Redhead Temper: The Cultural Purpose of the MTV Movie Awards

I had a professor in college who taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life as a media consumer, a film spectator, and an educated citizen. He told me to “value omnivorous consumption.” He exemplified this plea with a personal anecdote about taking a break from film scholarship and seeing a bloated action movie– and enjoying it. Ever since then, this idea– of embracing both the high and the low, the good and the bad, and the art and the business of cinema– has kept me grounded as a film student and as a moviegoer in general, and it has kept me grounded now as a film blogger too. Yes, I have a film education that is nearing its conclusion, and yes that may afford me at least the possibility or privilege of succumbing to snooty pretension. But when I think about my professor’s anecdote and my own varying film tastes, I remember that I am an omnivorous consumer, and that is, perhaps, how things should be.

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So, with that long-winded introduction, I’d like to say– completely without shame– that I watch, and enjoy, the MTV Movie Awards every year. The awards, hosted this year by Conan O’Brien, aired last night at 9 pm on MTV (and are bound to be repeated ceaselessly for at least a week). The opening was undeniably funny and centered upon celebrity cameos (already indicating the emphasis on celebrity this awards show exhibits, arguably over actual talent), while some particular highlights for me included pre-recorded sketches and exciting sneak preview scenes from the upcoming X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man installments/sequels. All of that being said, however, I do also understand this awards show’s function in our media landscape; but I do think that function might be shifting slightly in extremely interesting, albeit limited, ways. First of all, it’s we-the-people who vote for the winners, and the awards reflect this potentially problematic sense of democracy in a fun and fairly self-aware manner. I say potentially problematic in the sense that MTV’s demographic is mainly teenagers and twentysomethings, so the winners are, in some ways, just as predictable as those of the Oscars– if there’s a teen-movie franchise like Twilight or, in this year’s case, The Hunger Games, it’s going to win best picture.

That doesn’t bother me though. In fact, I’d say that this is still proof of something pretty democratic at work– we voted online, but we also voted with our wallets, after all. These films make a ton of money, and at least in the case of last year’s winner The Avengers or this year’s winner, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, they at least do have the potential of pleasing critics, as well, and these are critically successful films which could never get recognition at certain other awards shows. But let’s be honest– the average movie-going teenager doesn’t care about the merit of these films on a sort of critical level anyway, and in that sense, this awards show is the antithesis of the Oscars; there are no stuffy politics behind the scenes, just a more upfront and therefore unashamed predictability: if a film was popular with those who are most likely to watch the MTV Movie Awards, then that’s going to win an MTV movie award.

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I guess what I’m getting at is, there are two divergent trends in the realm of cinematic recognition, one being far more reputable even though the other is far more reflective of what audiences want– some audiences, anyway. So, by watching both kinds of movies and both kinds of awards shows, are we valuing omnivorous consumption? I’d say, we are. I respect (with skepticism) both of these very different awards shows for very different reasons. The Oscars are glamorous and, again, political but they’re still the biggest deal (at least outwardly) in the film industry. But, I still see it as a positive thing when someone wins a golden popcorn– the statue itself humorously and ironically glamorizes that which is already a symbol for mass appeal: popcorn is, of course, the ultimate icon of big budget blockbusters and chain multiplexes.

Another thing I’d venture to claim is that the MTV Movie Awards are doing a far better job than many other awards shows at valuing omnivorous consumption within themselves, doing some of the work for us so that we don’t necessarily even have to watch the Oscars (at least not in theory, for the intents and purposes of what I’m arguing here). For example, a few of the nominees of the night were also Oscar nominees, arguably the few that most teen-twentysomething audiences would have been most likely to see and enjoy. The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave were the three main nominees of this kind, traversing the awards-show-spectrum, even if their success at one end of it may have been better than at the other end. Did Chiwetel Ejiofor or Michael Fassbender really ever have a shot when pitted against fan favorites Josh Hutcherson or Mila Kunis? No, of course they didn’t. But I can’t help but feel like it’s pretty cool that they were nominated at all, as futile as it was. Lupita Nyong’o even introduced the first award of the night this year, looking as stylish as ever but less elegant and more hip, her dress reflecting the loud, colorful, boisterous atmosphere of this awards show. Jared Leto won for his on-screen transformation as opposed to his acting, but who are we to assume that his transformation didn’t factor into his Oscar win? As a fan of Jonah Hill’s, was I elated that he won best comedic performance for The Wolf of Wall Street? Of course. Did I understand, though, that many fans may have voted for him based on his other, less “serious” work? Yes, and I think he understood this as well, even bringing up This is the End in his thank yous.

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My point is this: I think it’s great that the MTV Movie Awards has included these “higher” films among the ranks of “lower” ones; I think it’s hilarious that Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for best shirtless performance and predictably lost to the ripped Zac Efron, and that that’s even a category at all (not to mention best kiss and the slightly more meaningful trailblazer award); ultimately, I think it’s positive that MTV is valuing omnivorous consumption even if the value is certainly still placed more heavily on one end of the spectrum– it’s still more than the Oscars could ever say they’ve done. The MTV Movie Awards are more silly, less prestigious, and equally predictable, but they’re also less pretentious, more fun, and aren’t trying to be something they’re not. I’m not trying to bash the Oscars (because I feel as though I’ve done that enough in the last few months to last me until next year’s show) but to say that the MTV Movie Awards don’t mean anything in our cinematic world is discrediting and ignoring whatever it is that these awards do celebrate– the films and actors that the Oscars don’t acknowledge but which are immensely popular, even if they’re not necessarily “good.”

So, while I do think the balance can be struck even more effectively, and that an awards show needs to come along that will bridge this gap even more successfully, I think the cultural divide within cinema is so large that this is admittedly daunting and difficult. But I do think it’s possible, and I think it’s important that valuing omnivorous consumption becomes the goal at every level of our entertainment world, not just within individuals who watch both awards shows with equal interest and zeal– we are a good place to start, but it’s not enough, and I don’t see us as the end point either.

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7 thoughts on “Redhead Temper: The Cultural Purpose of the MTV Movie Awards

  1. I watch these shows too. They tend to be fairly entertaining if nothing else. I don’t mind the kind of movies they award either. First of all, Catching Fire was a great movie, but even when it was a Twilight feature I understood why it was winning in that demo. I kind of wish they didn’t put the popcorn/teen fare up against the Oscar-type movies though honestly. I don’t know if MTV picks the noms and then the public can vote if voters submit options that become nominees (I always thought it was the first?) but I feel like if they just stuck to their demo more the awards would seem less silly. Like there’s no need in my opinion to try to appear “legit” by including these prestige films.

    • That’s a good question; while I do know we vote for the winners, I don’t know how the nominees are chosen. I think it’s interesting though that they chose to include some of the prestige films, and I don’t know if they’re trying to seem more legit by doing so necessarily and if so, what might that say about MTV and awards show culture too? I do think the concept of including both kinds of films within one awards show is a kind of ideal that should be striven for in my opinion, even though we all know those films don’t win in this demographic, like you said; maybe in a perfect world the people watching who hadn’t seen 12 Years a Slave or American Hustle might want to now, thereby achieving the kind of balance I argue is necessary in terms of media consumption, but who knows. So I don’t know what the motivation is but it didn’t distract from the awards’ overall goofy, youthful, mass-appeal sort of vibe/focus, like I’m not sure that it would seem any less silly if it didn’t include those films because I also wonder what other films maybe should have been nominated in place of the prestige films. The fact that they’re there is in itself interesting to consider, clearly, so that’s kind of what I was thinking while writing this, but we can agree to disagree slightly. Thanks for your comment! All fascinating stuff to think about.

  2. I’m a pretty omnivorous consumer and applaud your professor for encouraging people to enjoy popcorn films along with Oscar-calliber fare. That being said, there’s a lower limit of what I’d watch that includes, off the top of my head, Adam Sandler movies, Tyler Perry and the Jackass series. I’d also draw the line at MTV but that’s more of a historic association. Back in my day (I’d estimate there’s an 8 year gap between us), MTV epitomized the lowest common denominator of programming, although I’m surprisingly ok with VH1. MTV practically invented reality TV trash with The Real World and they separated haves and have nots with their materialistic definition of cool.

    Also, MTV isn’t 20’s and teens. It’s generally younger teens and pre-teens, as they generally invent what’s cool and pique the curiosity of people who haven’t experienced coolness or much of life for that matter and can’t wait to revel in teenage culture, and they’re voting patterns aren’t anything I put much faith in. I know I’m sounding like a snob here and trust me, I watch a lot of popcorn movies and can’t stand top 10 lists that are obscure and foreign, BUT pre-teens and teenagers are the reason why Transformers, GI Joe, Captain America and Twilight (full disclosure: haven’t seen this one) have spawned so many sequels and they skew box office results to awful places. Their voting is heavily influenced by peer pressure and what’s available to them. I’d consider the 9 films nominated for Oscar (I’ve seen 8 of them) all well-made, great films and I’ll bet half of the voters have parents who won’t take them to see Dallas Buyers Club or 12 Years a Slave and they probably aren’t going to have ever heard of Philomena. Can you imagine a trailer for that film that’s watched by the MTV crowd?

    It’s also worth pointing out that while it’s great to watch low-brow movies, you’re not watching a low-brow movie at all here: Just an awards show, which is part-commercial/part a weird art form in and of itself. Save yourself 2 hours and watch We’re the Millers or The Heat and I’d consider that a better use of your time.

    That being said, I do like the Oscars a lot and generally think they have a great track record of picking good films and I tend to read the political reports as highly overblown. It does seem like a popular thing for film buffs to talk about how disillusioned they are with the Oscars, but I’m always preaching that it’s a pretty fair system of voting and it’s fairly reflective of the best in films in a given year.

    • Wow lots of food for thought here! Thank you for the comment 🙂 I do agree with you about the teen demographic and teen driven content and the way MTV as a channel sort of operates with those things in mind (and a few of the examples you mentioned like Adam Sandler and stuff I also typically avoid at all costs). I think, for better or worse and perhaps without a good reason, I consider this awards show as a sort of guilty pleasure thing that is separate from that, and I take the teen voting as a given and with a grain of salt and just have fun with it in the same way as I might have fun with something like Were the Millers which I did enjoy a lot. So while I totally agree, I still take the time to watch these awards and likewise, the fact that I am easily/often jaded with regard to the Oscars doesn’t dissuade me from watching those every year with equal enthusiasm and attention. I love how many sort of moving parts there are within this topic and in this debate so I thank you again for contributing to that!

      • Hey,

        I thought I’d reply to all your comments here in one place.
        First off, it was just such a great reawakening exercise for me to reply to your blog. I t brought me back to the days of studying film analysis and such and just getting into heady discussions with other film students and getting closer to the academic studies that inspired me to pursue writing about film. That enthusiasm is still evident in you and it rubbed off on me a little.

        I think I’ll try this with some other blogs.

        My blog was supposed to encourage some of that interaction but as I lose touch with a lot of my old classmates a lot of that falls off. 8 Years is a long time to keep a blog, you know.

        I hope you check out my blog and do the same, but if not, this was beneficial to me anyways, and I’m always open to collaboration, cross-talk, etc.

        As for this post, I might have a pretty strong bias against MTV from my experiences with the channel, I even had a film professor who showed us a documentary in class one day about how MTV was the root source of all evil too. In the 90’s (which I’m guessing you missed a lot of), outside of showing music videos, the channel was really dumb, but that might have changed, I haven’t tuned in recently.

      • I totally understand the bias against MTV, I typically stay away from it in all other circumstances.

        It means a lot that my enthusiasm comes through in my writing! It’s funny, I used to think that the biggest challenge I would have in maintaining my blog would be doing so while still at school this past year, but now that I’ve graduated, being on the job hunt and working back at my part time, I realized I have been a lot more burnt out creatively now than I was at college, not to mention I seem to have even less time than I did, which I was also not expecting.

        Anyway, maybe that was a digression but either way, I think the fact that you’ve kept your blog up for 8 years is amazing, even if that comes with its own challenges and downsides. I definitely plan on exploring your blog and commenting on stuff, but if it’s not as frequent or abundant as your insightful comments were, I do apologize– again, weird transition time and I really need to get in the habit of commenting more instead of just writing. So I must thank you as well for being part of the impetus for that! I’ll see what I can do to give back in that kind of way.

  3. There are definitely some tricks you can use to keep yourself going. I try to blog right after I have an idea or half-develop an idea and come back to it later. I was actually thinking of doing a side business training people on how to blog. That’s part of the PR I’m trying to branch out into.

    I believe I have some posts on it on my blog.

    My blog is sophomorecritic.blogspot.com

    Also, I think what’s interesting is that the first year or two you recycle your thoughts from your classes and have a more academic bent, then you start to just react outside of that to films and such more naturally. Not that one way’s better than the other, but there is a practice of just using the blog to sort of sprout out your latest academic thing uyou’ve heard that usually shows me a blogger is currently in college or not far removed from it.

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