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ACTOR-ACTRESS--READERS GET INTO THE ACT

A few weeks ago I invited reader comment on the question of whether it was still useful to call female stage players actresses , or whether that word should be dropped as being a disguised diminutive and the word actor be applied to all players regardless of sex.

I also wondered whether the issue might be a tempest in a teapot. From the vigor of the letters received, it is not. Everyone wrote clearly and succinctly, as people do when they have something to say. Everyone came at the question from a different angle, meaning that they had actually tried to puzzle it out for themselves, rather than resorting to a party line.

And everyone displayed some emotion, even when dismissing the question as trivial. Clearly we are not discussing how many angels can dance on the top of a pin here. Some touchy questions are involved--not just questions about women’s rights. Some correspondents felt equally passionate about the right of the English language to evolve by itself, without trendy revisions.

Most of the letters favored keeping the word actress . That had been my feeling in the original column. Oddly, however, the letters have led me to see the case for actor more clearly. That word will be used more often in future columns in regard to women, although not to the total exclusion of actress .

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More on that below. As for the mail, the least persuasive letters defending the status quo in regard to the use of actress and actor came from men who maintained that the whole discussion was much ado about nothing.

“By now most women I know have progressed long since to more serious concerns than semantics. . . ,” began David R. Moss of Los Angeles, reasonably enough. But a few paragraphs later he was accusing women who “harp on semantics” instead of doing something useful (such as typing envelopes for NOW) of venting their “anti-male feelings” and making “a lot of noise.”

Thayer A. Smith of La Mirada said that actor in its widest sense was already regarded as a “sex-neutral” term (like chairman ), so what was the fuss about? “What is it these feminists--fortunately a minor fringe of the female gender--want?”

Obviously, they want to get the respect that they feel their male colleagues get. But to many actresses who wrote in, nomenclature wasn’t, in fact, a major issue.

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“Labels and job titles are simply less important to most women than actually getting the job,” wrote Ann Farthing, communications director for Women in Theatre, a Hollywood group. However: “Don’t confuse our reluctance to be militant over labels with a willingness to give up any ground in our battle for equality.”

Farthing adds that “it is common courtesy to refer to someone by the name or title they prefer.” True--and some actresses love to be called actresses . Rebecca Forstadt, who played Lena in Stage’s production of “Leonce and Lena,” writes:

“There is something in the pronunciation of the word actress that is light as air (like a cat), sensitive, flowing, radiant, mesmerizing (like a priestess)--all qualities that achieve greatness in an artist. . . . “The sorceress, the healer, the goddess, the life giver. Take away our title and you take away all our strengths and mysteries. Our uniqueness disappears into the void. The feminine side of the coin is nothing to be ashamed of!”

But many female players feel that the word actress calls too much attention to their sex and not enough to their skills as performers.

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Especially in Hollywood. Leda Siskind of Los Angeles writes: “I’ve been referring to myself as an actor for years. I find (the public’s)notion of actress is usually that image of some young blonde in a tight sweater waiting for her break at the soda fountain. I am happy to break that illusion with one word: actor . I am an actor.”

Stacey Schmeidel of Inglewood: “Flutists, oboists, clarinetists, percussionists, pianists, violinists, cellists, musicians, conductors, directors, producers, stagehands, authors and entertainers are not judged according to gender. Why not establish a gender-neutral term for our stage performers as well?”

Because--say the defenders of traditional English--language can’t be commanded to change.

Jim Kerwin of Los Angeles has a horror of “the proliferation of new gobbledygook to muddy up the language.” Thomas Lagos of Los Angeles doesn’t know what to make of any of it. “We have waiter and waitress but not teacher and teacheress . Is there a logical explanation for this?”

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It’s a muddle all right, but a solution begins to emerge from this letter, by Julia Braam of Placentia:

“What is the problem with a woman calling herself actor or actress ? Both are appropriate. Personally, when I am in an acting class or in the company of other actors I prefer to be called actor . It binds us to our common art form. As a woman, though, and an actor, I prefer to be called actress . It accentuates two facts about myself of which I’m very proud. . . .

“Here is the real question. Why is it negative for a woman to differentiate herself from a man?”

It isn’t negative. Nor is it negative for a theater critic to have separate but similar words to distinguish male and female stage players. The problem lies in the generic term actor . Smith thinks it’s a sex-neutral term. Stacey Schmeidel thinks it isn’t.

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I agree with Schmeidel. I think that because it’s identical with the word for a male player, it leads us to think first of a man when we use the phrase in an abstract way. For instance, when I’m asked to name a great actor, I first think of Garrick or Coquelin, not of Duse or Bernhardt--although, when I think again, I realize that the latter were indeed great actors.

This bad habit is, indeed, a kind of discrimination. What can be done to change it? Karin Argoud of Los Angeles suggests, ironically, I’m sure, that we change the generic term actor to actress . How would that look on paper? “Laurence Olivier was the greatest actress of his time. . . .” No, it’s as if you’re impugning Olivier’s masculinity. Actress is not sex-neutral.

J Ranelli suggests a word that has turned up more than once in this piece, the Elizabethan player . This truly is sex-neutral, but there’s also something mock-antiquarian about it. “The players are come, my Lord.” One thinks of flutes and buskins.

The best solution, in my opinion, is to make-do. Keep actor as a generic term, but give women the same access to it as to generic terms like doctor and lawyer , rather than keeping them shut up in their own category.

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Let’s try this alternative on paper. “Duse was a great actor .” How does that look? A little odd, but lot less odd than “Olivier was a great actress .” We could get used to it. Although actor as a generic term isn’t sex-neutral now, it could be converted into one with a little practice.

Would this mean the end of the Best Actress category at the Tony Awards? Why not? The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle has never given its awards according to the sex of the performer, and as many females as males seem to win them. In any case, the next time this critic is about to use the word actress he’s going to see if the generic actor might work as well. If so, actor it will be.

Still, I’m not discarding actress . As long as theater is interested in following the ways of women and men, it will be handy to have terms that help us keep the players straight. Also, there’s the pragmatic argument, well put by my colleague Cecil Smith. “At my age, I need all the words I can get.”


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