Image Source: Getty / Matt Winkelmeyer
On Jan. 11, the day of the 2018 Critics’ Choice Awards, Asia Kate Dillon lands in Los Angeles. Before the big event – during which they will rock the red carpet in a Black Lives Matter sweater – Asia drops by POPSUGAR’s LA office. It’s a big day for Asia, who is just 33 years old; their attendance at the ceremony and inclusion on the list of nominees are history in the making.
In early 2017, Asia joined Showtime’s Billions as Taylor Mason, who is actually the first nonbinary character to appear on a TV drama. Nonbinary, Asia tells me, is “a term used by some people who experience their gender identity as falling outside the boxes of man or woman.” (As a matter of clarification, nonbinary individuals often prefer they/them/their pronouns.) The role was perfect for Asia; in the time since joining Billions, they have begun to also identify as nonbinary, just like their character. In fact, as Asia revealed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, they first learned about the term “nonbinary” from the character description for Taylor. It’s a special, full-circle moment: life informs art, and art, in turn, informs real life.
Image Source: Everett Collection
Before we return to the matter at hand, the Critics’ Choice Awards, it’s important to add a bit more context. By the time Summer 2017 rolled around, Showtime was considering submitting Asia for Emmy consideration. Asia recounted the moment: “The Emmy board asked, ‘Well, actor or actress?’ And Showtime said, ‘Well, we’re not sure.’ And so they came to me, which is really great.”
When presented with the obvious gender binary of something like the Emmy nominations, it seems hard to reconcile a nonbinary identity. “Showtime came to me and said, ‘What do you think?’ And I decided that I needed more information, frankly, before I could answer that question,” Asia remembers. “So I wrote this letter to the Emmy board asking them how they use the words ‘actor’ and ‘actress.’ Whether they are referring to assigned sex . . . if it’s based on gender identity, there’s no room for me.” While Asia ultimately did not receive a nomination for an Emmy, this deliberation led to Asia’s historic nod in the Critics’ Choice category for best supporting actor.
“I’m proud, and I’m humbled, and I’m grateful, and it means that the change is here.”
The nomination process for Critics’ Choice runs a bit differently than that of the Emmys. “It’s not a submission,” Asia confirms. “They just choose . . . I believe that they have come out on their own and done this based on the backstory.” But regardless of the way Asia lands on a nominations list, one thing is for sure: these Hollywood institutions are working to respect their gender identity. “It means the world. I’m proud, and I’m humbled, and I’m grateful, and it means that the change is here,” Asia says of the best supporting actor nomination. “The change we want to see is here. It’s evidenced by the fact that I’m here. This is happening. They’ve gone ahead and made this decision, and there’s still further to go. And I’m excited to see where we go. We continue to go together.”
For Asia, it’s not enough to have their identity respected in a cool way. Asia wants to challenge the archaic idea that we need gender divisions in award shows in the first place. “I don’t believe that our assigned sex or assumed sex at birth should be a prerequisite for the way in which we separate people before we compare or honor art that they’re making. We don’t do it in any other category at award shows. I think – if we were to have a conversation about the ways in which we can create equal representation and make sure we’re telling all the stories we need to be telling – we wouldn’t say, ‘Well, we need a best directoress category. We need the best cinematographeress category.’ Because separate is not equal, and it’s never inclusive. You know? And I’m just really excited that the conversation is happening, regardless or whether or not I win.”
Image Source: Getty / Frazer Harrison
This isn’t the first time Asia has challenged gender in the award show model. In fact, they first stepped into the gender-neutral spotlight in May 2017, when they presented Emma Watson with MTV’s first genderless acting award. Even in her speech, Emma’s words echoed the same sentiments expressed by Asia: she said acting “doesn’t need to be separated into two different categories.”
During my interview with Asia, I seize the opportunity to discuss an important counterpoint, one I’d written about after the MTV Movie Awards: if we eliminate gender from award shows, will women get shut out? Will nominations be even more saturated with men than before? And if cisgender women are shut out of genderless acting categories, what hope will there be for transgender women and nonbinary individuals?
“We’re talking about it now. We’re uncovering it now. And even if we take two steps back, that’s the conversation now.”
Asia does not shy away from the issue and, in fact, offers an illuminating response. “Frankly, creating the category of ‘actress’ didn’t do much for representation or inclusion of anyone other than white cisgender women, for the most part, within the Hollywood structure . . . I’m not worried that getting rid of gender categories is going to mean that women of color, trans women, historically marginalized, and historically disenfranchised people will receive even less representation, because we’re talking about it now. We’re uncovering it now. And even if we take two steps back, that’s the conversation now. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s like even if we eliminated gender and then, suddenly, all men were getting nominated, it would be a conversation. We would talk about that. And that would be the problem that we would be solving.”
Driving the point home, Asia continues, “The conversation is actually about why Hollywood has been so steeped in the patriarchy and misogyny. That’s what the #MeToo movement is about. That’s what Time’s Up is about. I mean, these movements are happening congruently because they are interconnected and could not exist without each other. And [they] exist because of each other. It’s just a way to have conversations that say, ‘Separate was never equal.’ And if we’re lacking representation, then who are we funding? And why? And what projects are getting made? And what kind of people do you have in your writers’ room? Who are your producers? And that change is already happening.”
By now, you know that Asia ultimately didn’t win in their category, but this benchmark is about so much more than the trophy. It marks a true turning point in the entire history of award shows. The Critics’ Choice Awards may be behind us, but there are many more shows ahead and many more opportunities to initiate real change – and Asia wants to be at the forefront of the movement.