For much of its 35-year history, MTV has lit the way. You may not have always liked where it led, but what’s undeniable is how much it has danced on the cutting edge of youth culture, folding the future into the present. In the early ’80s, it turned music video into an aesthetic and marketing revolution by making it into the new pop normal; it also took the Jell-O-shot bacchanalia of spring break and transformed it into a new (lowdown) ideal for everyone heading off to college. In the ’90s, with “The Real World,” MTV invented reality TV as we know it. It also gave us the divine idiocy of “Beavis and Butt-Head,” the divine meathead hedonism of “Jersey Shore,” and — no small thing — ironic detachment as a way of being.
It also gave us the MTV Movie Awards, a snark-drenched put-on of an awards show that when it first started, back in 1992 (and for a few years afterward), I used to find refreshing. Not just because it seemed an antidote to the self-seriousness of the Academy Awards, or because such only-on-MTV categories as Best Kiss had an irresistible legitimacy in terms of how we watch movies, but because the show’s shameless embrace of youth culture sometimes led it to choose better winners. (In 1995, “Forrest Gump” was nominated, but MTV went for “Pulp Fiction.”) The show’s way of mocking movies as a form of flattery was also ahead of the curve.
Yet for too long now, the popcorn charm of the MTV Movie Awards has been fraying, as the show devolved more and more into a boilerplate two-hour promotional reel. When the producers decided, for the first time this year, to convert the show into the MTV Movie & TV Awards, it didn’t exactly feel like one of those MTV revolutionary ripples, maybe because the Golden Globes fused the two mediums long ago. I assumed the format would change, but that the promo would go on as usual.
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And it did. Here was Tom Holland, the unabashedly boyish star of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (he’s just 20, much younger than Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield when they took on the role), introducing a big fat clip as if he were at Comic-Con. Here were Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn, introducing the Movie of the Year award by saying, “See ‘Snatched’!”
But here as well, even in the midst of host Adam DeVine offering some welcome tweaking of identity politics (“Adam gets it!”), was a change that seemed right in line with the tradition of MTV doing revolutionary things because…well, they feel like it. That change was the introduction of acting categories that, for the first time in history (as the show preeningly but accurately put it), didn’t separate actors based on their sex. Men competing with women: No distinction. Exactly the sort of thing that would make a lot of people (including myself) say, “Oh, come on, that’s not going to work!” As if the standard way of doing it — Best Actor, Best Actress — has been some endlessly perpetuated sexist mistake that was only now, at long last, being corrected.
Yet when Emma Watson won the very first award for Best Actor in a Movie, which she did for her performance in “Beauty and the Beast,” competing against such performers as Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out,” Hailee Steinfeld in “The Edge of Seventeen,” and Hugh Jackman in “Logan,” and accepted the award from the non-binary “Billions” star Asia Kate Dillon, Watson’s speech hit a note of sparkling and literate graciousness that had a meaning far beyond the context. The win itself came off as inevitable to the point of being pro forma, folding in the usual MTV factor of what a monster hit the movie was. Yet Watson, like most of the people nominated, represents a new generation of star. She was more than comfortable treating the traditional acting gender wall not as a separate-but-equal distinction but as a sideways glass ceiling. For a few moments, she made you see it in a new way.
Where will all this lead? I don’t even want to predict. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere. But what it could depend on is exactly the feelings of actors like Watson, who represent evolving ways of looking at things. Wherever it leads (or doesn’t), I have to give the MTV Movie & TV Awards credit for having the audacity to shake up the cultural DNA, to show us what a new kind of post-gender consciousness feels like. For kicking open a door by simply doing it. Maybe it’s just a sexually correct tempest in a teapot. A decade from now, on the other hand, we could be saying: It all started here. The way so many things do at MTV.