On Sunday, MTV became one of the first mainstream awards in the world to adopt “gender-neutral performance categories”, meaning that there were no separate award categories for male and female actors. Emma Watson (spokesperson of that irritating UN He for She conversation starter or whatever that’s supposed to be) won the now gender neutral Best Actor in a Movie award for her performance in Beauty and the Beast.
So interesting, but will it work? It’s great that people are waking up to the idea that not everything in the world has to be strictly gendered, and the head of MTV said the move is a response to people no longer seeing “male-female dividing lines”. But is that true? A closer look throws up some interesting issues.
The Guardian reports that until recently, the membership of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (who hand out Oscars, hence the name Academy Awards), was 76 percent male. That figure has come down now, but there still isn’t a 50-50 split between male and female members. When there’s a historically significant majority of men in the bodies that hand out these awards, isn’t it likely that gender-neutral award categories will serve to just benefit men? It’s also worth pointing out that traditionally “gender-neutral” award categories haven’t really been all that gender neutral after all: only four women have ever been nominated for the Best Director award at the Oscars, and only one woman has ever won.
Closer to home, I wonder if such a thing would work, and I don’t think it would: certainly not right now. It isn’t just about the gender and nature of the people who hand out these awards (more on this in a bit), but about the kinds of roles that men and women get to play in the first place. While there are women-centric movies coming out every now and again, like Begum Jaan or Phillauri, these are considered to be aberrations, and marketed extensively on the basis of how unusual they are for their women-centrism. For the most part, there is still an overwhelming divide in mainstream cinema between the roles given to men and women in the film industry (Tamil actor Jyothika recently mentioned how annoying it is that directors keep casting women in brainless roles in movies when she spoke out against sexism in the industry at the audio launch of her new movie). In such a scenario, removing the Best Female Actor (remember that episode of Koffee With Karan where Shabana Azmi said how annoying she finds the word actress?) award would probably just lead to men sweeping the category, just because the current scenario offers them more meaningful roles to play than women.
So I feel somewhat ambiguous about gender-neutral categories. No, I feel like I will like them in the future, once the playing field is truly levelled and society is as gender-neutral and unbiased as these awards claim to be. But until that happens, and until men and women enjoy actual equality (or gender-neutrality) in society, I think acting categories that claim to be gender-neutral will just actually privilege men while using obscurantist terminology to act like they don’t, which is actually even more dangerous than just having separate awards.
Also, while there are no official figures on the membership of awarding committees in India, I think it is important to just say here that the Filmfare Awards, one of the most prestigious movie awards in the country, are a product of the Times group, the folks who bring you that epitome of gender non-neutrality, the Times of India. So excuse me if I don’t have too much faith in their ability to see the world sans sexism right now.