This past week Emma Watson won the award for best performance by an actor in a film at the MTV movie awards. This marked the first time their performance awards – and any awards show’s performance awards for that matter – were not separated based on the performer’s gender. This happened under a holistic re-branding by MTV, focusing towards their youthful content and their audience who are, one would suspect more often than not, more accepting - and indeed desiring - of an awards show that offers a sense of inclusive diversity and equality.
For what it’s worth, I am pleased Emma Watson won the award, and I think MTV’s de-gendering of their categories is a bold and positive move, however this pleasure comes with some serious caveats, especially as it pertains to what this could mean for other awarding bodies, issues of representation, and gendered (in)equality more broadly.
Not long after the awards show I participated in a BBC Radio Scotland panel discussion where myself and two other guests unpicked what this could mean and where it could go. However, I didn’t quite have the time to fully explore my points, and to further complicate a conversation that can so easily become one-sided and dissatisfying.
In the interview we discussed how MTV’s move could impact upon other award shows like the Academy Awards for example. Essentially I came to the conclusion that despite MTV’s gender-neutral categories being a positive thing for their own brand, it wouldn’t transfer easily – or indeed well – to the Oscars. Firstly, MTV recognise an entirely different corpus of films than the Academy – and other similar institutions such as The Golden Globes and BAFTA awards - and alongside this, their nominating practices are equally different: MTV decide their nominees based on the show’s producers and network’s executive’s choices and the final votes are often open to the public, which inevitably privileges more popular material over lesser-seen work, but this isn’t necessarily the problem at had. MTV’s smaller scale of nominating practices allows itself to nominate with a sense of gender parity, whereas the Academy for example operates in a different manner, with nominating branches working within their specific field(s). As Geena Davis recently pointed out, the idea of The Academy following in MTV’s steps could be a dangerous and problematic route. On one hand it would suggest that we have in fact reached a state of gender equality, when we know this is far from the case, and on the other it overlooks the Academy’s persistent lack of gender equality. If we look at the award for Best Director for example (an award which should be gender-neutral in its own right) we can see that of the eighty-nine winning directors only one has been female (Kathyrn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2009) and of the four-hundred-and-seven nominated directors only a staggering four have been female. So clearly The Academy are not invested in nominating, let alone awarding, female directors with a sense of gender neutrality. There is little to account for this sharp gender bias other than the fact that men have a monopoly on this category – The LA Times estimate that the directing branch is 91% male (LINK 1), despite a wealth – albeit limited in big-budget films - of female directors working. So what is to suggest this would, overall, be any different with acting categories? Of course one could argue that the politics and studio backing behind a film’s Oscar campaign has a large role to play in this disparity, and indeed the directing branch possess a different demographic than that of the performers, and it is true that The Academy is undergoing a lot of changes aimed at bolstering diversity across their members, but we’re still not diverse enough, for lack of a better term. Despite The Academy’s membership records not being fully public, the LA Times discerned that 77% of voters are male, and I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch for one to extrapolate how this could impact upon nominating practices across the board. Furthermore, taking the MTV awards as a springboard that we have reached a state full gender equality suggests that all the work is done, which sadly isn’t the case: feminism needs a lot more than simply gender-neutral awards categories.
Another issue that we considered on the panel was the question of where trans and non-binary performers sit within this discussion. At the MTV awards Asia Kate Dillon – the star of TV’s Billions – presented Watson her award. Asia is a non-binary actor and recently made headlines on the grounds that they were granted permission by the Emmy Awards to choose their own category for consdiertion of their work on Billions. Asia decided to position themself in the male category appropriate to their work. This is a positive and inclusive decision from the Emmys, but it raises another question about whom exactly the idea of gender-neutral categories benefits. Emma Watson, despite her talent and indisputable use of her voice and platform for good messaging and dialogue on equality and justice, is a typically cis-gendered, privileged, white female - not entirely emblematic of the multiplicity of gender expressions one could expect from an idea of gender-neutrality. So I suppose I’m wondering this: do gender neutral categories serve to function as a means whereby men and women are on a level playing field, or for trans and non-binary performers to not have to fit themselves into different categories based on a male female dichotomy? Or perhaps it is both? And more to this point, as raised by Josie Smith on the BBC panel, this discussion really ought to revolve around issues of opportunity, employment and education. It remains true that women are hired in directorial positions at a lesser rate than their male counterparts, with women making up only 13% of directors in the top 750 films of 2015, and 7% in the top 250. Clearly the hiring practices of Hollywood and the filmmaking community at large are as much to blame for the Academy’s under-representation of women as the academy itself – it’s a cyclical problem. And moreover, in the light of these statistics, what does this suggest for trans and non-binary directors? And the same applies to performers. It is well known that while Hollywood may be more embracing of telling trans-related narratives, they still, for the most part, balk at hiring trans performers with ease and regularity, for supporting roles, let alone leading ones. Perhaps we’ll see gender-neutral categories across the board at different awards institutions, however a part of me worries this would be too premature a move, and takes for granted the deeply rooted bias and inequality already at play.
I suppose this conversation surrounding gender-neutral award categories serves two purposes. It is in-keeping with a current discourse on representation, diversity, and inclusivity in media, but more than that, the mainstream and youthful appeal of MTV, and their decision to de-gender their categories, pushes the conversation and the links between gender-neutrality, and equality between men and women, and between cis-gendered, trans, and non-binary people. Despite protestations from some people in the media using MTV’s, move and the discourse of gender and (in)equality surrounding it, a to skewer Watson’s powerful and important work, and to minimise and mock the lived experiences of trans and non-binary folk at large, this conversation is valuable, important, and necessary, and perhaps it proves that MTV has moved beyond their seemingly irrelevant days of MTV’s Cribs and Teen Mom, and are spring-boarding themselves into relevance with socially conscious, inclusive, and ostensibly egalitarian practices, no matter how inconsequential they may prove to be in relation to other institutions that are still very much entrenched in gender bias and inequality.
Words by Daniel Massie