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March 7, 2010

Can Oscar ever really be gender neutral?

Even though we're not going to be watching the Academy Awards this year - and we don't think you should either - we have been giving them a lot of thought. Kim Elsesser wrote a recent opinion piece for the New York Times that has everybody talking about whether a gender-neutral Oscars is really possible.

She proposed that having separate categories for best actor and best actress is the equivalent of segregating actors by race and while we can't help but agree with her... we're still torn on this issue. Mainly because we fear that if there was one Best Acting category for men and women together, men would likely dominate it - the same as they do almost every other category of the Oscars. Elsesser did address this concern:

While it is certainly acceptable for sports competitions like the Olympics to have separate events for male and female athletes, the biological differences do not affect acting performances. The divided Oscar categories merely insult women, because they suggest that women would not be victorious if the categories were combined. In addition, this segregation helps perpetuate the stereotype that the differences between men and women are so great that the two sexes cannot be evaluated as equals in their professions.
I do worry that women would not be victorious against men, but not because I think that female actors are less capable than male actors... but because I think that the Academy does not give women the respect and accolades they deserve. Although there are more and more good roles for women every year, there are still more good roles for men. Hollywood is still a man's world.

Just look at the nominees for the already "gender-neutral" Best Director: Only one woman - Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker - is nominated. If she wins, she will be the first woman to ever win Best Director. Clearly gender neutrality isn't working out for women too well so far. Also, it's worth noting that a lot of people have praised The Hurt Locker for not seeming like it was made by a woman:

"No one without advance knowledge would look at The Hurt Locker and say, 'Oh, a woman made that film.'"

"... made a great film that is more a 'guy movie' than a 'chick-flick'"

"Much has been made (way too much if you ask me) of Bigelow’s handling of manly action-oriented The Hurt Locker"

"...she has directed a film that seems to not be a typical 'woman directed' film"

"The Hurt Locker is so rigorously masculine, with action and tension to spare"
Let's look at the nominees for Best Picture too... Only a handful of the ten films have a center on strong female characters (The Blind Side, Precious, An Education). And don't even get me started on the fact that the sexist, racist and ableist - and with the exception of the visual effects, ultimately worthless - Avatar was nominated in so many categories.

We'd love to live in a world where a gender-neutral Oscars not only existed but worked but sadly, we don't live in that world yet. The movie industry is still biased towards men, the Academy Awards still snub women for the most part, and the awards coverage typically focuses more heavily on what women are wearing than what they're directing or how they're acting. Even the statuette itself is a man. The Guerrilla Girls put it best via their Oscar billboard:


Anonymous said...

The Academy isn't prejudiced against women, the industry is (well, the Academy might be too, but it's not just them). It's a problem, but it's not just with the awards.

Anonymous said...

foxdragon, you're exactly right. It is the entire industry... which is why a gender-neutral awards sounds like a fair idea, but in reality, probably wouldn't work out fairly.

Niki said...

As far as I understand it, the gender-segregation isn't just because female talents are rarely recognized in the Academy in all categories, it's also because there are simply fewer roles written for women that are Oscar-worthy. That's not to say women suck at filling the roles, it's just to say that most of the powerhouse films with powerhouse characters are written by and for men. Women are too often thrown in the scripts as a love interest or mother figure, rather than a complex and interesting character in and of herself, so female actors simply don't get as much opportunity to find the right role that will win them an Oscar.

I'm not defending the segregation, just pointing out what I've always understood to be its main motive. It's not that the Academy is sexist, it's more that the Academy is recognizing the sexism plaguing the industry it represents.

However, I think the segregation is lame and needs to be stopped, because I've never been a fan of saying "let's put a bandaid on this problem rather than truly working towards a significant cure to it." I think you've rightfully pointed out the race issue; I mean, it's also true that there are very few--VERY few--great roles written for visible minorities, and yet films aren't segregated into "Best Asian Actor" and "Best Latina Actress" categories. It's a very apt analogy, and proof as to why segregating films by this one facet of identity is meaningless.

The Mad Dame said...

I never viewed the separation of the best/best supporting categories as being sexist. I think its trying to read into something that may or may not be there. In the case of the other categories, there is no need for a separation by sex because it is a gender neutral position. In the case of the acting category, it makes sense to have it divided by sex because we're entering the realm of the roles having to be gender specific. I don't see what is so wrong with that.