Is It Time to Retire Gendered Categories for Music Awards?

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As non-binary artists continue to call for fair representation, awards shows contend with the established practice of separating categories by gender — while others, like the Grammys, show that change is possible.

Sam Smith is not a fan of the current music awards system.

Posting a message to their social media on March 12, the singer — and arguably the most famous non-binary artist currently working in music — called out the Brit Awards for their continued use of gendered award categories in 2021, pointing out that artists who identify as neither male nor female are being routinely excluded.

"The Brits have been an important part of my career, one of my earliest achievements was winning Critic’s Choice in 2014,” Smith wrote in their statement. “Music for me has always been about unification, not division. I look forward to a time where awards shows can be reflective of the society we live in. Let's celebrate everybody, regardless of gender, race, age, ability, sexuality and class."

Smith is not alone. For the last several years, as more artists like Smith have begun to publicly identify as non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderfluid and genderqueer — artists such as Christine and the Queens, King Princess, Arca, Dorian Electra, Adult Mom and others —  music award programs have started to feel more pressure to eliminate any categories surrounding gender.

The majority of music awards today still have "male” and “female” trophies handed out each year, including the Brits, the American Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards (all of which declined interviews or statements for this story). The question remains — should these awards be removed to bring about more inclusion for those outside the gender binary?

One notable exception from that list of awards shows is the Grammys. Back in 2012, before the debate regarding gendered categories and their exclusion of non-binary artists became mainstream, the Recording Academy announced a sweeping overhaul of their disparate categories — including the removal of all gendered categories.

Neil Portnow, the former CEO of the Recording Academy, told Billboard at the time of the change that “[We asked], is there an underlying infrastructure and rationale across all the awards as to how we're doing this? And what we found is, there wasn't. So we said, 'All right, let's deal with the holy grail here. Let's sit down and talk about what might be a vision or an overview structure of this that gives us some consistency.'"

Bill Freimuth, the Academy’s chief awards officer, tells Billboard that conversations around the restructuring began in 2009, and were largely focused on cutting down the 109 categories that were in circulation.

"We never, ever in our 50-some-year history at that time, had gone through a total re-evaluation of our category structure and how it works and what makes sense,” he says.

In evaluating those categories, the task force put together by Freimuth and the awards team at the Recording Academy began asking themselves questions regarding potential nominees who do not fit within the binary limits that had been set for them.

“We took it a step further and asked, ‘Okay, what happens if a genderqueer person wins, or even wants to submit a record, in best R&B, male or female performance?’” he says. “We wanted to get ahead of that curve, not just to save face in a future situation like that, but because it's a reality in our world right now, and we wanted to respect that."

In the fields of pop, R&B and country — the three genres in which gendered categories existed at the time — the Grammys took out all gendered categories and replaced them with a singular “solo performance” category (except in R&B, which simply became “best R&B performance”). Now, none of the awards handed out at the annual ceremony are exclusively geared toward male or female nominees.

The Grammys were one of the first major awards shows to part with gendered awards, but not the last — in 2017, MTV announced that their Video Music Awards and Movie & TV Awards would do away entirely with gendered categories, even changing the VMAs’ iconic “Moonman” award to “Moon Person.”

Chris McCarthy, the president of MTV Entertainment Group, ViacomCBS, tells Billboard via email that the choice to remove gender from their awards shows was directly in response to the requests of their audience. “Our viewers don’t see male or female dividing lines, so removing gender barriers felt like an obvious choice,” he says. “Almost four years later, it remains a touchstone in our mission to always reflect the audiences we serve across everything we do.”

So, if the aim of eliminating gendered categories is to be more inclusive of more artists, then why are so many awards shows hesitant to remove them?

In their response to Sam Smith’s statement, the Brit Awards brought that internal debate into partial view. “The Brits are committed to evolving the show and the gendered categories are very much under review,” they wrote in response. “But any changes made to be more inclusive need to be just that -- if a change unintentionally leads to less inclusion, then it risks being counterproductive to diversity and equality. We need to consult more widely before changes are made to make sure we get it right.”

The concern of “less inclusion” in genderless awards applies mainly to female artists — some fear that removing “male” and “female” distinctions in awards categories will lead to awards shows in which men dominate, and women are largely excluded.

Rebecca Bodenheimer, a freelancer writer and researcher with a PhD in ethnomusicology, wrote a piece for CNN in May 2017 raising concerns regarding gender equality at awards programs. After the MTV Movie & TV Awards’ first broadcast featuring all genderless award categories, Bodenheimer noted that even though the evening’s two main acting awards went to women, she still felt concerned about the future of awards like this.

“I don’t foresee this move heralding a genderless future,” she said of genderless awards. “Before we dispense with gender (and race), we need equity, and in a world where ... a room full of old, straight white men can still make decisions about women’s bodies, we aren’t there yet."

There are some statistics to back up those fears — according to the fourth annual “Inclusion in the Recording Studio” study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published in March 2021, women made up only 13.4% of all nominations at the Grammys from 2013 to 2021, with 86.6% of all nominations going to men.

An LGBTQ activist who spoke to Billboard on background also noted that while gendered categories may have a limited future, there is concern in the community regarding repercussions for transgender and non-binary people should widespread changes to categories like this be made — especially in a world where even the removal of gender from a toy like Potato Head can cause massive backlash.

However, the USC report also points out that the Grammys are making important progress, slowly but surely; in 2019, 2020 and 2021, female nominees have steadily increased, each year making new records for the number of women nominated. The 2021 Grammys reached a nine-year high for women in music, as 28.1% of all nominees identified as women.

“There were nearly four times as many women nominated for a Grammy Award in 2021 in the five major categories (record of the year, album of the year, song of the year, best new artist and producer of the year) evaluated as there were in 2013,” the report reads.

Freimuth also points out that for the “solo performance” categories where gender was removed, female artists are being represented at near parity. In the category of best country solo performance, out of the 51 nominees since its creation in 2012, 23 were female, meaning women made up 45% of the nominees. Five of the 10 winners in that category were women.

The statistics are even better for women in the R&B and pop categories as well, with 31 out of 50 nominees (62%) in best R&B performance featuring women, and six out of 10 winners featuring women. In best pop solo performance, 36 of the 51 nominees were women (70.6%), and six out of 10 winners were women.

That trend also tracks at the VMAs — in the category for artist of the year (which replaced the “best male/female video” categories starting in 2017), 11 of the 24 nominees (45.8%) were women, and three of the four winners were women.

Freimuth understands the concern over women not getting the representation they deserve from a purely mathematical standpoint. “Of course, there’s more opportunity [for women to be nominated for and win Grammys] when you have five nominations that are absolutely guaranteed, and one guaranteed winner,” he says. “But there’s no real reason why a male and a female can’t compete together in a category like best country performance. It's not about gender, it's about performance.”

The study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative also indicates that existing gender disparities at awards shows like the Grammys are symptomatic of a much larger problem within the music industry itself — according to the study, across the 900 popular songs studied, only 21.6 percent of all artists were female. Women made up a measly 12.6% of songwriters, and a paltry 2.6% of all producers.

Even on the year-end Billboard Hot 100 chart for 2020, the study points out,  79.8% of all artists represented identified as men, while 20.2% identified as women, and no artists identified as gender non-conforming or non-binary.

Freimuth says that, in his view, having gendered categories at the Grammys was not indicative of true inclusion — it was a Band-Aid for a larger problem. Now, he hopes the Grammys can help prove that genderless categories are better for everyone involved.

“For us, at least, having separate gender categories was saying that women can't compete with men. And that's just not true,” he says. “Now, I'm hopeful that non-binary-identifying people feel a little more at home at the Grammy awards as a result of these changes.”