There is a cliché that segregationists across cultures have employed as a defence — “separate but equal”. The logic behind this dictum is simple: A class that is historically, socially and economically discriminated against is given its own, special slot, which both overtly and tacitly endorses it as being less than the mainstream. For some years now, this logic has been challenged across industries when it comes to gender. In cinema, both male and female thespians are referred to as “actors” and yet, awards that recognise their work continue to have different categories — best actor and best actress. The decision by the organisers of the Berlin Film Festival to no longer have separate awards for male and female actors is enormously welcome.
A defence for the separate categories to honour actors has been that given that there are more substantial parts for men in films across the board, fewer women are likely to be awarded. This amounts to pandering to a system of inequality rather than attempting to address it systemically. Imagine if the response to #Oscarssowhite — a hashtag and movement that called out the Academy Awards for their lack of racial diversity — had been to institute a different category for non-White film-makers.
In fact, few other honours and awards for intellectual and artistic pursuits are segregated along gender lines. Both Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie have received the Booker Prize — hers was not for a “woman writer”. The Pulitzer prize is gender neutral, as are most scholarships and grants. In mainstream cinema, greater recognition and even pay scales for male actors have been justified by the fact that they draw bigger audiences. But an award is not a recognition of commercial viability. Now that Berlinale, the largest film festival in the world, has decided that the judgements about acting and film-making should not be gender-hyphenated, hopefully others will follow suit.
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