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Mark Shenton: Could making all acting awards gender-neutral backfire?

Glenda Jackson in King Lear at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton Glenda Jackson as King Lear, for which she won best Shakespearean performance, a non-gendered category, at the 2016 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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When Glenda Jackson plays King Lear or Michelle Terry plays Hamlet, it seems paradoxical that they are eligible for best female performance in annual acting awards.

It is far better for Jackson to win an award for best Shakespearean performance, as she did at the 2016 Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, which are chosen on a non-gendered basis.

But that’s also problematic: in the 17 years that this category has been presented, women have won the award only three times, against 14 male winners.

With this in mind, the recent decision of Toronto’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards – the city’s pre-eminent theatre, dance and opera awards – to make its acting categories gender-­neutral after this year’s ceremony could backfire. It could lead to less representation of women rather than equal opportunities for them to be recognised.

The organisers will expand the number of nominees from the current five in each acting category to eight, but that means two people, male or female, who might have been nominated before the changes, will lose out.

In an open nominations field, the category could be dominated by one gender at the expense of another. Interestingly, eligibility statistics for this year’s awards reveal there’s already almost parity in casting: 246 men and 231 women are eligible in the acting categories.

J Kelly Nestruck, theatre critic at Toronto’s Globe and Mail, applauds the move: “Retiring these outdated gender silos is the most sensible decision the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, which runs the Doras, has made in a decade. After all, male and female directors, designers and playwrights already go up against one another in the same categories – and we’re living in a theatrical time when you might as easily find a woman playing Hamlet as a man.”

He also points out: “To deal with the fear that, good intentions aside, the change might nevertheless lead to sexist results, TAPA also plans to introduce anti-bias training in collaboration with Egale Canada Human Rights Trust for its volunteer Dora jurors, to help them conquer any unconscious sexism that might make them favour male over female performances.”

This fear has been borne out at other awards ceremonies: in the 20 years the Television Critics Awards’ gender-neutral drama and comedy categories have existed, 67% of the nominations have been men as well as 69% of the winners.

Likewise, BAFTA’s rising star award is also gender-neutral, but in the past 12 years, nine winners have been male and three female. And only four women have ever been nominated for the best director Oscar in the awards’ history, with one winner: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. As Hannah Jane Parkinson commented in the Guardian last month: “If the gender-neutral categories that already exist are monopolised by men, then why would this not be the case in acting categories?”

It’s not just about who gets nominated but who gets to vote. According to a 2014 survey by the LA Times, Oscar voters were on average 63 years old; 76% of them were men, and 94% of them were white. As Rosie Fletcher wrote in a recent feature for Digital Spy: “Non-gendered awards in film, particularly the Oscars and Golden Globes, which are not voted for by the public, could end up being a minefield. Either they will skew massively male – in reflection of the better, more prevalent, more diverse and more interesting roles men get to play in Hollywood – or they’ll self-police in way that would feel like tokenism. Artificially awarding comparable numbers of awards and nominations to women to avoid accusations of sexism would, as a side-effect, make every woman who wins an award secretly feel like she only won it because she’s a woman.”

When Emma Watson took the best actor in a movie award for the live-action Beauty and the Beast at the MTV Awards – the first mainstream film and TV awards to adopt gender‑neutral performance categories – she said: “To me, it indicates that acting is about the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and that doesn’t need to be separated into two different categories.”

And an increasing number of people identify as transgender, gender-fluid or non-binary. So there are more than two different potential categories. Doing away with the old divisions solves this problem, but also creates new ones.

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