Open Letter To The Los Angeles Times On Its “Gender Neutral” Category Push


The Los Angeles Times’ Editorial Board has decided to push for “gender-neutral” categories for the major award shows because having them separated is “sexist”:

The Academy Awards show, a high-tech production televised around the world, is still handing out Oscars for leading performances in one category for actors and another for actresses — the way it first did nearly 95 years ago over dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The Television Academy similarly bestows Emmys for performances in TV shows by gender in separate categories for men and women.

They then start their next paragraph with the following:

“But other awards shows have dispensed with this industry shibboleth…”

OTHER award shows? Does the “Editorial Board” actually think the Oscars can compare with “other” award shows? They can’t. Sorry. Those “Other” award shows are comprised of either film critics or various bloggers. They aren’t even on the same planet as the Oscars, let alone in the same room. Their primary goal is to protect their own image online and/or not get viciously attacked by activists. At best, to be a good person doing good things.

Whoever they have hired at LAT to represent their “editorial board” does not understand history — Film history, Oscar history, or even the endless toiling it has taken from activists to get to the point where a film like The Woman King could be made at all. Do they have any clue how hard it would have been to get The Woman King made at that kind of scale, starring Viola Davis, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood? It’s taken years of reports, of activists working behind the scenes, of executives greenlighting it. It was not an easy road.

Davis has never won Best Actress, despite having won the SAG twice. Now, they’re trying to take that chance away? That’s not to say she will win this year but imagine — winning Best Actress feels like an accomplishment. Winning “Lead Performance” doesn’t. Sorry, it just doesn’t. That’s the reality, and everyone knows it.

I don’t think the Academy, or the SAG or the Golden Globes are going to be dumb enough to go down this road. The film critics want it, fine. Have at it. But if you’re talking about AWARD SHOWS, which are televised for ratings, then you best be bringing the heat. And the heat is never going to be in “gender-neutral” acting categories.

The BAFTA are the only major group I could see buckling under the pressure as they did post-2020 with upending their process for choosing Best Director and the acting categories, bringing in juries to “fix” their problem with race and gender. They went through all of that, forcing the vote to include half women for Best Director only to now be faced with removing gender entirely. As long as a special jury decides, it probably doesn’t matter if they have gender-specific categories. They will, like the LA Film Critics, BAFTA voters will deliberately make them “fair.”

In case you haven’t noticed, the Oscar industry is dying because the movie industry is dying. It isn’t dying in terms of money, at least not yet. The big franchise movies will still bring in profits. More movies are being made now than there ever have been. They just don’t get seen by many people. They rarely embed in the culture in any significant way anymore. They live as an isolated experience for a handful of people they’re made for. The room is shrinking. The experience is becoming more elitist, less universal.

These problems aren’t because Hollywood has been sucked into a strident new religion. They started long before that. But the strident new religion is killing off what’s left. This is clear to anyone outside of the increasingly shrinking bubble that Hollywood has become.

This isn’t the first time religious zealots have captured Hollywood. Christianity was the dominant religion in this country and still is. But for decades, that percentage was over 90%. That is why films about other religions were few and far between. That is also why a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life opens with villagers praying for George Bailey. And it’s why the Hays Code was established to purge Hollywood of its sins and prevent them from spilling out into the public.

The difference is, “Wokeism” or “identitarianism” or whatever it was that bloomed as a generation of activists came of age on Tumblr, makes up a very small portion of the American public. We’re probably talking at most 10%. Granted, they are a loud and powerful 10% but they do not reflect either the sensibilities or the desired goals of the majority. If you are making movies for them and adopting policies to please them (land acknowledgments, gender-neutral categories, dogma-infused content), your profits will likely dip significantly. Or as they sometimes say on the Right, “go woke, go broke.”

The last “Fourth Turning” saw both a Hays Code and a Black List, two things we’re dealing with now. It is the darker end of collectivism, which starts out as a positive force in American culture. Everyone gets a seat at the table, no marginalized person left behind. But it has no choice but to become paranoid, punitive and ultimately righteous in its efforts to keep a utopian vision alive.

In his book Pendulum: How Generations of the Past Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future, Michael Drew and Roy Williams write (from way back in 2011):

The second half of the Upswing of “We” and the first half of the Downswing from it (2013–2023) bring an ideological “righteousness” that seems to spring from any group gathered around a cause. The inevitable result is judgmental legalism and witch hunts. The origin of the term witch hunt was the Salem witch trials, a series of hearings before county court officials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693, exactly at the beginning of the second half of the Upswing toward the “We” Zenith of 1703.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was an American promoter of this witch-hunt attitude at America’s most recent “We” Zenith of 1943 (see the “House Un-American Activities Committee,” 1937–1953); Adolf Hitler was the German promoter (see the Holocaust, 1933–1945); and Joseph Stalin was the Soviet promoter (see the Great Purge, 1936–1938). Our hope is that we might collectively choose to skip this development as we approach the “We” Zenith of 2023. If enough of us are aware of this trend toward judgmental self-righteousness, perhaps we can resist demonizing those who disagree with us and avoid the societal polarization that results from it. A truly great society is one in which being unpopular can be safe.

And it’s indeed happening on the Right regarding transgender ideology and LGBTQ issues. It’s just that they don’t have as much cultural, political, and institutional power. But if they did, we’d see the same thing from that side on the same level. There is most definitely a virtual Civil War raging. The Oscars, if they’re to survive, must stand firm against reimagining themselves as a “Woketopia.”

As someone who writes up the Women’s Media Center report every year detailing just how hard it’s been for women to break into various categories at the Oscars, from directing to editing to cinematography and on down the line, the acting categories have always been safe havens.

Regardless of even that, there is glamor and magic in the Best Actress category. It has always been the favorite categories of our readers here. It has a long history. I dare say it’s an institution. It is not, nor has it ever been, sexist. There is nothing more rewarding than having sat through a three-hour telecast than to see a woman in a beautiful gown take to the stage to accept an award. Take that away, you might as well stick a fork in it. The Oscars are on life support as it is. This move will kill them off entirely, as Jeff Wells points out.

Here is the letter (co-signed by, but not written by, me):

“Since 1929, the Academy Award of Merit (aka Oscar) has been awarded to artists by artists. Less than a decade after the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the categories of Best Actor and Best Actress not as artifacts of a patriarchal, oppressive past but harbingers of a more progressive future in which the inseparability of sex and performance was acknowledged — and celebrated at parity. This model has held for nearly a century because it is understood that actors bring more than simply talent to their craft — they bring the intractible experience of life as either male or female. It is no surprise that recent calls to abolish these categories, including gender-neutral moves by the Spirit Awards, the Gotham Awards and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, originate outside the profession and community of actors most impacted by them. These are efforts to change longstanding practice not at the behest of performers or for the betterment of the art, but to serve a broader and very recent agenda that presumes to achieve “equality” through the erasure of any recognized distictions between the sexes. We reject these efforts as regressive and misogynist and call on the Academy and other organizations to do likewise.

It is especially disconcerting that this pressure campaign comes during a year with no fewer than three major awards contenders — “The Woman King,” “Women Talking” and “She Said” — singularly centered on the unique experiences of women. That all three films were also written and directed by women is a laudable step in the right direction — but could they have been just as easily written and directed by men? Absolutely. Could their predominently female casts have been replaced by men? Categorically not. This is the distinction which advocates of genderless categories ignore. Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh are already heavy awards season Best Actress favorites for their respective performances in “Tàr” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” But their achievements are more than great acting — the characters depicted are wives and mothers, women struggling to meet unequal expectations in a male-dominated world. These are parts defined by their explorations of womanhood, elevated by great actresses with the irreplaceable experience of being women. The same may be said on the other side of the equation — Colin Farrell’s and Bill Nighy’s respective performances in “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Living” are likewise rooted in their irreplaceable experiences as men. “Living,” adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film “Ikiru,” is a noteworthy case in point. Though separated by seventy years and two continents, Bill Nighy and Takashi Shimura face precisely the same realities — experiences which transcend culture while being bound by sex.

Actors and actresses all understand that their career paths diverge based on sex and that this constitutes an opportunity and not a handicap. We should not expect or want Frances McDormand to play Macbeth any more than we should want Denzel Washington to play Lady Macbeth as the resulting performances would ring false, lacking the emotional resonance with which cinema connects the lived experiences of performers and audiences. These are distinctions borne of material reality — not culture — and removing that reality from acting categories will not remove that reality from life. It will, however, make films less honest, more ideolgoical and less connected to the hopes, dreams and life experiences of audiences.

At a deeper level, sex-based acting categories have been a longstanding cudgel against sex stereotypes — with separate categories celebrating the immense diversity of both women and men without denying their differences, and furnishing aspiring performers and artists their essential role models since the days of Fairbanks and Pickford. If the biological differences between men and women are sufficient to justify sex-segregated sports, how much greater are divergent life experiences a justification for the proud tradition of Best Actor and Best Actress?

A more honest pressure campaign would have challenged the categories of Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, which were added in 1936. The distinctions between lead and supporting have always been flimsier and more prone to manipulation by studios — yet there have been no such calls for the eradication of these categories on grounds of “equality” because the voices behind the calls are not honest. Even the groups which have made such changes remain deeply divided and defensive about them. The Los Angeles Film Critics passed their change by a single vote and a plurality which still did not represent a majority of the voting membership. Film Independent President Josh Welsh, meanwhile, has acknowledged division within the organization but routinely declines to comment further or give any interviews but to “friendly” outlets.

For its part, the Academy is no stranger to bullies and pressure campaigns — attempts to leverage the organization and its awards in the service of assorted agendas are as old as the Academy itself. But the last decade has seen the organization’s stakes significantly raised. Telecast ratings have collapsed, in large part because the organization and its honorees are seen as increasingly disconnected from its once reliable television audience of tens of millions. Bowing to fringe pressures at this fragile point in time would spell certain disaster for the organization’s legitimacy and the telecast’s ratings. Many seem to have forgotten that the “me” in #MeToo” is female, and that the “too” is a call to female unity, a movement borne of the courage of actresses who fought back against the predations of a famous producer and the imbalance of power they have always faced within their industry. The farce of “genderless” acting categories will not remedy these problems. If anything, it’s likely to make them worse by pretending the underlying problems don’t exist.

The voices lobbying for such changes are both dishonest and disconnected from reality and we urge the Academy to ignore them. “