Sunday, March 06, 2011

Notes on sex-segregated performance awards

A perennial brain-teaser for the chattering classes is whether awards such as Best (Supporting) Actress [or Best Performance by an actress in a leading (supporting) role] have any real merit or legitimacy. Dennis Dutton argues that they do, a key Irish film/media blogger disagrees.

The latter author suggests, in effect, that we should break the question down into two sub-questions, and finds (unsurprisingly!) that this steers us towards his own negative result. I agree with the suggestion but not with the subsequent finding: both sub-questions can be answered, leading to a positive result overall.

Q1. Why should there be sexed acting awards but not sexed directing, writing, etc. awards?
Rough Answer 1: Because actors' sex is part of their performances/job in a way that directors' etc. sex isn't.

Q2. But race/age etc. are also part of actors' performances/job (in a way that directors etc. race/age etc. isn't), why not have separate awards in those cases too?
Rough Answer 2: For a mixture of practical and principled reasons, sex is a more fundamental division within performances than the others.

In both sub-answers I suggest that the awards should take clues from the actual structures of competition in performance industries.

Detailed Answer 1:
(i) Follow the lines of competition: female actors are overwhelmingly in competition just with one another for one pool of roles, and male actors compete with one another for an almost completely disjoint set of roles. The sexed awards then just preserve and extend the actual, bifurcated structure of competition that’s prevailed the rest of the year, as it were, as part of normal business. Directors, writers, editors etc., by way of contrast, all compete for the same jobs, regardless of sex.
(ii) Compare: fashion designers, choreographers etc. are sex-neutral but models/dancers etc. are sexed. Film isn't anything out of ordinary - performance generally is sexed, production/creation isn't.
(iii) One can always ignore all sexed competitive sub-structure if one wants to or for certain purposes, e.g., one could try to rank the top models or top ballet dancers from 1 to 10 regardless of sex. But those sorts of overall comparisons are done relatively infrequently and feel artificial when they are done. Within-sex comparisons and rankings, by way of contrast, are commonplaces and feel routine and well-judged precisely because that's the level at which close competitive comparisons are made every day in performance industries. Sex-neutral Best Thespian awards at the Oscars in addition to Best M/F awards have little appeal for this reason I believe. (It's interesting, however, that people can find sex-neutral only award regimes rather more tempting notwithstanding that they pose the same not-rooted-in-actual-competitive sub-structure problems.)

Detailed Answer 2:
(i) Sex is more fundamental - relatively non-arbitrary and relatively stationary (see below) - than the other divisions, so any proposal for other performance award partitions would tend to have to be ‘in addition to’ M/F. But then on one level the answer can be strictly practical: that would be too many acting awards (‘and the Oscar for best white actress over 50 goes to….’).
(ii) The vexed case of race. Does anyone really understand it? (e.g.: Are Jews or Roma a race? Is Asian one race or ten? Is Charlize Theron an African-American? and so on) Don't the huge numbers of people in indefinitely many intermediate and overlapping racial categories make the idea of a legalized, administrative partition of people into racial categories a complete fantasy? Assuming yes and no answers to the foregoing, no racial partition will, except as a v. rare empirical fluke, equally partition the pop.. Sex ratios, by way of contrast, are (normally/almost always) 1:1, hence there's a natural basis for equal numbers of awards. Given that racial blocs can be any relative size and can vary a lot over time there's no natural basis for equal numbers of awards per race. Wanna have 1/n of all acting awards go to a group that’s 1/n of the pop.? Be my guest. But which pop.’s ratios set the base-line: the Academy’s? SAG’s? the US’s? the world’s? And how often do we remeasure this? Remember that unlike the M/F partition there’s no species level invariant that settles things once and for all, so you have to keep measuring and adjusting if things are to stay proportionate.
(iii) Age categories are more stationary and well-formed than race categories (hence junior and senior tournaments and tours in sports) and with a bit of care one could make something like that work in acting awards. Still, it wouldn’t be that easy to settle on a partition that would seem just and natural. Life-spans vary quite a lot, some people age well and some don’t, etc. (Tommy Lee Jones and Bill Macy would have had to go straight onto the senior tour out of college, as it were!)

(i) It's been objected that much of my second answer is more practical than principled. The truth is that I’m happy to postpone principled argumentation discussion as much as possible. Principled/moral reasoning is necessarily fairly abstract and is normally inconclusive. Moreover, while I do think it's important to say something at that sort of level eventually, in my experience people tend to delude themselves all too quickly at that level. They're *so* sure that such and such is immoral but then it turns out that they're relatively easily flipped, and that behind the sanctimony is often little more than insubstantial, unreflective bravado and emotional tension. Practical and quasi-practical considerations by way of contrast are often more stable and effectively decisive (letting the chips of principled rationalization fall where they may).
(ii) At any rate, some of my argument in the race case is only semi- or quasi-practical.
  • That racial ideas aren’t well-formed or well-understood enough to make for a legalized partition structure tells us that racial distinctions are relatively insubstantial/ephemeral compared to sex
  • That the vast majority of roles are sexually specific (so that it’s almost certain that, say, Streep has never competed with Pacino for a role) whereas only a small minority of roles are racially specific (Will Smith and Larry Fishburne and Denzel compete every day with Keanu and Clooney and Crowe etc. for roles, e.g,, Crowe turned down the part of Morpheus in the Matrix movies before Fishburne got it; reportedly everything gets offered first to Will Smith these days) is telling us that in a very wide range of cases race really does drop out, that it mostly doesn't make for incomparabilities in casting). Roles that aren't sexually specific - famously Ripley in Alien - are the exception, whereas racially non-specific roles are the norm. The metaphysics of race is lousy and diffuse enough that the implications of race for acting is obscure in most cases, and isn't cast for. Race-based acting awards would require us not only to chose one from among the many possible racial schemes, that choice would be fateful in that it would entangle us in a project of erecting, and making visible, and policing that scheme's set of boundaries - boundaries that the industry itself had little uncoerced interest in. Charming.
(iii) But let's get fully principled! Racial, national origin, religion, creed classifications have ghastly histories associated with them: persecution, secession, war, extermination, you name it. Modern liberal democracies are therefore right to be wary of all such classifications: separate, distinct treatment of the potentially separable is dangerous (although in some cases, e.g., affirmative action, proudly unassimilative indigenous community promotion, it may be the lesser evil). But what of age, sex, sex orientation, and the like? These are features of life within any and every human family and community, and they aren't real bases for separate communities. Of course, ensuring equal flourishing/fulfilling of potential for everyone including the elderly, the young, women, gays etc. is still a real task for a community, and isn't ever automatic or easy. But special provisions of various sorts - the use of classifications by sex, age and the like - can be part of that flourishing and potential-fulfillment. There isn't the same moral and prudential case for complete seamlessness of public (and mostly private too) treatment that there is in cases of different races, national origins, religions, creeds, etc.. It can still be the best option to be completely age/sex/sex orientation-neutral - in some important sense that's still the default rule/normal case - but it's not required. Thus, it’s no surprise that, with exquisite sensitivity to the real details and form of human life, modern liberal democracies are fairly comfortable with:
  • (some) single-sex schools, prisons and hospitals
  • all manner of age-restricted institutions (can’t be president until 35, can’t pick up social security until 65, and so on)
  • Green & left-wing political parties around the world that require male and female co-leaders
  • Political systems that require party candidates to be alternately male and female
  • many important awards classifying by age, e.g., Fields and Bates medals for mathematicians and economists under 40
  • awards for performance that are often age- and sex-specific.
In sum, separate but equal (or at least substantially comparable) treatment of sexes, sex orientations, age-groups - of non-(strongly separable) classes generally - can be appropriate (say if there's some special advantage it would have or, more commonly, if a completely neutral regime would impose some special cost in context).
(iv) Directors, writers etc., like choreographers and fashion designers compete directly with each other for glory – those jobs aren’t sexed any more than being a mathematician or an engineer is – whereas performing tends to be strongly sexed. That women might be under-represented in these very prestigious, non-performance areas doesn’t change that (although it might show that lots of sexist forces are still in play). No woman has ever won a Fields medal in mathematics, but all a woman has to do to win one tomorrow is to do sufficiently stellar work. Prove an important result that anyone else could in principle have proved, that many have tried to prove but that all have failed....and you're in, regardless of sex. The first female Fields Medal winner may indeed have to overcome lots of sexism en route, but that will be as nothing compared to the effort and satisfactions involved in topping an intellectual summit that had eluded everyone previously. All conjectures and theorems from the Riemann Hypothesis down are her oysters, just as they are for everyone else. Similarly, Bigelow won her big award fair and square against all-comers, directing a film that, in principle, anyone could have made, but that only she did: end of story. Performing – acting, dancing and modeling doesn’t work that way. Mirren is a great actress. Turn Prospero into a woman – bring Propero to her – and she’s front of the line for the role, but if the role stays a man then Mirren is out of luck. But that’s the same lack of luck that almost all actors share almost all of the time. Except perhaps for a few hyper-androgynous types (who'll tend to be out of luck for ultra-masculine and ultra-feminine roles - no one really gets to 'do it all'), they’re sexed/gendered just as much as they are whatever age they are (except perhaps for a very few true Peter Pan-types), and so are most roles. If a role doesn’t come to them along those basic dimensions, they aren't right for it (under any normal competitive conditions) and effectively it just isn't open to them. If you haven't played Juliet by the time you're 30 then you're probably out of luck. And if you are man then (again, under any normal competitive conditions) Juliet is almost certainly out of reach at any age - rewrite to Julian and you're in business. Sexed acting awards reflect these sorts of realities.
(v) The Guardian had an interview with Mirren this weekend headlined 'I want to play Hamlet!'. This occasioned heated discussion almost all of which was wrong-headed, and about which I had to say the following:
When Mirren says 'I don't want to play Gertrude, I want to play Hamlet' she isn't talking about herself now, she's talking about herself over her whole career, i.e., a female Hamlet would have been a great role for her back in the day. (I'm guessing that Mirren would agree that male Hamlet would only be open to super-androgynous types like Tilda Swinton, again not to her now, but, as it were, back in the day.) The headline for the article misleads - more grist to Mirren's lifelong mill about The Guardian - but readers/commenters do need to read more carefully.

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