MTV made waves when Emma Watson was awarded a non-gender specific “Best Actor” award for her performance in “Beauty and the Beast.” But while this may be a first for the MTV Movie & TV Awards, it’s not a first for the entertainment industry.
For the top honors in film and theater, awards have always been gender-specific. The Academy Awards have split their performance categories since the first “Oscars” were presented in 1929, as has the American Theatre Wing, who’ve been handing out the Tony award to Broadway’s best actors and actresses since 1947.
The early days of television, however, was a bit different, as scripted and unscripted shows like news broadcasts and variety shows all competed for the same recognition. The first ever Primetime Emmy Awards in 1949 didn’t have the traditional actor/actress categories, but saw both female and male nominees face off in the Most Outstanding Television Personality category instead. Shirley Dinsdale beat the likes of Patricia Morison, Rita La Roy, Mike Stokey and Bill Welsh to take home one of the six Emmys handed out that year. While the category title morphed over the years, the award for “best personality” always had female and male contestants. The concept of a gender-neutral “host” category continues today, with both male and female winners coming out on top in both the Primetime and Daytime Emmys. In 1952, another gender-neutral category saw Red Skelton beat Lucille Ball to take home the Best Comedian or Comedienne award—the following year this award was separated by gender.
While the Emmys categories of Best Actor and Best Actress have been in place for over 60 years, that might be changing soon thanks to activists like Asia Kate Dillion who presented Emma Watson with her recent MTV awards. Dillion is the first non-binary performer (identifying as neither male or female) to play a non-binary character. Dillon’s performance on the Showtime series “Billions” has raised the question of what category Dillon could be nominated for, Best Actor or Best Actress. Without a clear answer, Dillion wrote to the Emmys questioning whether the actor/actress divide is still necessary. The television academy’s response, that anyone can submit their work in any category, leaves the door open for future evolution.
While the debate for actors and actresses (and neither) continues, it’s the music industry that’s made the greatest strides in gender-neutral recognition. On April 6, 2011, the Recording Academy announced a drastic restructuring of many Grammy Award categories for the 2012 award season, reducing the number of categories from 109 to 78, and eliminating the gender distinction between soloists and duo/groups in various genre fields.