When Asia Kate Dillon first auditioned for the non-binary character of Mason on Showtime TV series Billions, the performer wasn’t entirely sure what the term ‘non-binary’ meant.
“I saw the breakdown for the character,” Dillon recalled. “It said, ‘female, non-binary.’ 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.”
Dillon, who now identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun they, impressed viewers and studio executives alike with their performance, arguably outshining the show’s more established stars, Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, and Maggie Siff. Showtime came away so impressed that they decided to submit Dillon’s performance to the Emmy awards — but first, the network execs had to ask Dillon what category they wanted to be submitted to.
Before making a decision, Dillon decided to write a letter to the Television Academy asking whether the terms ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ were meant to “denote anatomy or identity.”
“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,” Dillon wrote. “Furthermore, if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are meant to denote assigned sex I ask, respectfully, why is that necessary?”
After the academy responded with a letter explaining that their rules state “anyone can submit under either category for any reason,” Dillon chose to enter the actor category on the basis that actor, historically, was a “non-gendered word.”
Dillon, a diligent researcher, said that the term ‘actor’ had first appeared in the late 1500s as a term that “applied to all people, regardless of anatomical sex or gender identity.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it wasn’t until approximately 1700 that the term “actress” first appeared.
While some gendered terms such as “stewardess” have gradually been discouraged from mainstream use in favor of non-gendered terms such as “flight attendant,” other terms such as “actress” have remained in use — in part because of award shows like the Emmy’s. Already, however, newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer have stopped using “actress” in place of “actor” — except, of course, in the case of awards.
Read the full story at The Washington Post.