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Acting is Acting, After All: MTV Awards Ditch Gender-Specific Categories
April 11, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

When future TV historians pore through the archives to see what the most admired, influential TV shows and performances were in any given era, they’re unlikely to look at the MTV Movie & TV Awards.

The gold standard is the Emmys. Academics, writers, difference makers and cultural historians are likely to favor the Peabodys, but even they will accept that the Emmys carry the most weight with the general public, in the same way the Oscars — love ‘em or hate ‘em — remain the public barometer of the silver screen, where most moviegoers are concerned.

Even so, the MTV MTVA’s recent decision — effective this year — to scrap their best actor and best actress categories in favor of a single gender-neutral category is a conversation starter, if nothing else. The Emmys are unlikely to follow suit anytime soon, but in a fractured media environment where demographics count as much as total numbers, the youth-skewing MTV Awards can’t be ignored. (Left to right, top, Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke, Gina Rodriguez, Mandy Moore, Millie Bobby Brown.) 

A single, gender-neutral category, open to both male and female actors, has long been the norm for the Television Critics Association Awards, which chooses to recognize all acting in a single category, defined as ‘outstanding individual achievement in drama.’

There is a separate category for comedy actors, also gender neutral, in much the same way the Golden Globes divide their movie categories into drama and comedy/musical — causing no end of confusion for Oscar pickers, who always look to the Golden Globes to identify the odds-on favorite for the best picture Oscar.

The MTV Movie & TV Awards are also looking to combine feature films and TV in some categories. Call it the Breaking Bad effect, in which both the show and lead actor Bryan Cranston were considered light years ahead of anything seen that year on the silver screen. One of the more curious — and welcome — twists of today’s platinum age of TV drama is that serious enthusiasts would take a chance on a respected, high-end TV drama than risk $25 or more on a well-reviewed movie. They don’t make movies like Chinatown and The Conversation anymore, let alone Casablanca. Fargo is now a TV drama — and a good one — and Breaking Bad has begotten Better Call Saul. While not an upgrade on Breaking Bad exactly, Better Call Saul is still a good trade-off.

I don’t have an issue with TV dramas competing against movies for the big awards. Not now, not today. I wouldn’t have liked The Waltons or Kojak’s chances at being mentioned in the same breath as The Godfather Part II, Chinatown or The Conversation, let alone be in the same category for an award, but I’m perfectly comfortable matching Better Call Saul, Fargo or even The Americans against Moonlight or La La Land.

The gender gap is more problematic, though.

My first impression was, good on the MTV Awards for doing away with best actor/actress and going with a single category. Acting is acting, after all. Meryl Streep is a singular actor, with the right material. Bryan Cranston: the same. 

A single acting category has stood the Television Critics Association well these past 25 years.

The year Gillian Anderson was nominated for individual achievement in drama, for The X-Files, in a male-dominated field that included Homicide’s Andre Braugher (right), NYPD Blue’s Dennis Franz and ER’s Anthony Edwards, not to mention her X-Files co-star David Duchovny, she made a point of saying how much she appreciated being recognized as an actor, period. Braugher won that year — the first of back-to-back TCA Awards — but the gender die was cast.

Just six years later, Edie Falco won the TCA award for drama, over a field of male actors that included her Sopranos co-star James Gandolfini, a previous three-time winner.

Julianna Margulies won in 2010 for The Good Wife, in a year that also saw Sons of Anarchy’s Katey Sagal break into the men’s club.

Claire Danes won in 2011 for Homeland, over Breaking Bad’s Cranston, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and Emmy perennial and Game of Thrones fan favorite Peter Dinklage.

And Sarah Paulson won this past year’s TCA Award for acting, for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, over a male-dominated field that included her O.J. colleague Courtney B. Vance.

Combining best actor and best actress into a single category sounds like a no-brainer, where gender equity is concerned, but there is a catch. The MTV Awards appeal to a younger audience and are unlikely to be a trendsetter for the more prestigious awards groups. It’s hard to take an award show seriously, for example, on weighty matters like gender parity when the ceremony also includes categories like Best Tearjerker, Best Kiss, and Best Villain.

While I do like the idea of a single category for acting, some advocates for gender parity worry that cutting off one avenue to the public spotlight could have an unintended reverse effect.

Speaking to the UK Guardian newspaper this past weekend, Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of Women and Hollywood, an advocacy site for gender equality in film and television, cautioned that, for all the talk of inclusivity, women — already severely underrepresented in the industry — could be shut out even more. (Allison Williams, Get Out, right.)

If different award committees decide to do away with gender identification in some categories, Silverstein said, it’s incumbent on industry insiders to ensure that women are fairly represented on selection committees, and that future nominees represent the full spectrum of society.

The best roles are those for men — a reality that dates back to the classics and early poets. Popular and classic fiction alike more often than not revolve around a strong male leading character, which makes it difficult for women to have their voices heard in a film or TV adaptation.

My own feeling is that, while I’m happy to see prestige groups like the Television Critics Association and Peabodys level the playing field so that an actor is an actor, I’d be more reluctant to see the Emmys follow suit.

Besides, I wouldn’t want future TV historians to have to pore over the Emmy records from the past and have to separate one year from another by asterisks. 

MTV Movie & TV Awards

TV-specific and combined-gender TV nominations  

Atlanta (FX)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Insecure (HBO) 
Pretty Little Liars (Freeform)
Stranger Things (Netflix)
This Is Us (NBC)  

Donald Glover – Atlanta (FX)
Emilia Clarke – Game of Thrones (HBO)
Gina Rodriguez – Jane the Virgin (The CW)
Jeffrey Dean Morgan – The Walking Dead (AMC)
Mandy Moore – This Is Us (NBC)
Millie Bobby Brown – Stranger Things (Netflix)  

Ellen DeGeneres – The Ellen DeGeneres Show (NBC)
John Oliver – Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
RuPaul – RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1/Logo)
Samantha Bee – Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)
Trevor Noah – The Daily Show (Comedy Central)

13TH (Netflix)
I Am Not Your Negro (Magnolia Pictures)
O.J.: Made in America (ESPN Films)
This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous (YouTube|Red)
TIME: The Kalief Browder Story (Spike) 
America’s Got Talent (NBC)
MasterChef Junior (FOX)
RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1/Logo)
The Bachelor (ABC) 
The Voice (NBC)  

Adam DeVine – Workaholics (Comedy Central)
Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson – Broad City (Comedy Central)
Lil Rel Howery – Get Out (Universal Pictures)
Seth MacFarlane – Family Guy (FOX)
Seth Rogen – Sausage Party (Sony)
Will Arnett – The LEGO Batman Movie (Warner Bros. Pictures)  

Felicity Jones – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures) 
Grant Gustin – The Flash (The CW)
Mike Colter – Luke Cage (Netflix)
Millie Bobby Brown – Stranger Things (Netflix)
Stephen Amell – Arrow (The CW)
Taraji P. Henson – Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox) 

Allison Williams – Get Out (Universal Pictures)
Demogorgon – Stranger Things (Netflix)
Jared Leto – Suicide Squad (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Jeffrey Dean Morgan – The Walking Dead (AMC)
Wes Bentley – American Horror Story (FX) 

Game of Thrones – Hodor’s (Kristian Nairn) Death (HBO)
Grey’s Anatomy – Meredith tells her children about Derek’s death (Ellen Pompeo) (ABC)
Me Before You – Will (Sam Claflin) tells Louisa (Emilia Clarke) he can’t stay with her (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Moonlight – Paula (Naomie Harris) tells Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) that she loves him (A24)
This Is Us – Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Randall (Lonnie Chavis) at karate (NBC) 

Adam Levine & Blake Shelton – The Voice (NBC)
Daniel Kaluuya & Lil Rel Howery – Get Out (Universal Pictures)
Brian Tyree Henry & Lakeith Stanfield – Atlanta (FX)
Hugh Jackman & Dafne Keen – Logan (20th Century Fox)
Josh Gad & Luke Evans – Beauty and the Beast (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Martha Stewart & Snoop Dogg – Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party (VH1)  

Ashton Sanders & Jharrel Jerome – Moonlight (A24)
Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling – La La Land (Summit Entertainment)
Emma Watson & Dan Stevens – Beauty and the Beast (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Taraji P. Henson & Terrence Howard – Empire (FOX)
Zac Efron & Anna Kendrick – Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates (20th Century Fox)  

Blackish (ABC)
Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)
Jane the Virgin (The CW)
Moonlight (A24)
Transparent (Amazon)  

Get Out (Universal Pictures)
Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox)
Loving (Focus Features)
Luke Cage (Netflix)
Mr. Robot (USA)

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