And the Gender-Neutral Oscar Goes To…

Many hours into the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday, the Oscar for best actor will go to Morgan Freeman, Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Colin Firth or Jeremy Renner. Suppose, however, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented separate honors for best white actor and best non-white actor, and that Mr. Freeman was prohibited from competing against the likes of Mr. Clooney and Mr. Bridges. Surely, the academy would be derided as intolerant and out of touch; public outcry would swiftly ensure that Oscar nominations never again fell along racial lines.

Why, then, is it considered acceptable to segregate nominations by sex, offering different Oscars for best actor and best actress?

Since the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, separate acting Oscars have been presented to men and women. Women at that time had only recently won the right to vote and were still several decades away from equal rights outside the voting booth, so perhaps it was reasonable to offer them their own acting awards. But in the 21st century women contend with men for titles ranging from the American president to the American Idol. Clearly, there is no reason to still segregate acting Oscars by sex.

Perhaps the academy would argue that the separate awards guarantee equity, since men and women have received the exactly the same number of best acting Oscars. And the academy is not alone in this regard: the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, the British Academy of Film and the Independent Spirit Awards all split acting nominees by sex as well.

But separate is not equal. 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.

Today, the number of female-run production companies, female directors and great roles for women continues to increase. Four of the five films represented in this year’s best actress category center on strong female characters.

As women gain more influence in Hollywood, even the term “actress” is disappearing. Just as stewardesses are now called flight attendants, many actresses now prefer to be called actors. The Screen Actors Guild has eliminated the term “actress” in the presentation of its awards, instead using “female actor.” Perhaps, as the term “actress” falls further out of favor, the award-granting organizations will be forced to acknowledge that male and female actors do indeed have the same occupation.

Collapsing two major categories into one would have the added value of reducing the length of the awards show, a move that many viewers would laud. But if the academy wanted to preserve the number of acting awards, it could easily follow the lead of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which has, since 1951, offered genre-based Golden Globe honors, for best performances in dramatic, and comedic and musical roles.

For next year’s Oscars, the academy should modify its ballots so that men and women are finally treated as full equals, able to compete together in every category, for every nomination. And if the academy insists on continuing to segregate awards, then it should at least remain consistent and create an Oscar for best directress.

Kim Elsesser, a research scholar at the Center for Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles.