“Acting is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and that doesn’t need to be separated into two different categories.”
These were Emma Watson’s words as she accepted the MTV Award for “Best Actor in a Movie” as a result of her role as Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Her acceptance speech not only expressed her gratitude for receiving the award, but also her joy at it being the first ever gender neutral award for acting. While the MTV Awards are not renowned for being the most prestigious, in comparison to awards like the Oscars or the Emmy’s, the 2017 awards mark a milestone for gender equality in Hollywood.
Many, like Watson, expressed their approval of the move. Billions’ actor Asia Kate Dillon, who presented Watson with the award, perfectly summed up the motivation behind merging the male and female categories, eloquently stating that “the only distinction we should be making when it comes to awards is between each outstanding performance”. Dillon, who made history as the first ever non-binary character on TV, previously challenged the Television Academy on its binary classification of categories – neither of which Dillon subscribes to. Merging the male and female categories into one seems logical, as there is no justifiable reason why they should be awarded separately. Unlike sports, for example, there is no real difference between the performance of a male and a female actor, since such awards on judged on the quality of the acting alone.
Proposals for similar mergers have been thrown around for years, but criticisms and concerns have prevented them from being imposed until now. Some criticisms are the expected shouts of the change being “ridiculous” and “unnecessary” and a threat to traditional gender roles. However, other criticisms are based in genuine concern that if such changes were widely introduced, it would only serve to exacerbate the sexism within the entertainment industry.
The worry is that, if male and female actors were nominated in a single category, then this would lead to female actors being pushed out in favour of their male counterparts. In 2016, women only made up twenty-nine per cent of lead roles, as reported by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film. Considering the fact that this low percentage was actually a historic record, the likelihood that women would achieve the same number of nominations as men is unlikely. The more prestigious accolades, such as the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, have their winners decided upon by an exclusive body of industry professionals. These bodies are overwhelmingly male, which naturally lessens the opportunity for woman to receive proper recognition. One only has to look at the Academy Award for “Best Director” to see that moves towards gender neutral awards would not work as intended, as it has only seen four female nominees in its eighty-eight-year history, despite being open to directors of any gender.
Following MTV’s lead in gender neutrality is a goal that the entertainment industry should strive towards. But if such a change was not backed up by efforts to increase diversity and representation in a wider sense, then it would be essentially useless, and might even serve to hamper existing efforts. And, now that the precedent has been set, gender neutral awards seem the only obvious choice for the future.
Photo Credit: Irish Film Institute