This year, MTV’s Movie Awards will be a little different. In part of a shake-up that also includes expanding the ceremony to recognize TV shows, there will now be fewer film acting prizes to give away. That’s because MTV has decided to abolish gender-specific acting categories altogether. Instead, the MTV Movie Awards will in 2017 debut a neutral Best Actor in a Movie category—something critics have been pushing for from the major film awards for years.
MTV’s reasoning for eliminating gender-split categories is that their audience “doesn’t see male-female dividing lines.” It’s true that generations coming up now, more likely to catch the MTV Movie Awards than older audiences (it’s not been called the “Golden Globes for millennials” for nothing), have less restrictive views on gender than generations past. The move is also a small bit of defiance in a nation presided over by Donald Trump and his set of retro-topian Republicans. Where the new political establishment seeks to regress on rights across the spectrums of sexuality and gender, where alt-right ghouls build sizeable followings insisting gender fluidity and the struggle of transgender people aren’t real, MTV has followed the Grammys—which started with gender-neutral awards categories a few years ago and hasn’t looked back—in pushing in the opposite direction.
Making film awards gender-neutral isn’t just a means of recognizing that the world has changed. At a time when men are undeniably still the most visible and powerful among us, gender-neutrality insists that everyone exists on a level playing field. It goes without saying that male and female actors, forever considered separately at movie awards, should be considered as though their efforts have equal weight; not to mention that those who don’t identify as male or female should have the chance to be considered for awards like anybody else, as Billions’ Asia Kate Dillon, who identifies as non-gender binary, recently argued in a letter to the Emmys. Critics have for years been making these very arguments. So now that MTV has introduced gender-neutral acting awards, what are the big ones—the Oscars, the Golden Globes—waiting for?
A cursory glance at how men dominate film awards overall immediately highlights one problem: sexism, like racism, is an issue that hasn’t gone away in Hollywood. In the last ten years, one out of 50 Best Director Oscar nominees has been a woman, while just 18 out of 100 Academy Award-nominated screenplays featured work by a female writer. One could make the argument that there should be more categories tailored to highlight women, not less. A Best Female Director or Best Female Writer category, say, would actually draw attention to the work women do behind the camera much more than the gender-neutral versions of those categories currently do (to boot, it wouldn’t take another 82 years for a woman to win an Oscar for directing).
As in virtually every other category at the Oscars currently, there’s a real risk that women, who are under-represented on-screen now as ever, would, in reality, barely feature in a non-gender-specific Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor category. Some say the problem is that the Academy gives short shrift to women and minorities because it is comprised mostly of old, white, male voters voting for other white men—indeed, AMPAS membership was recently shaken up for that very reason—but it goes deeper than that. Men dominate movie awards because the film industry is dominated by men generally. Film awards aren’t necessarily prejudiced in and of themselves—often they simply reflect the prejudice of the industry as a whole.
The biggest movies today are routinely led by men, with a supporting cast that’s often majority male. They’re also a majority of the time directed by men, written by men, produced by men, not to mention shot, scored and edited by men. Men get the most and best opportunities. Take gendered categories away, and you might find women celebrated even less at film awards than they are now. But keep them as they are, and the acting categories at awards like the Oscars—made up of ten men, ten women—also problematically remain a false representation of the modern movie industry as a place of equality. Open up categories to all by making them gender-neutral, and you still have to contend with the fact that Hollywood isn’t exactly awash with roles for the non-white and non-cisgender in the first place, either in front of the camera or behind it.
Perhaps the move by MTV, and others if they follow, will encourage change from the top-down. There’s also an argument to be made that turning acting categories gender-neutral can be a token gesture, concealing the fact that the movie business isn’t very gender-friendly at all. If for one brief period a year Hollywood sees fit to reward non-male artists, it doesn’t change the fact that, for the rest of the year, men still get more opportunities, more creative leeway and higher pay than anybody else in that world. It doesn’t really matter what those acting categories look like—that’s the wrong conversation. Never mind that movie prizes are ultimately meaningless (lest we forget Ordinary People beat Raging Bull to the Best Picture Oscar 36 years ago; when today the latter is a classic, while the former is forgotten, it’s hard to argue in favor of the lasting relevance of even Hollywood’s most prestigious award). In terms of gender, in Hollywood, change needs to be encouraged from the ground up. It won’t end with their film awards.