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Topic: Cultural Engagement

The Potential Fail of a Gender Neutral Oscars Category

February 19, 2016

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for the 88th Academy Awards on January 14, it made waves throughout popular culture. Many took to social media or to blogs to voice their continued concern over the lack of racial diversity in this year’s nominees for acting—all 20 were white. Not long thereafter, another conversation surrounding problems with the Oscars gained traction—outside of those found within the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories, few nominees were women.

Each of these current conversations echoes sentiments that have been growing for quite some time. Hollywood has a problem: It is too white and too male. Alarms were raised by a Los Angeles Times analysis from December 2013, which found that the Academy was 93% white and 76% male. The Academy itself knows this demographic breakdown to be problematic, as it swiftly responded to the uproar fueled by this year’s nominees by announcing on January 22 that it would be making significant changes to its membership requirements in order to increase diversity. Certainly this move is beneficial to women and minorities in Hollywood, and it is appropriate for us to view it as a step in the right direction.

For some, however, more radical reforms are required. Last week, Quartz ran an opinion piece in which Lux Alptraum argued that the best way to begin the process of fixing the lack of parity between males and females in Hollywood is to do away entirely with gender segregation in the acting category at the Oscars. What she proposes is simply a Best Actor category and a Best Supporting Actor category for which both men and women can receive nominations. According to Alptraum, this better serves all parties involved because actors should be evaluated “on their talent alone, with no consideration for gender.”

No doubt we evangelicals can agree that women and men are equally talented with respect to acting. Likewise, excellent performances by men and excellent performances by women are equally worthy of the Academy’s recognition. Furthermore, in some years, the best performances of women have simply outshone those of men. But do these acknowledgments necessarily require meshing the existing acting categories into two new categories that consider male and female actors collectively?

No, they do not. The Academy’s distinction of gender in its acting categories is more beneficial to women than would be combined categories for two main reasons.

First, a move to combined categories does little to solve the problem of less female recognition in Hollywood. Alptraum notes a study that found that most film roles are written for men. If this is so, then a move to combined-gender categories would prove disastrous to women: In an environment in which Academy members are already statistically less likely to see a film in which a woman acts in a significant role, they also would no longer be required to nominate women for the acting award categories.

Secondly, and more importantly, there are what I believe to be echoes of God’s design for men and women in the acting category divisions, even if such echoes remain unnoticed within the Academy. As complementarians, we believe that God’s grand design for all men and women includes specific roles that he has intended for them respectively. These roles have been divinely instituted, and it is when these roles are effectively carried out that both men and women, as well as the groups and communities of which they are part, flourish. In seeing these roles as biblically informed, we argue that there are certain roles only men should assume and other roles that only women should assume, on the basis of Scripture’s authority.

Just are there are some roles made by God for men and others for women, is it not also the case that some acting roles are specifically intended to be filled by men, while others by women? Let’s take both current frontrunners for Best Actor and Best Actress into consideration as examples. It is difficult for us to imagine that in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s recent masterpiece, The Revenant, the main character, a frontiersman named Hugh Glass, could be played effectively by a woman. There is an understood brutality to a film that realistically depicts the dangerous life of a fur trapper in the northern reaches of the American wilderness of 1823, a brutality as experienced by men doing what is easily argued to be a man’s job. Shall we fault Iñárritu and his casting panel for hiring Leonardo DiCaprio to play such a role rather than a woman? Even if we are to argue that a particular actress is just as talented as DiCaprio, would she have been the best fit for the role that is patently so natural for a man to play?

Likewise, it is nearly impossible for us to picture Brie Larson’s role in Room as instead played by a man. Larson plays Joy, a woman who is kidnapped and held captive for seven years, during which time she gives birth to her captor’s son. Joy and her son, Jack, live their existence locked inside a small room hidden on the man’s property. Room tells the moving story of a traumatized young mother and her son who are rescued from their living nightmare by the police and then struggle to adjust to life outside captivity. Could such a role reasonably be portrayed by a man rather than a woman? Speaking even outside the biological confines of the pregnancy, there is still something innate to the tender, caring, and loving nature of a mother-child relationship that is central to the meaning of the film. If one were to attempt to make it somehow with a father and child being held in captivity, one would have an entirely different film.

These are but two of many potential examples. Movie roles, and the accompanying acting award categories to honor the best performances, echo what we already know to be present in God’s design. There is something right and good about an award category that honors women who act in roles that can only be played effectively by women. Far from implying that women’s acting somehow isn’t up to snuff, the gender-specific award categories rightly distinguish the sexes, ensuring that both men and women are recognized for excellent work in film roles for which they were designed. The lack of female recognition in Hollywood on the whole is indeed a legitimate concern, but a catch-all acting category that detracts from female-centric performances would do more harm to the cause than good.

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