The Independent Spirit Awards were the latest Hollywood voting body to go genderless with its awards, announcing on Aug. 23 that the best lead actress and best supporting actress awards were being retired forever.

Instead, there will be only “best lead performance” and “best supporting performance” awards handed out to a gender-diverse pool of 10 nominees in film and scripted series categories at the ceremony, scheduled for March 4, 2023.

To make up for the two eliminated categories, a new category, honoring a “breakthrough performance in film,” was added — for a total of seven total acting awards presented, down from eight previously.

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This move follows similar ones made previously by the Grammys (which went genderless in 2012) and the Gotham Awards, which made a similar move in 2021.

“It’s something we’ve been discussing for a while,” says Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, which mounts the Independent Spirit Awards. “It’s come up over the last two years as something for us to consider, both at the staff level and the board level.”

Welsh says the reasons for the decision are twofold. First, Film Independent sees acting as no different from the various other disciplines that contribute to filmmaking. “For almost 40 years at The Spirit Awards,” he says, “we have recognized writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors very well without any reference to their gender. … Why aren’t we evaluating actors just on the basis of their craft, like every other award category that we’re giving out? It just seems like it’s reflective of the cultural moment that we’re in.”

Secondly, the new categories offer a more inclusive space for gender-nonconforming nominees. “The non-binary population really has no place at an awards show,” Welsh says. “You’re required to choose if you want to be identified as male or female. The Spirit Awards are a welcoming, inclusive ceremony. It’s about freedom of expression. And if people can’t freely express who they are and we’re requiring to come to the show and identify in a way that they’re not comfortable with, that just seems plainly wrong.”

Welsh acknowledges concerns were raised internally about the elimination of the female categories — a move that could be construed as running counterintuitively to the post-MeToo and Time’s Up Hollywood landscape.

“That was certainly discussed,” he says. “And there’s a very legitimate concern that Hollywood is obviously not a level playing field when it comes to women in the industry. … But I don’t think the way to address that problem is by holding on to sort of antiquated award categories. I don’t think that’s the solution.”

For Kirsten Schaffer, CEO of Women in Film, a group that since 1973 “advocates for and advances the careers of women working in the screen industries,” the genderless awards show trend is something to applaud.

“The work of Women in Film, particularly in the last few years, has been to advance women and gender nonconforming people in the industry. And so this is definitely a way to do that,” Schaffer says.
“All of the actors who identify as non-binary or don’t fall cleanly into a gendered category now have an opportunity.”

“I applaud them for trying something new,” she continues. “Sometimes I think the thing that’s going to level the playing field for women is to change the dynamics around gender. So that if we all moved in direction of gender nonconformity or nonbinary-ism, maybe then we wouldn’t have such a problem.”

Like the Gotham Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards are chosen by committee, meaning winners are chosen internally and can be adjusted to avoid a lopsided number of, say, male-identifying winners in any given year.

Schaffer says she’ll be observing the results carefully to see how the rules change plays out. “It’s important to ask the questions and have the conversations and I think it’s also important to keep an eye on it,” she says. “If it ultimately hurts women, then I hope that they’ll readjust.”

As for the Academy Awards — which are voted on by a body of over 10,000 members — in a recent media scrum, new Academy CEO Bill Kramer said the organization is “conducting due diligence” on gender neutrality, “but there’s no plan right now to activate that.”

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