Equality at the Oscars-why have separate gender categories?

Last weekend the entertainment industry shifted its gaze once again to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s most prestigious red carpet event: the 88th annual Oscars. The awards served up the usual mix of wit, talent and ego, but this was perhaps tarnished by a shadow of racial exclusion and lack of ethnic diversity. Amidst the barrage of jibes aimed at the Hollywood establishment and its attitude towards minority groups, host Chris Rock made an interesting side point. Why have separate Best Actor and Best Actress categories? Granted, it is not necessarily a decision that will change lives across the world or eradicate gender inequality overnight, but the Academy Awards are viewed by around 40 million people worldwide – making it a hugely influential platform.

The point being made is that in today’s world, where more and more people are joining the battle for equality, is there actually any point in having separate Best Actor and Best Actress categories? After all, acting is not like athletics, where physical differences between men and women do affect the outcome. Both actors and actresses are doing the same job. It could be argued that personality differences between men and women mean that roles are often very different and so deserve to be in different categories, but acting within both genders encompasses so many different characters that it seems almost irrelevant. It may appear, then, that Hollywood is getting a bit behind the times. It could be possible that separate awards are actually adding to our societal ideas on differences in ability between men and women, ideas that are also permeated by professional gender pay gaps and the lower number of female protagonists in sport, business and film industry.

So why is there hesitancy to make this change? A shared Best Actor or Actress Oscar would certainly reduce the number of awards and nominations, which would possibly take away from the spectacle of the Oscars. Additionally, there is an argument for over doing political correctness. After all, whether it’s biological or imposed by society, there are still underlying differences in the way that men and women think and act.

These factors, however, would appear to be insignificant if amalgamating the two awards did reduce inequalities between men and women. The main point should really be whether it is actually beneficial to change the awards system. In the highest grossing films of 2014, women accounted for a mere 12% of lead roles. Statistics like this applied to a shared gender Best Actor/Actress category could see women picking up the award perhaps only once every decade. Additionally, the surplus and diversity of leading roles for male actors means that they are sometimes given greater chance to exercise and develop their talents, meaning that awards may be more regularly awarded to them. The lack of female actors in the limelight could in fact have a negative impact on ideas about women’s role in society.

A slightly different argument is that since there are so many under-represented minority groups at the Oscars, we should perhaps be trying to tackle this as a whole, rather than focusing on just one. Many people are saying that there should be active participation from Hollywood to reduce discrimination for all. Director JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot production company (the makers of Star Wars: The Force Awakens) has recently introduced a quota system to ensure women and ethnic minorities always make the final shortlist for a part, proving that many in the film industry are eager to address these issues. A single Best Actor/Actress category could force Hollywood to properly confront its blatant failings with regard to equality.

The film industry may exist to entertain but it plays a large and influential role in our society, particularly in the case of role models both on and off the screen. This is undoubtedly a diverse issue, but whatever its resolution, Hollywood must be aware of its influences on society.

Image: Gnapthron

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