To Be An Actor or Actress? That Is The Question... But Does It Matter?

Women were finally allowed on stage in 1656 (send your thanks to King Charles II), but didn’t gain the title of actress until 1700. Then, from the 1970s onwards, the term began to split the acting profession. Is it harmless, or is it a victim of gender bias in language and another way in which women’s roles in their careers are diminished?

Make-up artists aren’t called make-up artistes, female stage managers aren’t called stage manageresses, so why is gender still highlighted for performers? Some argue it simply comes down to specificity, and saying the more ungainly term ‘female actor’ is just the same as saying actress, as they imply the same thing: the performer is female. Others say its a linguistic pattern that is yet to fall completely out of favour, as it has with authoress.

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There are (as with many things) patriarchal foundations to language, which may explain why women fought in the 1970s and 80s to bring equity into (one area) of the acting profession. Take mankind, for example, for English, or the use of ils (masculine form of they) in French, which is used for a group of people: even if there are 300 women and one man, the masculine pronoun is used. Italian also differentiates between genders in a huge range of professions (dottore and dottoressa to mean doctor, for example).

There are countless examples of gender bias in language, and perhaps actress is just a quirk of our language ties with our friends across the Channel that mean we still differentiate between actor and actress.

The linguistic tendency to differentiate between genders clings to the fact that, historically, most professions were dominated by men, and so women in those professions are highlighted as an exception to the rule.

Added to that distinction is the belief that ‘actress’ diminishes the role, just as -ette (as in kitchenette, cigarette, or vignette, for example) denotes something that is smaller, brief, or — when applied to people — diminutive in stature or worth.

In the latter case, perhaps it is simply the societal belief that women are lesser than men that fuels the implications that anything with -ess or -ette tagged onto the end of a word is somehow lesser in value. Zoë Wannamaker has said in an interview with the BBC that the term actress carried a ‘stigma’ and connotations of prostitution, which is certainly a more extreme societal add-on to the word, which has its roots in the 17th century.

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Without those deeply ingrained societal beliefs, would actress lose its ability to offend and divide the acting profession? For instance, where are the columns debating the use of princess over prince, baroness over baron, or heiress over heir?

However, what is clear in this particularly muddy issue is that it is women who should be in charge of their titles, even if it causes confusion for newspaper style guides: the Guardian has outlawed the word actress, having to state that an actor has won Best Actress in their awards write ups in a rather contradictory move.

Denise Gough, who has starred in Angels in America at the National Theatre, calls for women to reclaim the word actress and throw off the shroud of shame around it.

“We fought to be on the stage. We should reclaim that word: I don’t know where it came from, this fucking notion that putting ‘ess’ on the end makes us weak. I would be no less afraid of a lioness than a lion.”

Additionally, Fiona Shaw has said:

“I think the experience of being an actress is so fundamentally different to being an actor that any illusion that making the name the same would make the experience of an actress the same.

“A young actress’ life is entirely different to an actors and I don’t see any diminishment of status in being called an actress as opposed to an actor — if anything, the badge of shame is the badge of pride because it’s a much tougher job!

But, a group of actors (or actresses) I spoke to in a previous article about the realities of pursuing acting as a woman weren’t particularly bothered by the debate, thinking there were bigger issues in the industry that deserved more attention.

Christine, an actor-in-training has learnt from her tutors that it is becoming a non-issue, saying:

“It is becoming less important, especially now that gender roles are second guessed a lot and society is slowly becoming more open minded. It still seems that women are judged with a stricter eye when playing roles that are usually played by male actors.”

We all do the same job,Lauren Whedbee said, wondering why the distinction is necessary.

Emily Feltham acknowledged the misogyny that fuels the stigma around the word actress.

“I prefer actor because it sounds more serious and less diva-ish. That might be me internalising a bit of society's misogyny, though. My logic is that you don't get teacher-esses or doctor-esses or lawyer-esses; what's the point of the distinction?”

Beth Hodd was also against the distinction, saying:

“I'd rather be an actor; why make the designation? I'm more worried about other things someone might believe or think if they're using a term like actress. It seems demeaning or lesser in some way.”

Despite a great deal of thrumming debate around the term ‘actress’ versus ‘actor’, concern and attention among those actually working on or training for the stage was more focused on the lack of roles for women, difficulties in funding training and finding work that allows for auditions and matinees, and the pay gap.

Actor’s union Equity hasn’t taken a stance on the issue, the Tony awards, the Oliviers and the Oscars, to name a few of the glitziest award ceremonies in theatre and film, still have Best Actor and Best Actress awards — and would anyone turn down an Oscar based on the word actress? It’s unlikely.

One problem banishing actress from our vocabulary is that in order to gain equality, women must be known as men are, in essence losing their title’s identity showcasing them as women on stage.

It seems the problem lies not in the word itself, but the beliefs society has set upon it over the years. There is no right answer, simply many opinions, personal preferences, and many more debates to come.

Written by Lois Zoppi

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