Earlier this month Emma Watson became one of the first recipients of a gender-neutral acting award in a major awards ceremony and it spurred intense debate and some controversy. How could it not when the actress who won “best actor” in a movie role is a prominent self-declared feminist who made her win extra political with her passionate acceptance speech? It would be cynical to point out that by giving this award to this particular actress, the argument that acting acclamation should be attributed to acting ability rather than divided by gender is a bit lost given that the producers of MTV awards clearly have a different agenda from recognising on-screen talent and the results are determined by MTV viewers who are also persuaded by far more than whether Watson’s interpretation of a Disney princess was believable. It would be cynical because there is a very important point to be made about gender in awards ceremonies and a wider discussion to be had about the relevance of the categories we use for recognising on-screen and off-screen talent.
Even beyond gender neutral awards, the categories of the MTV awards differ widely from the Oscars and Baftas, including the coveted ‘best kiss’ and renowned ‘best fight’ award but it’s worth pointing out that a mainstream audience are far more likely to hold strong opinions on these film issues than more technical categories such as ‘sound editing’, ‘costume design’ and ‘best cinematography’, which seem to me to be secondary awards for the Academy to bestow token nominations on films snubbed for ‘best picture’, ‘best director’ and ‘best editing’. Whilst I don’t dispute the different attributes and the talent recognised by all twenty something award categories at these prestigious award ceremonies, I would argue that a film being a collaborative effort, doesn’t really warrant so many interconnected categories, especially seeing as in most years two or three films tend to scoop nearly all the awards.
At the same time, it would be counterintuitive to argue for less awards as this would result in less recognition of talent and even less diversity in acclaimed films. This is a key argument against gender-neutral acting awards. If you reduce the number of actors who are nominated each year, there will be less recognition for talented male and female actors. So at the very least one new acting category will have to be created. This is what I see as the main reason for the existence of the male/female divide rather than an intent to diminish the role of women in film. The current solution for recognising the wealth of acting talent is to have categories for leading and supporting in both sexes, whilst BAFTA used to separate home grown talent and foreign actors. Whilst the concept of supporting actor is plagued with problems especially in the days of the ensemble cast, it is difficult to come up with an alternative, without shifting any class of actor into a sub-group and robbing them of their shot at the top award.
I completely understand why many are arguing for gender-neutral acting awards. We don’t divide directors or writers on the basis of sex and the skill of acting is broadly the same for men and women. It’s not like certain sports where men often do have an advantage or any other field where both sexes can’t compete on a fair and equal level. But as I’ve already mentioned, these categories exist to fairly divide all actors rather than because there is any inherent difference between the two. It’s not as if anyone thinks the male acting award is any more prestigious than the female equivalent or worth any less to the winners. Best actress is not a runner-up prize or token gesture to the man’s superior acting prize. If however, awards were divided into age, you could see how winning an over sixties award would quickly become a secondary prize, how it would receive less press coverage and gather less interest. Doing so would suggest that the contribution of older actors is somehow less. This isn’t true of gendered awards.
But there are valid reasons for adopting gender-neutral awards. As we move to a modern world that better understands gender dysphoria and where not everyone sees gender as binary, we must adapt even our most traditional and deep-rooted conventions in the name of fairness and acceptance. It is true that the current system allows actors to self-identify as either gender and be entered for any category of their choosing. The same is true for the supporting and leading actor division, meaning that an actor can choose to place themselves in the category they think they have the most chance of winning, despite the amount of time they spend on screen. But what if a male actor who plays a man on screen can submit himself for best actress on no other basis than because he fancies his chances? And what about those who don’t wish to be labelled as either male or female? This is why all acting awards will eventually change, if only to simplify the rules by which an actor male or female can be nominated.
Unfortunately, there is one huge issue that will present itself as soon as this switch is made. Despite high-profile feminists arguing that gender-neutral awards are long overdue, as has been controversially pointed out, such a move would probably cut the number of awards allocated to women. Without, a replacement category it would also cut the number of acting awards for men, but more so for women, who tend to get less lead roles in respected films. This is partly because most writers are men who write films for male audiences but I don’t want to be too hard on my own gender here. The lack of female winners in the best director category has more to do with a sheer absence of female filmmakers in general than a biased panel as some would have you believe. Still, Hollywood certainly does have a lack of diversity problem, that is plainly demonstrated at awards ceremonies, and one that will get worse if the number of categories is slashed.
But this is no good excuse for no overhaul of the current awards system, which needs some serious rethinking. As I discussed in my previous post Oscar bait 2017 there is a huge disconnect between the world of the Oscars and the mainstream view of cinema. This could be partly improved by tinkering with some of the categories and the rules for qualification. I’m afraid I can’t offer any specific suggestions as I wouldn’t know where to begin to devise a film awards ceremony that fairly attributes acclaim to both major studio productions and independent cinema as well as to art films, to academy favourites, to foreign films and of course the mainstream blockbusters that are often snubbed. Having never worked within the professional film industry I couldn’t tell you whether the array of categories recognising the various skills is needed but my hunch is that some of these awards can be amalgamated and that new awards specifically recognising independent cinema and emerging talent could be introduced. As for awards recognising acting, it is clear to me that gendered awards must and will eventually fade into obscurity and the supporting actor should also go but lost categories must be replaced, perhaps with genre specific awards although I find this unlikely.