Kim Elsesser had a thought-provoking op-ed in the New York Times this week where she asks: If it would be discriminatory to divide acting awards by race, why do the Oscars divide acting awards by gender?
Good question. Based on my conversations with friends about this article the last few days, there is no easy, debate-sealing response. My first reaction, shared with some friends in the office, was that Elsesser misses the distinction between sexist and sexual. The first term is discriminatory. The second term is descriptive. I don't doubt that sexism is alive and well in Hollywood. But it doesn't live in the gender distinction at the Academy Awards.
Dividing acting roles into basic categories is not only fair but probably desirable. Every award show I know separates by gender, and some make further divisions—the Golden Globes split leading actors by genre (comedy and drama), and the Tonys divide all of its awards into play and musicals. You could argue that there is an implicit hierarchy in these divisions, but I think they serve a deeper role of comparing like with like.
Whereas the Olympics' gender divisions acknowledge real biological differences between men and women—like average height and muscle mass—the Oscars' gender division recognizes that male and female roles are different. A gender distinction in direction would be ludicrous, because it is entirely credible to me that a woman could have directed American Beauty or Gandhi or dozens of other films that won Best Picture. Similarly it is entirely credible to me that a woman could have won best editing or best screenplay for dozens of movies for which men took home the editing or writing Oscar.
But it is not credible to me that a woman could have won just about any of the Best Actor awards from the last decades, from Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter to Russell Crowe's gladiator—just as a man could never play Sophie in Sophie's Choice or Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich.
Your objection to that point could be: But Derek, is it "credible to you" that Haley Joel Osment have won for As Good As It Gets? (No). Is it "credible to you" that Morgan Freeman could have won for Life is Beautiful? (Mio dio, no.) A lot more than gender distinguishes performances, including age and race and body type. We could conceivably break down the acting awards into such small categories that we would have, for example, a twentysomething-white-male-in-life-crisis award, and Joseph Gordon Levitt could battle Ryan Gosling each year for the trophy. On the other end of the spectrum, you can throw your hands up to the variation and say the simplest, fairest award would be for one performance each year.
So the ultimate question is: Do we draw a line, or do we not draw a line? My answer is, you draw a line. There is too much variation among characters and performances to award a single acting performance. If the gender distinction went away, I wouldn't particularly care; and yet as somebody who cares a lot about acting I'm inclined to prefer more awards to honor the distinctions between roles. So how can we fairly break out the nominations? Perhaps we can do it by genre, but when we distinguish between drama and comedy we sometimes implicitly value drama over comedy. On the other hand, I don't know anybody who considers women worse actors because they receive a separate award. Instead it's something like a universal truth that Meryl Streep is the best actor, male or female, in Hollywood.
This is perhaps a long way of saying that I don't know if the Oscars' gender distinction is perfectly logical. But I do think it is useful to break out nominations by characteristics. And I'm fairly certain that, at least today, the division is more about distinguishing performances than ranking them.