It was only weeks ago that acclaimed artist Sam Smith announced their use of they/them pronouns, months after coming out as non-binary to the public. Smith’s fans offered thousands of tweets, comments and likes in support of their openness, while others seemed to miss the mark of understanding. Smith’s coming out is a milestone for mainstream music, but the organizations that seek to recognize their abilities as an artist are still far behind.
Presently, fans, voting committees and performers have become conditioned to what is considered “traditional” for awards categories — separating male and female artists. Even the Oscars, which have come under fire several times in the last decade for a lack of diversity, remain caught in the cycle of gendered recognition. But this practice introduces a fascinating question: where do artists lie if they don’t fit into the binary?
It seems that the root of the argument lies within a feminist perspective, alleging that merging the categories would allow women to be held to the same universal standard as men. While this may be the case, a more pressing issue may be the “otherism” that occurs when non-binary talents are excluded from the narrative surrounding awards shows and Hollywood inclusivity, more broadly.
Music, where Smith’s talent lies, isn’t the only medium falling behind. Conversations surrounding the Oscars potentially combining categories has been mainstream since at least 2016, the second year in a row that there was not a single person of color nominated for an acting award. Claire Fallon wrote for the Huffington Post, where she discussed the problem with cis-normativity in the awards circuit — it opens the doors for “old-school” prejudices that are harmful to those who are trans, non-binary or genderfluid.
GLAAD, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the LGBTQIA+ community, hosts an annual awards show; the GLAAD Media Awards are among the pioneers of bucking gendered categories, and others are beginning to take a hint. MTV is taking the lead on a number of moves to diversify awards season in their two annual shows, and The Atlantic reported in 2017 that the network would be among the pioneers of removing gender from award categories in the Movie & TV Awards. Later, the Video Music Awards took on the same approach.
“We have to constantly be pushing ourselves to not only respond to culture but lead it,” said MTV President Chris McCarthy in an interview with CNNMoney.
According to “Transparent” star Alexandra Billings, however, making the switch may not be as all-inclusive as we hope. While MTV may seem well-intentioned, Billings told Fallon in an interview that neutrality can be disappointing, particularly for trans performers.
“If you think about the history of the gender revolution, it has always been … maybe not always, but it’s been founded in assimilation,” Billings said in an interview with Fallon. “When I first started my transition, it was all about, how do I behave, look and sound like the Americanization of the modern female?”
The answer to this long-asked question is not clear and, in many ways, is a double-edged sword. We often see individuals like Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne and (almost) Scarlett Johansson recognized for playing the part of trans people, but have yet to see those with real, raw experiences leaving the stage with gold statuettes.
Hollywood has proved time and time (and time) again that it isn’t ready to take on the dialogue surrounding identity, but the clock is ticking. Gendered categories are tired tropes to give actors equal opportunities to take home trophies, but the highest awarded recognitions are not about participation — they are about empowerment.
The end of “othering” culture is long overdue, and the entertainment industry needs to be one of the first to take on change. With faith, trust and some much-needed protest and pushback against Hollywood’s traditional practices, we can take the first step by desegregating awards categories to welcome artists who don’t meet the cis-normative mold.