Fans of the Showtime series “Billions” have spent much of the second season enamored of the relatively unknown Asia Kate Dillon, who portrays a gender non-binary character named Taylor Mason.
Dillon’s breakout performance has arguably surpassed those of the show’s established stars, Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis and Maggie Siff. In fact, it so impressed Showtime that the network planned to submit Dillon’s performance to this year’s Emmy Awards.
There was only one issue. Much like the Mason character, Dillon identifies as gender non-binary and uses the pronoun “they.” The Emmy Awards, meanwhile, only have two categories for best supporting performance — actor and actress. The network asked Dillon which category Dillon would rather be submitted to.
Dillon wasn’t sure. The performer is new to the experience of identifying as non-binary. In fact, auditioning for the character of Mason led Dillon to self-discovery. As Dillon told Vulture:
… when I saw the breakdown for the character, it said “female, nonbinary.” And I thought, “Interesting, I think I know about those words, but let me do research into every aspect of this character and their world and who they are.” And so, female meaning sex and nonbinary meaning a gender identity that is an umbrella term for people who identify as neither man nor a woman. I just went, oh my gosh, there is language to express something about myself that I’ve always known, but could never put words to.
So Dillon researched the language behind “actor” and “actress,” then wrote a letter to the Television Academy, questioning the current system.
“I’d like to know if in your eyes ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ denote anatomy or identity and why it is necessary to denote either in the first place?” Dillon asked in the letter, which was obtained by Variety.
Dillon then pointed out, “The reason I’m hoping to engage you in a conversation about this is because if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are in fact supposed to represent ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a woman’ and ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a man’ then there is no room for my identity within that award system binary.”
Added Dillon, “Furthermore, if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are meant to denote assigned sex I ask, respectfully, why is that necessary?”
The academy quickly responded, telling Dillon the rules state “anyone can submit under either category for any reason,” Dillon told the magazine.
The Emmy Awards 2015-2016 official rules and procedures do not state any sort of gender or sex requirement for the various acting categories.
Dillon chose to enter the actor category, stating, “Given the choice between actor and actress, actor is a non-gendered word that I use. That’s why I chose actor.”
As Dillon explained to Variety, “What I learned through my research is that the word ‘actor,’ specifically in reference to those who performed in plays, came about in the late 1500s as a non-gendered word. It applied to all people, regardless of anatomical sex or gender identity.”
The term “actress” didn’t appear until hundreds of years later. As the Los Angeles Times reported:
In a convulsive late-17th century shift — dramatized in the 2004 feature “Stage Beauty” — the Restoration opened the stage doors of the English theater to women (they’d already made their entrances in Italy and France). At that point they were known as actors, along with their male counterparts. It would be several decades before the word “actress” appeared — 1700, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, more than a century after the word “actor” was first used to denote a theatrical performer, supplanting the less professional-sounding “player.”
As some gendered terms like “stewardess” have evolved into terms like “flight attendant,” the term “actress” has remained part of the mainstream vernacular, partly because of awards shows such as the Emmys.
The Guardian and the Observer published a new joint style guide in 2010 with a new entry for “actor.” It stated, “Use for both male and female actors; do not use actress except when in name of award, e.g. Oscar for best actress.”
The terminology hasn’t caused many logistical issues thus far. As The Hollywood Reporter pointed out, Dillon’s Mason is television’s first gender non-binary character. The character was received with such warmth, though, we can expect more representation of non-binary people like Mason in coming years. As Hollywood diversities, we can also expect more actors like Dillon.
At that point, the academy might need to reconsider its categories.