Acting Awards Without Gender Categories? Here’s Where Celebrities Stand

LOS ANGELES — On the red carpet before the Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles on Sunday, stars answered the usual questions. Were they excited to be here? Yes. How did it feel to be recognized? Amazing. What TV show would they want to guest star in? “The White Lotus.”

But one question we posed made nearly every person stop, ponder for several seconds and then deliver a thinking-aloud answer, often with a caveat or a pivot in the middle:

“Should major award shows eliminate separate acting categories for men and women?” we asked.

The ongoing debate over gender-neutral acting prizes, which could also mean fewer nominations for everyone, is part of the conversation again this awards season. In 2021, the Gotham Awards, which honor independent films, nixed separate acting categories for men and women. Last year, the Brit Awards, Britain’s equivalent of the Grammys, merged its categories for best male and best female artist of the year into one gender-neutral top prize. And this year, the event faced backlash for not nominating any women for the award. The Grammy Awards eliminated many gendered categories beginning with the 2012 ceremony.

Nonbinary actors such as Emma Corrin, who are often forced to choose a category in which to be considered, have called for gender-neutral award categories. The trans nonbinary performer Justin David Sullivan from the Broadway musical “& Juliet” withdrew their name from consideration when the Tony Awards eligibility rulings were announced earlier this month, putting public pressure on the awards. (Both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out Oscars, and the Television Academy, which handles the Emmy Awards, are looking into nongendered categories, according to The Los Angeles Times. Nominees are already able to request gender-neutral wording on their awards at both events.)

The immediate response of many attendees at the SAG Awards was a desire for awards to be more inclusive.

“I think it’s a positive thing,” said Will Sharpe, who plays Ethan Spiller, the workaholic tech nerd married to Harper on Season 2 of “The White Lotus,” which won the top TV award for a drama series on Sunday night, noting he believed it would “level out the playing field.”

“Why not?” said Michael Imperioli, who plays the womanizing Hollywood producer Dominic Di Grasso on “The White Lotus,” on combining the acting categories. “It’s all one big acting soup.”

Other nominees addressed the potential benefit for nonbinary actors.

“There are people who don’t want to be defined by gender, and I want to help make awards more inclusive for them,” said Rhea Seehorn, who plays the lawyer Kim Wexler in “Better Call Saul,” which was nominated for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series for its final season.

But then she paused.

“At the same time,” she added, until women and nonbinary performers are afforded “as much screen time as the men, it’s not very fair to compare the performances.”

Top awards often go to the actors who spend the most time onscreen, and a recent study found that, in 2021, in the top 100 grossing films, male characters outnumbered female ones by almost two to one.

Jamie Lee Curtis, who won the supporting-actress statuette for her role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” over the Golden Globe winner Angela Bassett (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”) and the BAFTA winner Kerry Condon (“The Banshees of Inisherin”), echoed Ms. Seehorn’s indecision.

“I’m all for inclusion, which is the most important thing,” she said, “but, at the same time, I want to make sure that the most opportunities are available to people. I know a lot of people believe in same-sex education. There are a lot of young women who get very quiet when the boys get really loud.”

Female nominees in particular expressed concern that the idea of a single prize would put men at a distinct advantage because of the richer and more numerous roles available to them.

“There’s still a lot of male parts,” said Patricia Arquette, who plays Harmony Cobel, Mark’s domineering boss, in “Severance,” which was nominated for outstanding ensemble performance in a drama series. “I don’t know if that would be fair.”

“Until there’s a 50-50 opportunity, then we still need to have our own categories,” said Olivia Williams, who plays Camilla Parker Bowles in Season 5 of “The Crown,” which was also nominated for best ensemble performance in a drama series.

Sarah Polley, the writer and director of the female-focused film “Women Talking,” which examines sexual assault in a religious community, said the potential for parity in consideration had to be weighed against the realities of the film and television industries.

“What none of us want to see is a general acting category where it ends up being all-male nominees,” she said, “Which I think is the fear — and that’s a genuine fear.”

But, she added, there were also important considerations to weigh that extend beyond fairness to the issue of fundamental identity.

“We have a nonbinary actor in our cast,” she said, referring to August Winter, who plays Melvin, a character who lives as an openly trans man in a patriarchal society. “And there would have had to be a choice made between male and female, neither of which was accurate.”

“I’m not sure what the solution is,” she added, “but it certainly can’t stay the way it is, because it is excluding people from being recognized.”

Mx. Winter, who uses the pronouns they and them, said they supported gender-neutral categories because they “honor the person who is making the art.”

“Right now, you need to choose,” they said, referring to awards that separate categories for men and women. “And I don’t think people should be put in that position.”

Other nominees noted, however, that they were concerned that combined categories would lead to fewer performances being recognized.

Ms. Bassett said that collapsing the categories could lead to fewer chances for recognition. “I don’t like it,” she said. “Not enough opportunity.”

Jon Gries, who plays Greg Hunt, the scheming husband of Jennifer Coolidge’s character, Tanya, in “The White Lotus,” echoed that concern. “When you have best actor, best actress, you have more awards,” he said. (“We like more awards,” said Sabrina Impacciatore, who plays the series’s uptight hotel manager, as she strolled up and put a hand on his shoulder.)

Sally Field, who received a lifetime achievement award for her nearly six-decade TV and film career on Sunday night, expressed a general frustration with the competitive nature of awards. “It’s hard to compare actors, whether they be male or female, because the roles are so different,” she said. So the idea of a rule change that would recognize even fewer performances was befuddling to her.

“Why would you do that?” she said, looking as though someone had just suggested she go roll through the mud in her ball gown. “I mean, you already can’t even compare Cate Blanchett and Viola Davis. They’re both beyond belief.”

Quick Question is a collection of dispatches from red carpets, gala dinners and other events that coax celebrities out of hiding.