Being gender neutral doesn’t help – just look at the MTV Video Music Awards

If sexism were obsolete it might. But it’s not.

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In May, MTV’s decision to create a “gender neutral” award for Best Actor at the MTV Movie and TV Awards was presented as a progressive step in the right direction.

In her acceptance speech, Emma Watson, who won Best Actor for her role in Beauty and the Beast, said, “The first acting award in history that doesn’t separate nominees based on their sex says something about how we perceive the human experience.” She added that, to her, the gender neutral award “indicates that acting is about the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes — and that doesn’t need to be separated into two different categories.”

Asia Kate Dillon, who presented the award to Watson and identifies as non-binary, told W Magazine:

“I’m proud of MTV for joining the conversation about breaking down binaries. Binaries, whether it be man or woman or black or white, they were created to separate us, to create an us and a them. Without binaries, there’s only us. Which means we’re actually all equal. So to be presenting the first acting award in history that is based solely on performance and not on sex or gender identity is an historic moment and it’s a moment that will go down in history and that is a history I share not only with my family, friends and coworkers, but with all the trans, non-binary and gender-non-conforming people, particularly people of color, who have been leading the way for change long before I was born.”

It would be nice to live in a time when sex-specific categories were no longer necessary, because everyone was on an equal playing field, but this is not the world we live in.

Indeed, the reason affirmative action laws and programmes were created was in order to address the fact that certain groups are historically and systemically marginalised and discriminated against. We know that women and people of colour don’t have access to the same financial resources, jobs, and positions of power that white men do. We know that white men have been overrepresented on film, television, and in the music industry, as well as in the literary world, in politics, and in positions of power, in general.

In an article at Pacific Standard, Jane C Hu explains that “Recent analyses have found that women are less likely to be published in top tier literary outlets, or to have their work reviewedespecially by men.” A study out of McGill University found that two-thirds of the books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review were written by men and that female authors were more likely to get reviewed if they were writing about traditionally “feminine” topics.

Every music genre from rock to hip-hop to has been dominated by men, and the women within those genres marginalised, almost to the point of erasure. A study conducted in 2017 showed that male rock acts still occupy the majority of headline slots at UK music festivals (that Coldplay is headlining any festival should be enough to upset you, really).

Meanwhile, female MCs have always been treated as marginal in hip hop – to the point they are barely recognised at all. Despite women like MC Lyte and Roxanne Shante having pioneered as equals, talent wise, in the late 80s, they have never been celebrated even close to the way men like Grandmaster Flash, Rakim, or KRS-One have been. You’d think we’d have come a long way in all these decades, but in 2014 Nicki Minaj, one of the only female mainstream rappers making it today, said, frankly, "It's not a female-friendly business. Hip hop is not female-friendly at all."

Indeed, representation of women in hip hop seems to have gotten worse over the years, not better. In 2003, the Grammys created a new category for Best Female Rap Solo Performance, but eliminated the category just two years later. In 2008, neither VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors nor the BET Hip-Hop Awards nominated a single female rapper.

Women have been similarly excluded from the rock world, notorious for its bro-centric culture where grown men have used their status to exploit and abuse young women and girls, dismissed as “groupies.” Only 43 of 317 inductees of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are women — representing a measly 13.5 per cent. The notion that, somehow, women are less compelling and talented musicians, in a world that has included the likes of Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Amy Winehouse, and Nina Simone, is ridiculous. The one thing that should be clear, based on the historical erasure and exclusion of women from these areas is that something systemic is at play. Meaning that the correct way to address the issue is at a systemic level. We must go out of our way to include, centre, and celebrate women because we know that otherwise they will be left out.

Unless you are prepared to argue that women are simply worse at things like creating music and writing books (you wouldn’t be entirely alone in that…), it doesn’t seem too far off base to support the idea that society isn’t taking care of its woman problem all on its own. Separate categories that explicitly acknowledge the work of women are important in order to ensure we are not made completely invisible.

But last week’s MTV Video Music Awards opted for a different route towards equal representation among the sexes: erasing the categories of male and female entirely. Liberals saw this as a very progressive move, assuming that presenting people as gender neutral humans rather than men and women with different status in this world would magically resolve that imbalance in status. In an article headlined, The New VMAs Categories For 2017 Are More Progressive & All About The Music,” published last month at Bustle, Alexis Paige Williams applauded the “non-gendered categories” as being “in keeping with the progressive precedent the music channel set earlier this year”.

How progressive? So progressive that men outnumbered women as nominees and as award winners. Women, Williams found, had only a 28.8 per cent chance of winning what has been renamed a “Moon Person,” while men had a cushy 83.1 per cent chance. Unsurprisingly, the result of this imbalance resulted in further imbalance, and men won every single category, with the exception of a couple of collaboration tracks.

MTV, VH1 and Logo general manger Amy Doyle told The Hollywood Reporter that non-gendered categories were “reflective” of the views of MTV's young audience, who she says are "uniformly rejecting obsolete labels and embracing fluidity.” Doyle added, “It just felt like a dated construct for a category."

And if sexism were obsolete and dated, I might agree. But it’s not.

The trend of neutralising absolutely everything sex-specific is not only unnecessary (there is nothing wrong with being male or female, after all), but it actually harms women – the category of people who are oppressed under patriarchy.

How can we ensure women are being fairly represented if we refuse to even acknowledge women exist? And how can we, for that matter, determine who is getting the short end of the stick (and therefore resolve that inequality) under patriarchy, if we erase the categories of men and women entirely?

The solution to sexism is not to imagine away males and females, it’s to stop treating males as though they are naturally deserving of more power and privilege than women, and to stop treating women as though the marginalisation they experience is merely an unfortunate coincidence. We need to understand that oppression functions on a systemic basis – meaning things are set up to push white men in particular to the top of the heap – rather than being an accident. 

There is a reason why it is not viewed as progressive to claim you are “colour blind” and “see only people, not race,” in response to conversations about racism, or to announce that “Everybody is human!” in response to women’s complaints about sexism. The only people who “don’t see” gender or race are those who don’t have to, as they are not affected by the systems that marginalise women and people of colour. And, in a world that actively steps on and over certain groups of people, being seen matters a lot.

Meghan Murphy is a writer in Vancouver. Her website is Feminist Current