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Point-Counterpoint: Should Theater Awards Stop Separating Acting Categories by Gender?

As Tony season heats up, our critics debate the durability of "Best Actress" and "Best Actor" awards in a time of increasing gender nonconformity.

What if Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub of The Band's Visit were nominated in the same category at the Tony Awards?
(© David Gordon)

Gender-neutral bathrooms are becoming a regular feature off-Broadway: The Public Theater and A.R.T./New York Theatres offer their audiences a choice of two bathrooms unlabeled by gender, while the Flea Theater and Connelly Theater each sport one completely unisex restroom. Though this makes the New York Theater seems awfully avant-garde in its approach to gender, it remains firmly segregated in another area: acting awards.

The Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, Outer Critics Circle Awards, and Lortel Awards all separate their acting prizes into "actor" and "actress" categories, preventing male and female performers from ever competing against one another. Now that we're in the thick of awards season, our critics debate the advantages and drawbacks of this model, which we suggested was overdue for reconsideration in our 2018 Predictions. This year, Chicago's Non-Equity Jeff Awards did away with gendered performance awards, creating a slate of 10 nominees in each of the four categories (Principal Role-Musical, Principal Role-Play, Supporting Role-Musical, and Supporting Role-Play) from which two winners will be selected.

Are "Best Actor" and "Best Actress" awards an insidious example of gender apartheid, or is it just a convenient excuse to give out more awards? You can decide after reading our latest Point-Counterpoint:

TheaterMania critics Zachary Stewart and Hayley Levitt met at the 63rd Annual Drama Desk Awards nominees reception to discuss the persistence of gender-specific awards in acting categories.
(© David Gordon)

Zachary Stewart: Hayley, in an age when most jobs are gender-neutral and professional accolades are not segregated by sex, why is it acceptable that the theater community still divides male and female performers into "Best Actor" and "Best Actress" categories at awards time?

Hayley Levitt: Honestly, pretending like performances can be objectively evaluated and ranked already feels silly enough. Separating the awards categories by gender at least has some side benefits. Like for example, instead of having to choose between Ben Platt and Bette Midler, we get amazing acceptance speeches from both! Do you want to make that choice, Sophie?

Zach: Bette Midler. There, I did it. Is there any other benefit beyond giving twice as many awards?

Hayley: For the people who watch the Tonys exclusively for the acting awards (and let's face it, those are the main event next to Best Musical), that's not just a fringe benefit. And even if the entire construct is based on the false premise that female and male performances are somehow inherently different, I don't think we should so quickly disregard a corner of this industry that forces gender parity. The last thing we would want is for the elimination of gendered awards to result in exclusively male winners. I can't think of anything more counterproductive.

Alexander Gemignani and Lindsay Mendez are both nominated for Tonys for their featured performances in the revival of Carousel, but gendered categories keep them from competing for the same trophy.
(© David Gordon)

Zach: Considering this industry's love of fabulous ladies, I'm not sure that would automatically happen. Besides, you cannot achieve parity through segregation, because separate is inherently unequal. It's bad enough that our language already suggests this separation (we have actors and actresses, but not doctors and doctresses). Furthermore, we don't sort directors, designers, and playwrights by gender, so there's no good reason to do it for performers.

Hayley: This Broadway season, there are 19 plays and 10 musicals eligible for awards. For Director of a Musical, that makes a field of 10, half of whom will get a nomination. If we could somehow recognize the work of 50% of our Broadway actors, that would be fabulous. But I don't see how we can acknowledge a fair amount of the standout performances we've seen without artificially doubling the categories. Male and female categories feel more like a convenient excuse to spotlight great work than an exercise in gender apartheid.

Zach: So if you're taking it that far, then why not further subdivide with categories segregated by race and sexual orientation? It's easier to get behind the subdivisions of "leading actor" and "featured actor" (which also doubles the number of acting awards) because they are based on the size of the part, not an immutable trait of the actor. And performers can always stand for one or the other in any given season: Audra McDonald has won both a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Carousel, 1994) and Leading Actress in a Musical (Porgy and Bess, 2012); but under the current system, she will never win a Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical simply because she's a woman.

Hayley: And Nathan Lane will never win a Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical simply because he's a man. Yes, objectively speaking, dividing awards by gender is as arbitrary as dividing them by race and sexual orientation (and to be clear, I would never endorse doing either). But it feels equally arbitrary to compare Katrina Lenk's performance in The Band's Visit to Lauren Ambrose's performance in My Fair Lady. They're completely different animals that have no business being pitted against one another in any context. If we eliminated everything about awards that didn't make sense, we'd probably eliminate awards altogether.

Even if the Tony Awards did away with gendered categories, Andrew Garfield and Denise Gough of Angels in America still wouldn't be competing for the same award since he is nominated for a "Leading" role and she is nominated for a "Featured" role.
(© David Gordon)

Zach: This particular bit of nonsense is bound to run into problems as gender nonconforming performers arrive on Broadway. Justin Vivian Bond (who appeared on Broadway in 2006) identifies as trans, but prefers the gender pronoun "v." Taylor Mac prefers the pronoun "judy." In which category should we place Bond and Mac when v and judy are eventually nominated for acting awards?

Hayley: That's a fair point. We can only hope nonbinary performers will be given enough of a spotlight on Broadway to make this an imminent problem.

Zach: It looks like that is already happening on TV: Asia Kate Dillon, who is a nonbinary actor playing a nonbinary role on the Showtime series Billions, was nominated for a Critics' Choice Television Award in the Best Supporting Actor category (that is, with the men). This seems like a makeshift solution while there are still gendered categories, but I suspect that in the future, everyone will just be in the "actor" category because the word "actress" will become as unfashionable in the theater as the word "stewardess" has become for air travel.

Hayley: I think we can blame the word "steward" for that death at least as much as its feminine suffix.