Why is there a Best Actress Award?
(Los Angeles Times: February 15, 2004)
As the Academy members mull over their choices among this year's nominees, I pause to ask one perhaps impertinent question about the Best Performance by an Actress categories. It's not about the fine female actors nominated this year---it concerns the categories themselves. My question is, why do they exist?
For after all, there is no award for the best screenplay by a woman writer. Sophia Coppola wasn't nominated as best female director. There will be no award for a Best Picture by a woman producer. Why are there separate acting awards divided by gender?
There doesn't appear to be anything about acting skill that is gender specific. In fact, many women insist on being called actors, and bristle at the designation of "actress" because it is implicitly demeaning, like the term "authoress." A writer is a writer, and an actor is an actor. Aren't these gender designated categories just relics of a less enlightened age?
All of the other Academy Award categories are based on the type of work or the type of film. These are the only categories that aren't. There are no separate categories based on race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual preference or any other element of diversity. Why not best performance by a Latino in a leading role (apart from the extreme difficulty of coming up with five nominees)? Or best performance by a gay or Lesbian actor playing a character of the same gender and sexual preference, and another for playing a straight person?
It should be noted that women who might ordinarily lobby for equal treatment haven't exactly been burning their SAG cards to protest gender specific awards categories. The reasons aren't hard to figure out. Thanks in part to the prevalence of action pictures with a worldwide audience, fewer women get fewer starring roles, or even substantial supporting roles, than men (or, these days, than special effects creatures.) More male stars have more box office clout.
So if there were only a single acting category, women might be in danger of getting a token nomination or two, but how often would they win? Having their own categories means that more women are more likely to get more attention, which helps all women actors. In the movie business and particularly in the businesses that own the movie business, there are fewer women decision-makers than men, and only a percentage of them will focus at all on making things better for other women.
Women actors need this category just to survive. So the inevitable conclusion is simply this: the best actress award is an affirmative action program. The award redresses contemporary imbalances and historically derived inequalities that otherwise would continue automatically.
Of course, that's not why these categories were created, or even why they are kept. Glamorous and sexy women attract audiences to movies, apart from their acting performances. Audience interest in watching the awards program is increased as well by beautiful women crossing the stage and tearfully thanking their parents and agents while dressed in daring designer clothes.
On the other hand, if there weren't special categories for women actors, the most popular women might need to be paid in ways other than prestige, like in equal money.
Other movie and television awards shows follow the gender pattern for acting. The Grammy awards however have categories for the music of specific ethnic groups (Native Americans, for instance) and for types of music that are associated with performers and audiences of one race or another. So instead of getting rid of these categories, should new ones be created to reflect other differences and redress imbalance? Separate categories for black actors and actresses, for instance?
But just as women aren't agitating for an end to their best performance categories, minorities are by and large not asking for their separate categories. Black actors have chosen to compete without reference to race. So Denzel Washington was not the best black actor, nor was Halle Berry the best black actress. They were the best, period.
Despite the fact that these two were very rare awards, and that black actors have historically faced long odds to even get on the screen at all, it may be that the greater legitimacy of winning an unrestricted award is worth it. Also, minority actors can support each other and work for better opportunities without feeling they are competing against just each other for a separate and probably unequal prize.
The Grammys reflect cultural roots of music, and how recorded music is marketed. Even though at various times there were movies made specifically for black audiences, movies have a very different history in most respects, and an entirely different marketing structure than the music business. These days however there is a marketing distinction between male-oriented action pictures, and movies about intimate relationships, widely known as "chick flicks." The actress categories may serve to recognize this market in particular.
The Oscars have gender specific acting awards today because they've always had them, the press and public like them, and nobody seems to want it any other way. Still, a new entry in the endless stream of awards shows might try something different and give a single genderless Best Performance award. Besides recognizing equality, and quality regardless of gender, it would have the additional advantage of an awards show that is just that much shorter.