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MTV’s gender-neutral acting award is great, but the rest of Hollywood is miles behind

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Good for MTV, but good luck to The Academy

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2017 MTV Movie And TV Awards - Show Photo by Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Last night at MTV’s Movie and TV Awards ceremony, Emma Watson accepted MTV’s first gender-neutral acting award. This morning, Watson’s speech, which The New York Times called “a potent call for breaking down gender categories,” went viral on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

The award has been hailed as a watershed moment for equality in entertainment. It’s certainly a step in a positive direction, and it’s nice to think about a future where acting categories aren’t split up by gender — as if performing as a man and as a woman are somehow radically different acts. Gender-neutral “best performance” categories honor the fact that men and women play equally valuable roles in film, and, crucially, they make awards ceremonies more hospitable to actors who don’t conform to the gender binary. Non-binary Billions star Asia Kate Dillon presented the award, saying, “Tonight we celebrate portrayals of the human experience, because the only distinction we should be making when it comes to awards is between each outstanding performance."

It was a great moment. Both Dillon’s presentation and Watson’s acceptance were smart, authentic acknowledgements of Hollywood’s long history of wrong-headed takes on gender issues. But pragmatically, the chances of gender-neutral categories spreading to more prestigious film acting awards like the Golden Globes or the Oscars are miniscule. Not only because award show producers will be loathe to reduce four buzzy acting categories down to two, but also because Hollywood (outside of the MTV Movie and TV Awards, where youth-oriented progressivism is part of the brand) is nowhere near ready to consider men and women equal.

As The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote this morning, “It sucks to silo women, but the truth is, if these all-women awards and categories did not exist, then for a long time women just wouldn’t have won anything at all.”

Just look at the gender-neutral awards that already exist at the Oscars. This year, as we pointed out in February, all the Best Director nominees were men, and men won almost every other major award, from Original Screenplay to Editing to Score to Sound Mixing. Outside of the acting categories, only four women accepted awards onstage for the entire four-hour telecast, and only one woman — Colleen Atwood, the costume designer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — accepted an award alone. None of that is rare: we’ve seen one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) win Best Director in 89 years of the ceremony. She’s also the only woman who’s directed a Best Picture winner. No woman has ever been nominated for Best Cinematography, and women make up what should be a humiliatingly low percentage of nominated screenwriters in both the Adapted and Original Screenplay category.

That’s more than enough reason to think that putting men and women into one acting category would have little of the intended effect of evening the field. More likely, it would mean that women would stop winning acting awards.

An Alternative Look At The 85th Annual Academy Awards Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

As film critic Robbie Collin wrote for The Telegraph in 2016, Hollywood has gone “method acting crazy” in the last 20 years. Since 2000, he wrote, nine of the 16 Best Actor Oscars went to performances that were widely hailed as impressively “method.” That usually means dramatic physical transformation and turmoil — like Leonardo DiCaprio nearly freezing to death for The Revenant, Matthew McConaughey dropping 60 pounds for Dallas Buyers Club, or Jamie Foxx gluing his eyelids closed for Ray. Collin points out that that kind of prep work “overwhelmingly [lends] itself to stories about masculinity under threat.”

Studios have an easy time building awards buzz around roles that require visible labor and physical transformation. Daniel Day-Lewis, the best-known method actor currently working, has won three Best Actor Oscars since 1990 — all for roles that the press attended to extensively in the preproduction and filming, noting each bizarre and physically demanding task he did to prepare.

Meanwhile, there still aren’t many complicated or interesting roles of any kind for women once they age out of the ingenue category — whereas men can easily find meaningful and major film roles at any age. When Leonardo DiCaprio, at age 41, was nominated for the fourth time for an Academy Award, 20th Century Fox all but coronated him. It was an easy story to sell, and the studio put plenty of resources behind the awards push. His narrative about getting several nominations for wildly different parts throughout more than two decades of his life fits snuggly with the numbers. Looking at the Best Actor and Actress winners since 1990, the median age for male winners of the most prestigious acting award in the world is 42 and a half. For women, it’s 34. In the supporting categories, the median for men is 49 and a half. For women, it’s 35. Merging the acting categories into one gender-neutral category will most often pit younger women against men who have had roughly a decade more to hone their craft, and who have had far more time (and given studios more incentive) to build up a story of “deserving it.”

It isn’t that MTV’s change to its acting categories was ill-advised. The effort is commendable. And this is one of the main ways that awards shows are still useful — they give commentators and creators a news peg for calling the industry out on issues about what gets recognized and lauded and made, and what doesn’t. They highlight problems that might otherwise go unnoticed by a public that still sees whiteness and maleness as the default in many contexts.

Similar to the #OscarsSoWhite outcry around last year’s Oscars, the issue isn’t only — or even mostly — about the awards themselves. It always comes back to the studios: what kind of talent they’re investing in, what kind of stories are most likely to be greenlit, and what types of awards narratives they develop and push.

According to research published by the Center for Women in Television and Film, women were the protagonists of only 29 percent of the top 100 feature films released in 2016. Women played only 37 percent of those films’ major characters, and had only 32 percent of all speaking roles. That’s probably because women only produced 19 percent of those films, wrote 11 percent, directed 4 percent, and shot 3 percent. Until that changes, combining acting categories in our biggest award shows would just be another way for the film industry to push women toward the margins, denying them equal recognition, equal access, and equal screen time.