From actor to actress and back again
“The word ‘actress’ has always seemed less a job description to me than a title,” Gene Tierney once observed. If she were still among us, the star of stage and screen might be surprised to find tarnished whatever cachet, in the glamour-gilded 1940s and ‘50s, was attached to the word. If “actress” is indeed a title, in many quarters it is no longer considered one of distinction.
As anyone who follows entertainment news has become aware over the last decade or so, most thespians of the female persuasion now refer to themselves as actors, not actresses. Journalists and other nonactors, to varying degrees, are getting with the gender-neutral program. On the one hand this change in usage is informed by the egalitarian impulse that has pushed aside “stewardess” for “flight attendant” and, less successfully, “waitress” for the ungainly “waitperson” or ambience-free “server.”
On the other hand, it points up the limits of language neutrality and the unique qualities of the acting profession, raising questions with particular resonance in this long season of awards.
The feminine suffix, it is argued, carries an unnecessarily frilly air, suggesting a subsidiary relationship to man’s work. But if “actress” is, for some, as fusty and quaint a term as “authoress,” it’s also a word whose history reflects the obstructed road women traveled to reach the footlights. Acting was, for centuries, a profession restricted to men and boys. However well observed Shakespeare’s Desdemona or Lady Macbeth, it fell upon the shoulders of male performers to strut and fret those characters’ hour upon the stage.
In a convulsive late-17th century shift -- dramatized in the 2004 feature “Stage Beauty” -- the Restoration opened the stage doors of the English theater to women (they’d already made their entrances in Italy and France). At that point they were known as actors, along with their male counterparts. It would be several decades before the word “actress” appeared -- 1700, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, more than a century after the word “actor” was first used to denote a theatrical performer, supplanting the less professional-sounding “player.” (In Japan, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the equivalent of “actress” replaced the phrase for “female player.”)
“Actress,” it turned out, was not always the kindest of labels: It affirmed a woman’s vocation but also could be used to question her morals. Actors in general, of course, were often regarded with suspicion for breaking the workaday mold. But a particular sense of Puritan horror clung to the notion of women performing publicly -- and to the name of their newly legitimized position. In the first recorded use of the word “actress,” playwright John Dryden evoked “the trade of love behind the scene, where actresses make bold with married men.” With this double-edged sword I dub thee Actress and denigrate the work.
The work itself is at the heart of contemporary objections to that name -- matters of professional respect and equality. As Zoe Wanamaker told the BBC in 2005, an awareness arose among the acting community in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Britain, of the need to repudiate the term’s stigma. “The name ‘actress’ seemed to have this connotation of being a prostitute,” she said.
Fiona Shaw countered that because of the relative dearth of roles for women, “a young actress’ life is entirely different to an actor’s, 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!”
Shaw’s point notwithstanding, and in contrast to what Tierney believed, today the word “actress” is not accepted as an elevating title like “countess” but rejected as a lesser, condescending version of the once all-encompassing “actor.” It’s very much a matter of job description.
Methods of interpreting dramatic roles may vary from school to school, performer to performer, but there is no gender-defined difference in process. An actor is an actor. Still, that raises the question of award categories. If there is no difference in craft between men and women, why sepa- rate them when it’s time to celebrate their accomplishments? The goal of an equal-opportunity spotlight is laudable, but how long is it necessary?
The Screen Actors Guild, which might be considered the last word on what working performers believe, continues to divide its honors between men and women, as do most organizations, critics’ groups and festivals that present acting awards. SAG winners receive a statuette called the Actor, and he’s definitely male. So too of course is the less graphically delineated Oscar.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still uses the word “actress,” while SAG has adopted the more forward-looking, if clunky, “female actor.” Beyond the statuary and nomenclature, though, there’s still an element of separate-but-equal. The Gotham Independent Film Awards take a more progressive stance, refusing to categorize actors according to gender and instead bestowing awards for best breakthrough actor and best ensemble cast.
If it’s easier to let go of the word “actress” than the concept, that may be because performers are unique among artists -- their bodies and voices are their raw material. “Sculptress” is a silly and offensive term because it draws an irrelevant distinction; men and women who sculpt use the same clay and stone and metal. Men and women who act bring contrasting physicality to the proceedings. La difference is alive and well, for now and the foreseeable future. (Even the growing transgender phenomenon reinforces more than blurs the distinction.)
The phrase “female actor” may suggest a seriousness and muscularity that “actress” does not, but it also has a certain diluting effect. It wouldn’t be a terrible thing to embrace the designation “actress” for all the power, creativity and individuality it can convey. “Goddess” -- a word not likely to be retired any time soon -- expresses an essence that “female god” never could.
Mere semantics? In questions of parity and tolerance, words do matter. If the “ess” suffix is objectionable to women who act, it’s their call. And if its demise leads to a true leveling of the playing field -- Hollywood is hardly immune to the gender gap in pay -- all the better.
But as writers and editors adjust to the sea change, the word “actress” dies harder in conversation, out of habit, certainly, but also perhaps because of that nameless essence it embodies. Language has its own vitality, and there are bound to be growing pains when words fall out of favor. In the case of “actress,” there are those who, bearing no ill will toward women who act, lament the decline of a perfectly good and useful word, concise and elegant. But to redress insult and imbalance, language sometimes stumbles into less-than-graceful territory.
The inflexible adoption of corrective vocabulary can also stir up amusing clouds of confusion. In 2007, the editors of the British paper the Guardian amended the obituary of a noted producer, who was famously married to Sophia Loren, with this wry clarification: “A rigid application of the Guardian style guide caused us to say of Carlo Ponti . . . that in his early career he was ‘already a man with a good eye for pretty actors. . . .’ This was one of those occasions when the word ‘actresses’ might have been used.”