MTV doled out its annual MTV Movie and TV Awards last night, and Beauty and the Beast’s Emma Watson accepted the award for “Best Actor in a Movie”—the first major gender-neutral acting award.
“MTV’s move to create a genderless award for acting will mean something different to everyone,” she said. “But to me, it indicates that acting is about the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And that doesn’t need to be separated into two different categories.”
The gender-neutral award has been met with a smattering of acclaim. “Academy, take note!” wrote Variety’s Will Thorne. I think that calls for lumping male and female actors into one broad category have grown in the last year or two.
Which leaves me with a question.
Oh, admittedly, Watson’s right, of course: Acting awards don’t need to be separate. I mean, it’s not like we give separate awards to male and female directors, or cinematographers, or costume designers. And I kinda doubt that actors approach their craft any differently depending on their gender. A good role is a good role. A good performance is a good performance. Does it make any sense to divide them?
But do awards for something so subjective as acting make any real sense at all? I mean, how exactly do you decide that Casey Affleck’s tortured turn in Manchester by the Sea last year was better than Denzel Washington’s stormy bluster in Fences? Or that Emma Stone’s work in La La Land was objectively more award-worthy than that of Ruth Negga in Loving or Natalie Portman in Jackie? Is there some sort of acto-meter in play? Does the Academy hire judges to score each role? Ryan Gosling garnered all 5.8’s and 5.9’s in the script’s first 40 pages; too bad about that whiffed dismount.
Acting awards are, by their very nature, a wee bit ludicrous. They don’t as much signify the year’s best performances as they simply open and feed a discussion. They’re like Top 10 lists: They add a sheen of establishment authority if you agree, and give you an opportunity to pick apart the choices if you don’t.
Awards—at least entertainment awards—are mostly entertainment in themselves. What happens when you stuff twice as many performers into one awards showcase? Half as many awards to the performers. Half as much entertainment for us. And that seems like bad business.
Admittedly, there are times when awards are about more than just a subjective measure. Sometimes, historically, they can mean something. Take 1982, when Katharine Hepburn won her record-setting fourth Best Actress Oscar and Henry Fonda—at the age of 77—won his first for Best Actor (both for On Golden Pond). In the world that Will Thorne seems to want, that history-making evening would’ve been only half as important. One would’ve lost to the other.
Do we really want to see Mahershala Ali lose to Viola Davis at the Oscars? Or somehow choose between Matthew McConaughey’s work in Dallas Buyers Club and Cate Blanchett’s in Blue Jasmine in 2013? Honestly, I’d rather see more awards handed out, not fewer. Often, I think that quality performances are overlooked because they’re done in a comedy or an action blockbuster. But let’s face it: The Oscars are plenty long as they are.
So I say leave gender in the acting awards—if, for no other reason, so that those of us who care about such things will have double the opportunity to talk about great performances.
They don’t need to be separated. But it’s more entertaining when they are.