April 17, 2017 at 3:41 pm PST | by Rebekah Sager
Hollywood rethinks Him and Her

Asia Kate Dillon plays financial genius Taylor Mason on Showtime’s “Billions” and her prefered pronoun is them or they. Courtesy permission of Asia Kate Dillon

The MTV Awards are making a shift that may hit Hollywood like a quake, but what does the change signal for those in the LGBTQ community, living in the real world?

Airing May 7 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, the now MTV Movie & TV Awards as they’re called, are not only recognizing the accomplishments in television and film this year, but will also pit men and women against each other in a new non-gender acting category.

The new categories, “Best Actor in a Movie” and “Best Actor in a Show,” has nominees Hugh Jackman in “Logan,” Taraji P. Henson in “Hidden Figures,” “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya, Emma Watson in “Beauty and the Beast,” Hailee Steinfeld, for “The Edge of Seventeen,” and James McAvoy, in “Split,” all vying for the same award.

MTV President Chris McCarthy, at the helm since fall of 2016, says the category change aligns with the changing times.

“We have to constantly be pushing ourselves to not only respond to culture but lead it,” McCarthy said in a CNN interview. “They don’t see those lines in the way that generations in the past have… So we wanted to take those down. They felt really antiquated.”

For many, the change poses the question about gender identifying in acting in general, and some are wondering if the MTV Awards will set the stage for the other more mainstream award shows, such as the Academy Awards, to follow. Is there a need to segregate categories when not everyone identifies as simply male or female any longer?

The Grammys dropped gender distinction in 2011, but the impact wasn’t felt as harshly, as the show hands out 84 trophies to performers in 84 different categories. The Oscars, on the other hand, only has four acting awards and five nominees in each category. In an industry in constant battle against rampant sexism, would the shows skew constantly in favor of men?

The issue of gender has now emerged for the Emmy Awards. Showtime’s “Billions,” star, Asia Kate Dillon confronted the issue of gender identity recently with her Emmy nomination.

Dillon plays the non-binary character Taylor Mason on the show. Dillon identifies as gender-nonconforming and uses the pronouns “they” and “them.”

Dillon, was told by Showtime they wanted to nominate their role for an Emmy, and asked them how they would prefer to be identified — supporting actor or supporting actress?

Dillon wrote a letter to the Television Academy to start a conversation.

They explained to the Academy that within the system as it’s currently set up, “there is no room for my identity.”

They say, in their research they “learned the word ‘actor’, in reference to those who performed in plays, came about in the late 1500’s and applied to all people, regardless of anatomical sex or identity.”  

The Academy responded, saying that, “anyone can submit under either category for any reason.” Dillon chose the ‘best supporting actor’ category.

College student, Henry Waletzko, who identifies as a non-binary trans-masculine person, told The Blade, award shows in many ways are the shining example of the way institutions segregate people.

“People were so appalled by the #OscarSoWhite hashtag, but it presumes that the Oscar’s haven’t always been so white. Award shows institute gender norms.

It’s one big place where these things play out at on a national level, “ Waletzko says.

“The idea of ditching the categories is awesome. When we don’t separate the categories, it gets away from comparing men and women. It’s only one step though, and there’s still a lot of work to be done in the award show realm,” Waletzko adds.

Waletzko’s mother, Joey Brenneman lives in New York and teaches theater, with a focus on gender identity.

When it comes to casting plays, she told the Blade, it gets complicated. “Do we have an actor who identifies as male or female play a trans person? We decided that a few years down the line, that’s going to be looked at like black face,” Brenneman says. She adds, “We’re in the midst of a gender revolution. In five years things are going to look very different.”

Kathy Ottersten was identified as intersex at birth, raised a man, and now calls herself a trans activist. She says her reaction to Dillon’s choice feels like it’s a kind of “gender washing,” and makes every gender normative.

“We don’t live in a non-binary situation. Writers write for gender, and those roles matter,” Kathy says.

“If we were in a state in the society where women getting grabbed, or networks paying out big money for commentators who sexually harassed women, wasn’t still allowed, then we could talk about not having gender in awards, and the subtlety of that,” she says.

Ottersen says the MTV Awards changes or Emmy Awards may be well intentioned, or a goal for all of the award shows, but ultimately gender is really important.

“Considering the power vacuum for women, particularly in Hollywood, let’s keep our categories, and focus on the performance,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s a red herring. In the law there’s a saying that bad cases, make bad law. This is one of those instances. It won’t apply anywhere else, and could screw up things in other places,” she adds.  

Skylar Kergil is a transgender man, activist, singer, and YouTube star. He says as a teen it would have been hard for him to engage in a conversation where it was implied that gender wasn’t important. At 14 or 15 years old, he says, when it came to establishing himself as a man, he needed the affirmation of others.

“Non-gendered awards are fantastic, but we need to leave room for people’s identity, while still simply focusing on how well the actor plays the character. When it comes to a director and a show saying we’re going to have this non-binary character, it should be less focused on the trans person playing that role, but the talents of the actor,” Kergil says.

The MTV Awards have sparked the flames of conversation. Dillon has added to the conversation. For the cis-gendered community and Hollywood, perhaps gender-neutral acting categories are a great first step, but conversation is the key to changing how gender is looked at in society, and where the real change needs to take place.

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