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The Independent Spirit Awards Moves Toward Gender-Neutral Acting Categories

Host Melissa Villaseñor on stage during the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards. She's wearing a leopard print dress, she's facing the audience with her knees slightly bent and her hands held over her head. She's holding up the index finger and pinkie of each hand.
Host Melissa Villaseñor on stage during the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
(Emma McIntyre
Getty Images for Film Independent)
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In what's an emerging trend, the Independent Spirit Awards have announced that its acting categories will no longer be defined by gender. Rather than "best actor" or "best supporting actress," for example, awards will be given to "best lead performance" and "best supporting performance."

The 38-year-old Spirit awards honor filmmakers working outside the studio system. It's not the first to make this move: the Grammy awards went gender-neutral in 2012, the MTV awards dispensed with gender distinctions in acting in 2017 and the Gotham Awards made a similar announcement last year.

"We're thrilled to join the other festivals and award shows that are already moving to celebrate great acting without reference to gender," Film Independent President Josh Welsh said in a statement. "We're also happy to welcome non-binary performers into the Spirit Awards without forcing them to choose to identify as male or female."

That was the position Asia Kate-Dillion found themselves in when the non-binary actor was asked by Showtime in 2017 if they wanted to be submitted for best actor or best actress.

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"It's erasure," Dillion told NPR in 2021. "It's exclusionary, and it continues to uphold a binary that is, ultimately, really dangerous."

The then-chief awards officer for the Recording Academy, Bill Freimuth, recalled when the Grammy Awards went completely gender-neutral.

"The question came up. Why do we have these categories? What's the difference between a male country singer and a female country singer? " he said. "And, no, that's not the lead into a joke. I have no punchline. It's just a matter of fact. They're both singing, so why do we need to separate that out? And the answer was, we don't know why."

The Spirit awards are seen as a step towards bigger film and TV awards, such as the Oscars and the Emmys, neither of which has given any indication of moving toward gender-neutral categories in acting.

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