Awards ceremonies are rarefied rituals. Actresses and musicians walk red carpets in fantastical confections of tulle and gossamer; PWC executives name incorrect winners while the entire world writhes in collective horror (and furtive glee). It’s a circus that we all enjoy, but rarely does anything feel especially real. Certainly, we stream the music and watch the films, but the connection feels fleeting.
Occasionally, though, we see recognisable agendas being acted out on a grand, A-list level. Today, MTV announced that it will be eliminating gendered categories in this year’s MTV Movie and TV Awards, which are taking place in LA in May. Consequently, this year’s best actor could be a man or a woman: Emma Watson is nominated in the same category as James McAvoy. It’s a notable volte-face: while some high-profile awards ceremonies like the Grammys have never awarded prizes down gender lines, the Oscars and the BAFTAs still employ separate categories for men and women.
It seems progressive. Especially, as it is a direct answer to a question posed by Billions star Asia Kate Dillon – a gender non-binary actor who was born female but does not identify as male or female. This week, it was reported that Dillon is being considered for an Emmy, and the organisers had asked whether the star would prefer to be nominated for best supporting actor or best supporting actress. Dillon wrote a letter, asking, “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?" The Emmys responded that “anyone can submit under either category for any reason”. Dillon was “thrilled”, and chose best supporting actor, reasoning that “actor” is generally received as a non-gendered word. MTV’s decision is its response to the debate, and duly, it keeps pace with the movement towards equality – especially for those who, like Dillon, don't identify as male or female.
Equality sounds so measured – but in reality, it’s hard to balance
For ultimately, gendered awards can reinforce an idea that music and film are, in turn, gendered: that there are movies for women and movies for men, that there is a type of music women make, versus a type that is made by men. In reality, normal people are unlikely to take much stock in that – we are more progressive than those making decisions at the top of the hierarchy – but there is still an important symbolism present, that can in turn unconsciously influence the way we think about art generally. Ultimately, awards ceremonies should be straightforwardly meritocratic. And when it works, it works – it’s one of the reasons that we feel so cheered when small-budget Moonlight, beats La La Land to Best Picture.
However, it is, as these things always are, complicated. While on a philosophical level, gendered division feels archaic, in reality, male and female awards can help to raise the profile of women actors or musicians. Both Hollywood and the music industry have poor records on equality and representation – having separate female and male categories guarantees, at least for one award, a spotlight on female actresses. Indeed, if you start following that argument, there’s a case for more separation: for example, no women were nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. Perhaps, a Best Female Director Award would open up the industry? Or is it condescending?
As essentially, this is the familiar competition between the indignities of the quota – women do not want to feel like they are being nominated just for being women – versus the reality that gendered awards do raise profiles of female actors and musicians. Though incidentally, none of this solves any other, crucial issues around representation: namely, the lack of minority nominees. Last year, the Oscars was christened #OscarsSoWhite on Twitter, after the resounding absence of diversity.
Moreover, removing the categories will also lead, inevitably, to more arguments – which might be why some ceremonies are loathe to do so. For example, some years there could be a better crop of female actors than there are male, just as could be the case the other way. Just because fewer women are nominated one year does not, by default, mean that there is sexism going on – but it’s hard to argue either way, especially when you’re in the realm of subjectivism, pinning one performance against another. And on the other hand, it is important to be vigilant: there are, objectively, fewer strong roles for women, and with scripts as they stand, removing the genders could make it harder for female actors to be nominated at all. So if it does become the norm to end the separation, it is very important that judging panels are representative and diverse, as it’s the only way to ensure that the nominees are too.
Equality sounds so measured – but in reality, it’s hard to balance.