This Sunday’s MTV Movie and TV Awards have made the headlines for a very progressive tweak to their ceremony. The often irreverent awards, this year featuring TV for the first time, have upstaged their more prestigious counterparts by making gender-neutral acting categories. Instead of Best Actor/Actress, stars will contend for awards such as Best Actor in a Movie, Best Hero and Best Comedic Performance. Many have called for the Oscars to do the same, however, given the record of those who give out the little gold statuettes, it seems that for the moment such a move would do more harm than good.
This may seem counterintuitive, at first. Of course, in an ideal world, all actors would be on an equal footing regardless of gender, race, sexuality, or any other factor. Hollywood, however, is far from an ideal world. Despite this year’s Oscars being praised for awarding a variety of talent, a lack of diversity and inclusion still remains a complex problem in the industry, and one that cannot be solved by re-categorisation. The problem is personified by the Academy, who recently needed a global outcry simply to include non-white nominees. Where are the safeguards to ensure a mixed acting category wouldn’t be entirely dominated by men?
If such a question sounds pessimistic, let’s take a look at some of the current categories that aren’t bound by gender. In the writing categories, you have to go back nearly a decade to find the last female winner of Best Original Screenplay – then-newcomer Diablo Cody for Juno. You have to go back even further to find the last female winner of Best Adapted Screenplay, Diana Ossana’s win (alongside Larry McMurtry) for Brokeback Mountain in 2006. It’s almost 20 years since we had a female winner for Best Original Score (Anne Dudley for The Full Monty), while no woman has ever even been nominated for Best Cinematographer.
Then there’s the thorny issue of Best Director. With just under 450 nominees spanning 89 ceremonies, four women have been nominated for the award. Four. It took 82 ceremonies for a woman to win: Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Unfortunately, that breakthrough didn’t solve the issue. There have been no female nominees since – Ava DuVernay, Kelly Reichardt, Andrea Arnold, Maren Ade and Lisa Cholodenko are just some of the recent filmmakers whose work was celebrated by audiences and critics, yet ignored by Oscar voters. In a somewhat damning parallel, this year even perennial outcast Mel Gibson got a directing nomination. With this evidence, would you trust the Academy to present a fair selection of acting nominees in a genderless acting category?
Of course, this isn’t simply a matter of people ticking boxes on a voting form. The Oscars are a mirror of the world they represent. The variety and availability of lead roles for women is still frustratingly scarce in an industry famously risk-averse. That also comes with a media scrutiny and pay disparity with which their male counterparts rarely have to contend. Changing the parameters of an award would be fruitless if the number of opportunities for women to win that award continues to decline (women made up just 32% of all speaking roles in 2016, a recent study showed).
The variety of faces we see on the big screen has always been a problem, but things are slowly changing. June’s blockbuster Wonder Woman will be the first female-led superhero film since 2005 and, in Patty Jenkins, we have the first female director in the Marvel and DC universes. All genders flocked in their millions to watch both The Force Awakens and Rogue One, which followed the galactic adventures of leads Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones, respectively. The Hunger Games, Frozen, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect and Brie Larson’s incoming Captain Marvel show an appetite for female heroes across all genres and, while the salary issue is not resolved, A-listers feel emboldened to shine a light on the subject.
There’s no quick solution. Traditional acting categories do not represent everyone, as non-binary Billions star Asia Kate Dillon experienced during their submission for the forthcoming Emmys. However, giving talent fewer spots to shine on one of the biggest stages in cinema could have a detrimental effect on those fighting for recognition. An Oscars that doesn’t divide by gender is something to aspire to, but only when it reflects an industry that does the same.