then, it wasn’t until 2010 that a woman won an Oscar for best director — namely, Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker.”
Some in the industry also are concerned that eliminating gendered categories means fewer possibilities for performers to win recognition — and it’s such recognition that’s often critical to propelling careers forward.
Still, awards programs that have moved to gender-neutral categories say they don’t want to limit opportunities for honoring talent, and have created new awards as a result. Certainly, that is true for both the Gotham and Lortel awards — for example, the latter added an award for best ensemble.
“It was absolutely something we did in order to not impact negatively the amount of recognition” given to performers, Forbes said.
This article was originally published Nov. 5, 2021, and has been updated.