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Jeff Awards Scrap Gender-Binary Acting Categories, Proceed to Nominate Two-Thirds Men

The committee announced potential winners of the 2018 Equity Awards earlier this week.

Gavin Rohrer (far left), performing in Million Dollar Quartet at Paramount Theatre, is one of this year’s nominees.   Photo: Liz Lauren

The Joseph Jefferson Awards, honoring the best theater in Chicago as deemed by a volunteer committee, made the inclusive move this year to eliminate the gender binary in its performance categories. No longer will the nominations be divided into actors and actresses; instead, each category for principal and supporting role will consist of one pool — representing all genders, with at least 10 nominees and two winners.

So color me surprised when the nominations for the 2018 Equity Jeff Awards were announced yesterday: the list has more overall nominations for men and fewer for women than in 2017, and zero for openly nonbinary performers.

The Jeffs first decided to go gender neutral earlier this year for the 2018 Non-Equity awards, and it did nominate at least one actor who openly identifies as nonbinary. (The committee produces two ceremonies annually: for productions that work under Actors’ Equity union contracts, and for those that don’t.) With more and more performers on Chicago stages identifying as nonbinary, the awards committee saw a need to address this gender diversity in both of its events. According to a spokesperson, the committee will reevaluate the policy in two years.

That the first set of Equity nominations has men dominating three of the four main acting categories for plays and musicals — and only men nominated in the newly gender neutral category for Performer in a Revue — is, as they say, not a great look. And it plays right into persistent complaints about gender ratios in the directing and design categories as well as about the nominations’ racial diversity (or lack thereof). These complaints often point to the demographic makeup of the Jeff committee, which skews older, male, and overwhelmingly white.

The committee needs to make good on its promises to diversify, to better reflect the makeup of the field it’s appointed itself to judge. And it’s disappointing — and feels annoyingly inevitable — that this year’s policy change initially seems to be placing women and nonbinary folks at a disadvantage.

Yes, one year’s nominations isn’t much of a data set, and I believe the Jeff committee, whether it’s fully intentional or not, is actually setting an example for other awards to follow. We live in a world in which nonbinary individuals are more visible than ever, and awards shows like the Oscars, Tonys, Grammys, and Emmys are going to have to reckon with how they categorize gender. The Jeff Awards are joining the anti-stodgy likes of the MTV Movie and TV Awards, which earned praise for going genderless in 2017. And it’s hard to imagine the Jeffs reversing course in two years’ time; the way to address the Oscars’ woeful track record of honoring female directors, for instance, isn’t to create a new category for Best Female Director.

The danger, for the Jeff Awards in particular, is that Chicago theater has long shown a tendency to elevate a certain kind of masculine energy — the macho, manic, Mametian mode that came to be known as “the Chicago style” when Steppenwolf Theatre started exporting it in the ’80s. Leveling the playing field for performers is a good first step, but it will have to go hand-in-hand with an end to centering this kind of male “gravitas” in the stories we celebrate.

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