It’s Awards Show season and, as usual, there’s a fair amount of controversy about who was and wasn’t nominated for any number of awards. But recently the Huffington Post questioned the relevance of the awards categories themselves. In other words, do actresses like Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Helen Mirren need a separate gender category in order to win trophies for their acting performances?

In a contest of intellect or artistry, it can be argued that gender shouldn’t matter. As feminist Gloria Steinem states about acting, ‘It’s not like it’s testing your upper body strength.’ Put in another context – would it be applicable to suddenly create a category for a Women’s Nobel Prize in physics? Or a Female Man Booker Prize?

And why can we make distinctions based on gender when we wouldn’t dare do so based on race? You wouldn’t cast Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Octavia Spencer’s Minny Jackson in The Help, no matter how brilliantly she could have acted it. If you accept differences based on sex, shouldn’t you also accept differences based on race?

Similarly, the fact that there aren’t separate gender categories for behind-the-scenes awards such as Best Director and Best Screenplay raises the question why this distinction is being made for the performer.

According to Sally Field, nominated for an Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance in Lincoln, ‘If you do that, you won’t see any actresses up there at all. The percentage of roles is so weighted toward actors. That’s the way it’s always been.’

The main issue here, then, perhaps isn’t the categories but rather the fact that women get considerably fewer roles than men. This is hidden by the artificial celebration of performances onstage each year. Females comprised only about a third of the characters in the 100 top-grossing films in 2011 in the US, despite making up slightly more than half of the population, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

In the behind-the-scenes film and TV categories in which the sexes compete, women rarely make it onstage at awards ceremonies. The Oscars started in 1929, but it was only in 2010 that the first woman was honoured as Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker). Women make up a mere 9% of the directors on 2012’s top grossing films, a new San Diego State University study found.

In this context, Steinem sees legitimate reason to retain separate acting awards. When two unequal groups are combined, it’s the less powerful one that loses, she says.

So, what do you think? Should Jessica Chastain’s performance in Zero Dark Thirty be judged alongside Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in Lincoln?

Michelle Hattingh, CT Intern