Are gender-neutral acting awards the right move?

Berlin International Film Festival has decided to axe its male and female prizes from 2021

This week, festival directors of Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) made a groundbreaking announcement. As of next year, the awards for Best Actor and Actress – which have been given out at the festival since 1956 – are being ditched in favour of two new gender-neutral prizes.

“We believe that not separating the awards in the acting field according to gender comprises a signal for a more gender-sensitive awareness in the film industry,” festival directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian announced when the information was made public.

The festival, with its new practices, takes place in February and is proposed to be a fully physical affair instead of digital. As it’s the first major festival to implement this type of plan but also one of the earliest in the calendar year, Berlinale could positively impact the rest of the festival circuit and perhaps even the Oscars.

Berlin International Film Festival will award two gender-neutral prizes next year. Credit: Getty


Berlinale is generally regarded as one of the more progressive festivals (not hard when peers like Venice Film Festival award convicted sex offender Roman Polanski their Grand Jury Prize). Where it’s fallen behind though is in on-screen representation. While Sundance celebrated its most diverse programme yet in 2020 – just under 50% of its films were directed by women – and 60% of the films in competition at last year’s London Film Festival were directed or co-directed by women, Berlinale only managed 38% in its entire programme.

However, women still don’t receive equal treatment to men in Hollywood (last year just 37 per cent of its top grossing films featured a major female character). So it’s hardly surprising that a number of women in film remain sceptical about the news – and have taken to social media to relay this. After all, an industry which has historically underserved women (to put it lightly) pitting women against the men who have historically oppressed them doesn’t build much confidence.

Many film festivals, including Berlinale and Toronto (pictured), have signed up to the 5050×2020 gender parity pledge. Credit: Getty

There are reasons to be hopeful though. Berlinale has been a major backer of the 5050×2020 gender parity pledge that was introduced at Cannes in 2018. Since then, the festival has succeeded in reaching equality in some of its most senior positions, like on its executive board and among its festival directorships.

It’s also worth noting that at this year’s event (one of the only IRL festivals of the year), the stories about or told by women that Berlinale selected to showcase have gone on to international acclaim. Eliza Hittman’s profound and devastating Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a good example, as is Kelly Reichardt’s absorbing, lauded First Cow.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Newcomer Sidney Flanigan in ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’. Credit: Alamy

By taking the leap as the first major festival to introduce the new awards system, Berlinale have committed to featuring an equal number of male and female performances (lead and supporting) in the competition. They should expect to face some heavy scrutiny from festival-goers and the wider industry if they don’t.

Of course, the biggest takeaway from all this is about gender full stop. Gender boundaries are becoming increasingly malleable or simply don’t apply to some. Elsewhere, non-conforming and non-binary roles remain a rarity, although TV is slightly ahead of the curve with non-binary performances from Indya Moore as the dazzling Angel Evangelista in Pose or Lachlan Watson in Riverdale’s spooky sister show Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It’s encouraging that one of the most powerful film festivals in the world has decided to address the issue.


First Cow
John Magaro in Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’. Credit: Allyson Riggs / A24 Films

Of course, we’ve seen these new rules tested in the real world before. In 2017, the MTV Movie Awards ditched their Best Actress and Best Actor gongs and gave Emma Watson the prize for Best Actor in a Movie (Beauty and the Beast) instead (an award for Best Actor in a TV Show was bestowed on Millie Bobby Brown for Stranger Things).

“It indicates that acting is about the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” said Watson in her acceptance speech. “And that doesn’t need to be separated into two different categories.”

It may be some time before others follow suit, but this small shift feels important in recognising and rewarding those who feel oppressed by gender conformity. And that’s not to be sniffed at.


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