There’s An Organization That’s Been Giving Away Awards In Gender Neutral Categories Before It Was Hip to Say So.
And Their Acting Awards Demonstrate Just What A Horrible Idea It Would Be For The Emmys
Last month Emma Corrin, a non-binary actor best known for playing Diana on Season 4 of The Crown, added their voice to the argument that awards shows should give gender neutral categories for acting. Some actors and actresses, such as Melanie Lynskey, have said they were fine with this as a concept. I mentioned last week that the Spirit Awards are following this method for 2023, and earlier this week The Gotham Awards followed suit.
Since this idea was floated last year, I have been a vehement opponent of this idea. I have used the argument that these kinds of awards, particularly when they pertain to television, will end up isolate more people than they will end up rewarded, mainly African-American Actors and Actress, and indeed, actresses in general. I’ve also argued that considered all of the barriers that transgender and non-binary people are facing in every walk of life, the idea that somehow making gender-neutral awards just so that certain people can consider themselves ‘allies’ while an entire industry does nothing for the LGBTQ+ community to work at all in any aspect of it, is the definition of tokenism: the kind of thing a billionaire corporation does when it names an African-American or a woman to a minor position in their company to set aside arguments of prejudice in their hiring practices.
But I’m fundamentally aware that in an argument involving an issue that stirs up passion, trying to use logic when words like ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ are bandied about makes little difference. I also know that even coming up with evidence that this is a folly may not make much of a difference. Nevertheless, considering that I actually have proof of an awards show that has been carried out these gender neutral kinds of awards, decades before it was considered an issue, I think it’s trying to make this argument again particularly as we are now nearing the end-of-year award season where the issue will now doubt come up ad infinitum. So journey back with me as I take you back to the 1980s.
Those of you who have read this column for a very long time (or even not that long) are aware that ever since I started covering the Emmys, I have been analyzing and every other award show that gives out awards for television and that I have spent years scouring the internet looking for awards for television. Relatively recently in my perusals (if I had to guess, probably 2018) I discovered the Television Critics Awards and was immediately inclined to approve of them because that year they had not fallen under the sway of Game of Thrones and had given their Best Drama prize — and their show of the year prize — for The Americans, a series that is one of the greatest ever made. I was even more encouraged when I saw they had given their Best Comedy prize to The Good Place and had basically ignored Veep. I was thrilled to see that Keri Russell and Rachel Brosnahan had won acting awards but I don’t think I paid any attention or even looked to see who they’d defeated to win their prizes. I was just thrilled and proud of my profession.
It was not until the following year that I learned that they had been in existence sine 1985 and had been giving awards in drama, comedy, and other series ever since. They have been from the start among the most diverse and versatile award shows in history, giving prizes to dramas that never won the grand prize such as Twin Peaks, I’ll Fly Away, Homicide (three years running!) and My So-Called Life. When Peak TV began with the 21st century, they got on board quickly: The Sopranos won Best Drama for its rookie year, something it would take the Emmys five seasons to acknowledge. (It won twice more and tied with The West Wing one year.) Other shows that never won but that at the TCA included The Good Wife, Six Feet Under and Better Call Saul (so far).The Americans actually won three times overall. Nor have the TCA ignored other worthy series in their nominations with they have slowly but surely expanded. Here are just a handful of the series they nominated that never got any Best Drama nominations from the Emmys: Homefront, Freaks and Geeks (!) Once and Again, The Shield, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, UnREAL, The Good Fight, Homecoming. And those are just the dramas.
For comedy they’ve been somewhat more traditional, but they did give Best Comedy to The Larry Sanders Show (two years running) Sports Night, The Bernie Mac Show and Inside Amy Schumer. Their track record when it comes to nominating series that the Emmy ignores is better: Scrubs which was almost completely ignored by the Emmys got nominated multiple times, as did Flight of the Conchords, My Name is Earl, Community, Party Down, New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Mindy Project, Better Things, Jane the Virgin, Superstore and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
Now I’ve highlighted these categories specifically because, like many awards shows, the TCA has been a work in progress. They have a category called Program of the Year which can cover a multitude of shows: it has covered documentaries (Eyes on the Prize, The Civil War) it has covered mini-series and TV movies (Barbarians at the Gate, Lonesome Dove, Angels in America) and it can cover the shows that might be nominated in Drama or Comedy, but could be phenomena in their own right (Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, Desperate Housewives in 2004, Glee in 2010) Sometimes their great shows that haven’t earned recognition for some reason: (the cult show EZ Streets in 1996, Battlestar Galactica in 2008, Empire in 2015). And sometimes they’re truly great series that have broken on in a big way: Mad Men in 2007, Breaking Bad in 2012 and 2013. Sometimes they do intersect — last year, Abbott Elementary took Best Comedy and Program of the Year. No argument there.
They also have the Movie, Miniseries and special category which has run the gamut from Billy Crystal hosting the Oscars to Ken Burns’ Baseball to Sherlock . In recent years limited series have begun to dominate, such as American Crime Story, Big Little Lies and Watchmen. (For the record, Downton Abbey always fell under this category. Go figure.)
And then in 1996, they finally began acting awards: one for comedy, one for drama. They not only have never differentiated by gender, but they also haven’t differentiated between lead and supporting. And if you ever wanted an example of just how badly this can go: the TCA acting nominations are Peoples Exhibit A. Let’s start with Drama.
The first two years of their acting award for Drama: there was one female nominee: Gillian Anderson for The X-Files. That’s it. No one from ER or The Practice, no one from Relativity or Murder One. Hell in 1997, Gillian Anderson was set aside for Kevin Anderson from Nothing Sacred.
I think the critics may have learned their lesson because more and more female nominees began to show up over the next few years: Camryn Manheim for The Practice, Allison Janney for The West Wing. They also did a good job recognizing many actresses that never got their due from the Academy: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Lauren Graham. Do you want to know the first year they recognized a female for Best Acting in Drama: 2002–2003. Edie Falco for The Sopranos. I guess they decided that James Gandolfini, who’d won three consecutive years had won enough.
Would you like to know when the next actress won in that category: 2009–2010. Juliana Margulies for The Good Wife. So in the first fifteen years of a purely gender neutral acting category, there were exactly two female winners. I guess that’s what fair and balanced looks like.
I am not shocked by this. Indeed, I made exactly this argument when I put forth what would happen if a gender-neutral acting category had existed in this period. The age of the antihero complete shut out any great female performance. Don’t get me wrong, Ian McShane deserved to win for Deadwood and Michael C. Hall did for Dexter and I’ll admit to being glad to see that Hugh Laurie took two prizes. But this came at the expense of every other female performer who was acting dramas. And its not like their was a shortage of good actresses. Among the nominees, along with the ones I listed were Jennifer Garner, Rachel Griffiths, Connie Britton, Kyra Sedgwick (for The Closer) and Glenn Close who during this period was winning two Emmys for Best Actress against the likes of Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter, and Sally Field. Almost all of these actresses were winning awards left and right during the award season. Many of them couldn’t even get into the balloting of the TCA because of all the difficult men.
Now to be fair, there has been some movement in the right direction in the last decade. Claire Danes and Tatiana Maslany took Best Actress prizes, so did Sarah Paulson, and the TCA was willing to recognize Carrie Coon for both Fargo and The Leftovers. Furthermore, they also acknowledged women of color, including Regina King and Michaela Coel. And they saw the wisdom of giving their top prize to Mandy Moore. Which I admit is incredible, but by now of course you see the larger issue that all of these prizes are going to lead actors and not supporting. Supporting actors have gotten nominated, but not once has the TCA given an acting prize in a Drama to a supporting role. That’s an argument for another day, however.
So, do things get any better when we go to comedy? The answer is slightly, but not much. At least, the TCA gave its first prize for a female performer in a comedy a little earlier than they did for drama: 1999 and 2000 to Jane Kaczmarek for Malcolm in the Middle. (She never won an Emmy. Sacrilege.) Then there’s a similar gap for the next time a female performer wins and that’s 2008 when Tina Fey won for 30 Rock. (Maybe there should be an asterisk; I don’t know how much credit creating and writing the show added to it)
To be clear the last decade has basically all about the women. Julia Louis-Dreyfus won(quelle surprise) but then its been a different woman every year: Amy Schumer, Rachel Bloom (yea!) Rachel Brosnahan, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Catherine O’Hara, Jean Smart and of course Quinta Brunson. (The one male winner has been Donald Glover in 2016–2017. No argument there.)
That said, you really have to question quite a few of the nominees in the early years, especially from male over female perspective. 2000–2001: Chris Isaak gets nominated over Patricia Heaton. Seriously? 2001–2002. No female nominees at all. Ditto 2003–2004. You couldn’t nominate Jessica Walter for Arrested Development? You nominated the father and the son, but not the mother? Oh well.
The track record, I will admit, is better here but to be honest, how much credit are the female nominees getting for being the showrunners for their series. Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Issa Rae, and Pamela Adlon all created their own shows. Most of the winners — Bloom, Schumer, Waller-Bridge and Brunson — essentially created the series. Rare is the winner in this category who merely performed in their series — though again, hard to argue that Jean Smart or O’Hara wouldn’t have won anyway. There are a fair share of actresses who just act — Hannah Waddingham, Kaley Cuoco, and Renee Elise Goldsberry were all nominated last year, for example and overall in most of the categories over the last decade there have been more female performers than males, which is a good ratio. And there’s a better track record with supporting performers than with drama — David Hyde-Pierce took the first two for his work in Frasier and Jane Lynch won for Glee — but those are the kind of performance that can’t be looked away from. Sean Hayes and Megan Mullaly were nominated multiple times for Will and Grace and there have been many supporting nominees among the performers, but again, that’s a separate argument.
I could continue in this vein for awhile and argue that this method of nomination has, as I pointed out, led to an exclusion of African-American actors and actresses winning in any category. Andre Braugher took the Best Actor prize in a Drama the first two years acting awards existed. It was seven years before another African American — Bernie Mac — took any acting prize. I could also argue that women of color have been shut out just as much until fairly recently as well. Viola Davis didn’t get a nomination — but that’s actually an argument the critics are doing their job right. But I think by this point, the TCA have made their argument crystal clear. I should also point out that having gender neutral categories has not helped two of the most notable non-binary actors in the industry — Corrin and Asia Kate Dillon get nominated by the TCA. And if there are no rules between gender and supporting and lead and you still can’t get a fair shake, then clearly taking away gender limits isn’t going to rectify the problem.
So for those of you who really think that getting rid of gender restrictions in acting categories is the ‘right thing to do for equality’, go to Wikipedia and look at the nominees for acting for the TCA since 1996, and then look at who won. I imagine those who want to be contrary will make their own arguments — systemic racism, sexism, gender bias and of course, that old standard, critics don’t know what they’re talking about. But the facts can’t be disputed: for the past quarter of a century, the TCA has done exactly what you want them to do. Who were the overwhelming beneficiaries? A bunch of middle-aged white men. Things may have improved in the last decade in both drama and comedy, but that’s because of systemic changes, not cosmetic ones. And to repeat (because apparently I keep having to) that’s all gender-neutral acting categories are.