Words by Etan Ilfeld
Illustration by Jené Gutierrez
Will gender continue to play a major role in the Academy Awards during the 22nd century? When speculating about how the Academy Awards might look in the future, it’s worth considering how these awards have evolved over the last century. Curiously, the categories in the Academy Awards are fluid as new ones are constantly being considered while existing categories are occasionally phased out. For example, Best Title Design, Best Casting, and Best Stunt Coordination were considered and rejected in 1999. Similarly, categories that once existed and have been discontinued include Best Dance Direction, Best Assistant Director, and Best Director of a Comedy Picture. Nominations that were added in the 1940s and are still going strong include Best Costume Design, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Original Screenplay. Best Makeup and Hairstyling was added as recently as 1981.
Gender provides a ripe theoretical basis to explore some of the transformations that may impact the Academy Awards. Certainly, just as it would be hard to imagine an Oscar category today based on race or age, perhaps a century from now, gender will play a very different role. Specifically, what is the significance of the socialization of drag-as-performance by awarding Oscars based on the celebrity’s gender rather than their performed roles? Certainly, the Crying Game’s Jay Davidson, TransAmerica’s Felicity Huffman, Boys Don’t Cry’s Hillary Swank, and Cate Blanchett’s performance as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, provide plenty of food for thought. In all these cases, the nomination is based on the celebrity’s gender rather than the gender of the character that was performed. For example, Cate Blanchett was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, despite the fact that she played a very convincing male character: Bob Dylan.
Perhaps, one day, the Oscar’s gender based awards will be based on the gender performed rather than the gender of the actor or actress. Maybe, gender will no longer be used to designate a category (i.e. Best Performer could be an open category for any actor or actress). Of course, there are advantages to bifurcating an award into more awards, as it provides a reason to give out more trophies and celebrate more actors. However, it could be argued that giving two Best Actor awards (one for each gender) dilutes the significance of such an accolade, whereas having a unisex Best Actor award would create a more competitive and prestigious award.
Even if there is no significant change in the current usage of gender, what if an Oscar-winning actor undergoes a sex change and then later wins an Oscar in another gender? Would such a metamorphosis act as a catalyst that would modify the role of gender at the Academy Awards? Curiously, the porn industry’s AVN awards have already incorporated a Transsexual Performer of the Year category, but such measures do not resolve situations in which the actor’s gender is undefined or perhaps even non-human. Donna Haraway’s Feminist Epistemology is critical of boundaries based on naturalism or essentialism, and has often employed the metaphor of the transhuman cyborg to illustrate the blurring of identity and difference. According to Haraway, we are all cyborgs to some extent, and as such, should be wary of any categorization that is defined via an oppositional consciousness that stresses otherness and difference (e.g. Male vs. Female). Similarly, Judith Butler has also stressed that gender categories are culturally constructed and that gender can be decoded as a performative act.
It is interesting to consider the notions of drag and performativity as they relate to the construct of a celebrity. Specifically, it is worth contemplating if giving awards based on gender—such as in the Oscars’ best actor and best actress categories—is a form of socialization of gender roles. By designating separate categories for Best Actor and Best Actress, the Academy Awards perpetuate traditional gender roles and highlight the differences between masculinity and femininity.
If gender is always performative, then the gender that the actor enacts in their life off-screen, can also be regarded as a form of theater. As such, it seems a bit arbitrary to limit the Best Actor and Best Actress award to the gender of each actor/actress, as their so-called ‘real’ and off-screen gender is very much a construct of the media and also entails make-up artists, hairstylists, public relations officers, photoshopped images, and branded content.
Academy Award winning director Lana Wachowski avoided media appearances and interviews during the years of sexual transition from male to female precisely because she felt that mainstream media would attempt to constrain her gender and mediate an artificial narrative unto her transformation. In her acceptance speech for the 2012 HRC Visibility Award, Wachowski said:
“I am completely horrified by the ‘talk show,’ the interrogation and confession format, the weeping, the tears of the host whose sympathy underscores the inherent tragedy of my life as a transgender person. And this moment fulfilling the cathartic arc of rejection to acceptance without ever interrogating the pathology of a society that refuses to acknowledge the spectrum of gender in the exact same blind way they have refused to see a spectrum of race or sexuality.”
Wachowski continued by highlighting the importance of role models that transcend gender. Such role models challenge hurtful preconceptions and emphasize that transgendered people are equal participants in the civic sphere and should be perceived as such.
The winners of the Academy Awards are automatically provided with various platforms with which they can voice their politics and ideologies. Exceptional cases include George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, both of whom refused their Best Actor Award. Brando cited the film industry’s discrimination and mistreatment of Native Americans as the reason that he was unwilling to accept his award for Best Actor performance in The Godfather . Furthermore, Academy Award recipients provide role models for future generations, and often exemplify what is or is not acceptable within the mainstream media. Speculating about the role that gender will play in future Academy Awards creates a philosophical springboard with which we can debate and question traditional frameworks and potentially cultivate more pluralistic media ecologies. ◥