I avoid using the word "actress". I long ago stopped using "fireman" and "spokesman", and I never used bygone terms such as "aviatrix" or "authoress". I don't say "male nurse" or "female Marine".

So I typically use "actor" to describe a person who acts (it does complicate things that "actor" was masculine in the original Latin, but that, for me, is akin to how my last name is made up of my father's and my husband's, respectively, so let's just get on with it). If your job is to act, 90 per cent of the time I'm going to call you an actor.

And then there's the Oscars, the nominations for which will be announced tomorrow. Any other day I'd call Laurie Metcalf an actor; if she gets a nomination for Lady Bird, I'll have to refer to her as "a nominee for best actress". The categories for the acting awards are clear - but why?

The Pulitzers aren't divided by sex; nor the MacArthur "genius grants". Competitive Scrabble isn't; neither is professional poker. Because no matter what you think about the difference between female and male brains, when it comes to these artistic and intellectual pursuits, the skills are the same for men and women.


So why do the Oscars treat acting any differently? (In the spirit of #notallawards, last year Emma Watson won the MTV Movie & TV Award for best actor, a gender-neutral award.)

None of the other Academy Awards categories are divided by gender: There's no best female director, no best male costume designer. Why not open the best acting and the best supporting acting categories to 10 nominees each and let the pink and blue chips fall where they may? If the skills and abilities are the same, then let the top actors, male and female, battle it out on a level playing field.

The only problem is that "level playing field" thing. I doubt a gender-neutral competition would fall into a 50-50 split. My gut tells me more men than women would get nominated, not because of any overt sexism, but because men are more likely to get the meaty roles the Academy likes to recognise.

Take last year: If the lead performances were all lumped together, there is no way Meryl Streep would have been nominated for Florence Foster Jenkins, because Joel Edgerton, who was snubbed for his role in Loving, would have edged her out.

Not because Streep's performance wasn't great but because his role was much more Oscar-y. He got the silent, tortured, emotional role; she got handicapped by comedy, which made her a dark horse even in the all-female category. The skills and abilities of top actors may be the same, but the opportunities are not.

While niche awards ceremonies draw at least some attention to often-marginalised or under-represented groups, the Oscars are where the spotlight shines brightest.

The gender imbalance in the roles available shapes what's awarded. Until women are afforded the same number of high-quality roles that men are, the categories have to be separate to even have a shot at making the recognition equal.

Winners in my book

Not everyone who deserves an acting nod gets one. Here are 10 performances that might not nab Oscars but are still among the best of 2017:

Everyone, basically, Mudbound
Betty Gabriel, Get Out
Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip
Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming
Hugh Jackman, Logan
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Ezra Miller, Justice League
Andy Serkis, War for the Planet of the Apes
Keala Settle, The Greatest Showman
Daniela Vega, A Fantastic Woman