Should awards be gender neutral?

Should awards be gender neutral?

An awards show celebrating Nigerian music took place earlier this month, in Atlanta, Georgia of all the places. But that wasn’t the most peculiar aspect of the popular Headies Awards, now in its 16th year – that distinction goes to the fact that after presenting each of the male categories on stage and their respective winners, the show ended, leaving the 14 female categories to be announced on social media only. 

It was a reminder of what can go horribly wrong at awards ceremonies. Fans of British music might remember the car crash that was this year’s BRIT Awards, in its second edition since doing away with gendered categories. The decision was taken after Sam Smith was automatically excluded from the 2019 awards, following their coming out as non-binary. It seemed like a wonderfully progressive idea – at last artists would be celebrated on merit without being divided along gender lines; the unfortunate reality was that not a single female was nominated for best artist. 

To add to their problems, artists now also have to contend with the looming threat of being replaced by artificial intelligence. If Hollywood studios end up with the upper hand after months of disputes with writers and actors, they might be able to save themselves the headache of humans and their genders altogether. 

The case for gender neutrality

Australian actor Liv Hewson, one of the brightest stars of ‘Yellowjackets’, has spoken about their decision to not submit themselves for the Emmy Awards, saying that to submit to a gendered category would be “inaccurate”. “It’s quite straightforward and not that loaded,” Hewson told Variety. “I can’t submit myself for this because there’s no space for me.”

Then there is the issue of what these awards actually, well, reward. In my wildest dreams, where I am a global pop star gazing up at my trophy-filled shelf, the ‘best female’ legend inscribed on each one leaves a bitter taste. Am I less than a man? Is a woman’s skill – in this case as a performer – not good enough to be rated in the same category as a man’s? (Or vice versa, one could argue). 

In practice, gender neutral awards are not new given that the Grammy’s did away with male and female categories in 2012. So why did the BRITs make such a mess of it?

The case for gendered categories

How wonderful it is to live in a world where belonging to one gender gives you no advantage over another. Unfortunately we aren’t living in it yet. 

The above mentioned BRITs had a longlist of 70 performers eligible to be nominated for the best artist prize, of which just a dozen were female (to be eligible, an artist must have achieved at least one top 40 album or two top 20 singles the previous year). The official line from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) was that “2022 saw fewer high-profile female artists in cycle with major releases as was the case in 2021.” Even if that was accurate this ratio seems unlikely in reality. And it’s not like there weren’t any big hitters – Charlie XCX, Florence & The Machine and Rina Sawayama are just three that fit the awards’ criteria.  

One could debate the merit of awards recognising artists based on sales given the money and PR machines involved in making those sales happen, but that’s an argument for another day. The point is the message this sends out – that the industry will go with the gender neutral tag as long as it is fashionable, without putting any work into creating a truly inclusive contest. 

There isn’t a simple answer to the question of whether gender categories should be abolished. Adding a third, non-binary category would defeat the point. Maybe this won’t be resolved until the gender row (hopefully) dies down as the idea of people self-identifying stops becoming a cause of outrage and sensationalism. Or, until we’re all replaced by AI. 

Leila Hawkins

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