Monday 8 March 2010

Oscar splitting

Denis Dutton in the LA Times argues against the currently fashionable idea that we should simply have a "Best Actor" Oscar, gender neutral, rather than the current split between actors and actresses.
Now imagine that we are back in the glory days of the studio system. A distraught director phones central casting: A cast member has fallen ill on set, and the director needs an immediate replacement.

"Send me someone from your acting pool," he demands.

"But what specifically do you want," asks the head of central casting. "An actor or an actress?"

"Forget those sexist stereotypes," says the director. "I just want the best you've got!"

The plausibility of the parable of the sick child lies in this: Sex ought to make no difference in the effectiveness of a doctor. That's why, for instance, we don't need the sexist 19th century coinage "doctoress."

But acting is not a parallel skill. Actors play roles, and there are as many potential roles as there are kinds of humans in existence. In particular, there are roles that are not interchangeable, either historically or biologically. This means that the sex of actresses and actors is intrinsic to their work in ways that the sex of a doctor is not.

Central casting does not send a petite young woman to play a sumo wrestler, or a muscular hunk to play someone's sweet aged mother. This isn't sexism; it is the human condition. Drama and comedy do on occasion call for cross-dressing roles, but even these depend in the first place on our deep sense of the differences between the sexes: Cross-dressing does not obliterate the differences but rather heightens them.
Dutton goes on to argue the numerous ways in which gender differences are meaningful parts of the human condition:
One purpose of drama is to make the inner life of each sex intelligible to the other. Shakespeare knew this -- and so, when it's doing its job, does the movie industry.
I'm sympathetic to the argument. But I can't help but wonder what other aspects of self-identity encapsulated in fragmented Oscars couldn't also be defended on similar basis. Race? Sexual orientation? I can readily imagine a racially split Best Oscar defended on similar grounds. The case would be weaker as the distinction is perhaps less fundamental, but how do we know where to draw the appropriate cut-point? It's not like we can just find some critical eigenvalue below which differences no longer are significant.

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