Film Forward

Are Gender-Specific Acting Categories Needed At Awards Shows? How One Actor Said No.

“I’m excited to see what other people think ... "

The Emmys just got a little more inclusive — and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences didn't have to change anything for it to happen.

Asia Kate Dillon, who identifies as gender non-binary and currently stars on Showtime's Billions in the breakout role of Taylor Mason (also gender non-binary, a first on TV), just got the TV Academy to clarify how submissions work for those thespians who want to be recognized for outstanding performances.

Gender non-binary, for those of you who don't know, is a term applied to a person who doesn't see themselves as fitting into the box of what we deem "man" or "woman."

When the network asked Dillon which category they'd prefer to be submitted under, they didn't know how to answer. Dillon then set out to contact the TV Academy to figure out exactly what the rules stipulate and, after having done some research, to question why they need to distinguish between "actor" and "actress."

Dillon's letter — which you can read in full on The Hollywood Reporter — asks John Leverence, senior vice president of awards, if the words "actor" and "actress" are based on a person's anatomy, identity, or assigned sex at birth, and if those denoting between those are necessary at all. Dillon says that "if the categories of 'actor' and 'actress' are in fact supposed to represent 'best performance by a person who identifies as a woman' and 'best performance by a person who identifies as a man' then there is no room for my identity within that award system binary." Dillon also sent a similar letter to Adam Moore, SAG-AFTRA's national director of EEO and diversity, about the SAG Awards.

Having done some homework, Dillon noted how the word "actor" came about in the late 1500s and was a non-gendered word used to refer to those who performed in plays. The word "actress," on the other hand, was used to refer specifically to female performers.

The TV Academy responded to Dillon by revealing that, per the current rules, a performer can enter as either an "actor" or "actress," whichever they more closely identify with. They're not changing any rules or creating new rule, just explaining how the current decree works.

Having that cleared up, Dillon is choosing to enter as an "actor" in the supporting capacity — informing SAG-AFTRA as well — because, as stated above, the word "actor" has a history of being non-gendered. Another good point, Dillon notes, is that writing and directing categories aren't gendered, so why should acting be, too? 

"I think this is a really good place to start a larger conversation about the categories themselves, and what changes are possible and what may or may not be coming," Dillon told Variety. "I'm excited to see what other people think, and what they want to say once they become aware of this."

While Dillon — who is also on Orange Is the New Black — has made their decision about the Emmys and the SAG Awards, one awards show is getting rid of gendered categories altogether. The MTV Movie & TV Awards just announced its nominations for its first-ever show combining the best from both the big and the small screens, per Deadline, and there are no "actor"- or "actress"-specific categories — just all the contenders under one category.

The answer the TV Academy gave Dillon is reminiscent of what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences told Kelly Mantle ahead of this year's show, THR notes. Mantle, who identifies as gender fluid, sought clarity about how the Oscars works for him — as he prefers masculine pronouns. The governing body told Mantle the voting members of the Academy determine between lead or supporting but allows the performer to choose between the "male" or "female" options. A performer is allowed to submit under either or even both, but will only eventually be nominated in one, per how the Academy ends up voting.

This certainly will get the conversation started in discussing those who don't feel as though they fit into a specific box and, while the TV Academy didn't alter the way it operates, it is a win for diversity. There will undoubtedly be others like Dillon and now they will know where they can fit in — and that's anywhere they feel most comfortable.

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

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