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State of the Arts

Gender-neutral categories aren’t enough – the entire awards structure needs to be changed

Jodie Comer and Harry Styles have both won awards from gender-neutral categories, but much more needs to be done to make industries inclusive than simply renaming prizes, writes Jessie Thompson

Saturday 18 February 2023 06:30 GMT
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Jodie Comer and Harry Styles both won awards from gender-neutral categories
Jodie Comer and Harry Styles both won awards from gender-neutral categories (Getty Images)

Gender-neutral awards were supposed to make things fairer, a bit like the new off-field video assistant referee in football. And, just like VAR, some argue that they’ve levelled the playing field. Others think they’re destroying the game. A few may simply wish to celebrate their wins without turning round to check if a man with a computer says it’s OK. Whatever your view, the topic is everywhere in this year’s testy awards season; last weekend’s Brit and WhatsOnStage Awards both implemented categories without gender distinctions, with results that were lambasted and lauded respectively. But for an idea that’s about looking beyond the binary, the conversation so far has focused very much on winners and nominees whose gender identity corresponds with the sex registered for them at birth (otherwise known as cisgender). Surely that shows the real issue: the creative industries are trying to run before they can walk when it comes to thinking more expansively.

Noticeably, many deemed the WhatsOnStage Awards – the first theatre ceremony to go gender-neutral – a great success, with the top four acting prizes going to women (last year it gave awards for “female-identifying” and “male-identifying” roles). Jodie Comer won the Best Performer award for Prima Facie, a blistering monologue about a barrister who is sexually assaulted, while Legally Blonde star Courtney Bowman, Wicked performer Lucie Jones and To Kill a Mockingbird’s Gwyneth Keyworth also triumphed. This was in direct contrast to the Brit Awards, which, after making its Artist of the Year category gender-neutral last year, ended up with a men-only shortlist. It was an outcome that made a reality of the fear that such a move would leave women shut out. The eventual winner, Harry Styles, dedicated his award to the female pop stars, from Florence Welch to Charli XCX, who had missed out on a place in the category.

However you cut it, it’s hard to feel that it’s a progressive move to shrink the number of opportunities that artists have to win awards. Female categories, for example, guard against exactly the kind of men-only domination that the Brits ended up with. Let’s not forget that the Women’s Prize for Fiction was first established after the Booker Prize failed to nominate any female writers in 1991. And the Best Director category at the Oscars, which has always been “gender-neutral”, spawns all-male shortlists year after year.

And yet, crucial as they may be, all of these conversations overlook the reason that gender-neutral measures were introduced, which was to include those who don’t conform to the gender binary. As we’ve seen, when they only include cisgender people – which they have so far largely done – they end up needlessly excluding others, creating more problems than they solve. Ultimately, gender-neutral categories still feel largely superficial; a gesture towards inclusivity in industries that are in fact not yet that inclusive. Emma Corrin, who uses they/them pronouns, pointed to this issue last year. They explained that it was “difficult… to justify in my head being non-binary and being nominated in the female categories”, but went on to say that “you can discuss awards and the representation there, but really the conversation needs to be about having more representation in the material itself, in the content that we are seeing for non-binary people, for queer people, for trans people, because then I think that will change a lot”.

This debate has been part of a number that have sent awards ceremonies into an existential crisis. After her surprise Oscar nomination, Andrea Riseborough found herself the lightning rod for a debate about Hollywood’s systemic racism – something that was hardly her fault. Cate Blanchett, in an acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards, declared, “I would love it if we would just change this whole f***ing structure”, describing awards as a “patriarchal pyramid” and a “televised horse race”. She asked: “Why don’t we just say there was a whole raft of female performances that are in concert and in dialogue with one another?” While Blanchett didn’t offer a solution, she did say she wanted to share her award with “every single woman with a television, film, advertising, tampon commercials”.

Blanchett’s point, for me, gets to the crux of the problem. Maybe we don’t need gender-neutral categories, but new categories entirely. Many now see gender as a sprawling spectrum, not something that can be put into neat, standalone boxes – and couldn’t the same be said of art? Our awards culture has trained us to see it as an individual, almost cynical endeavour – so much so that you can smell an awards-bait performance before you see it. I love the fact that the British Independent Film Awards – which is also gender-neutral – has a category for “Best Joint Lead Performance”. This year its shortlist included Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in Aftersun, Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in Good Luck to You Leo Grande, Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear in Men, and its winners, Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance in The Silent Twins. These were performances that could not exist without one another, because creativity does not exist in a vacuum. Perhaps we don’t need to rename things – perhaps we need to rethink them entirely.

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