Since the Academy takes no account of sex in designating best art direction or best editing, the question comes up every year: Why differentiate between actor and actress in awarding Oscars?
But there is more to the linguistic distinction between “actress” and “actor” than mere sexism or stereotyping, as can be seen in the following thought experiment. Imagine two scenarios:
In the first, it’s late at night and you phone a medical clinic to request a house call for your sick child. The voice on the other end asks, “Do you want a male doctor or a female doctor?” Well may you be offended, answering in a tone of righteous annoyance, “Just send me the best person you’ve got.”
Now imagine that we are back in the glory days of the studio system. A distraught director phones central casting: A cast member has fallen ill on set, and the director needs an immediate replacement.
“Send me someone from your acting pool,” he demands.
“But what specifically do you want,” asks the head of central casting. “An actor or an actress?”
“Forget those sexist stereotypes,” says the director. “I just want the best you’ve got!”
The plausibility of the parable of the sick child lies in this: Sex ought to make no difference in the effectiveness of a doctor. That’s why, for instance, we don’t need the sexist 19th century coinage “doctoress.”
But acting is not a parallel skill. Actors play roles, and there are as many potential roles as there are kinds of humans in existence. In particular, there are roles that are not interchangeable, either historically or biologically. This means that the sex of actresses and actors is intrinsic to their work in ways that the sex of a doctor is not.
Central casting does not send a petite young woman to play a sumo wrestler, or a muscular hunk to play someone’s sweet aged mother. This isn’t sexism; it is the human condition. Drama and comedy do on occasion call for cross-dressing roles, but even these depend in the first place on our deep sense of the differences between the sexes: Cross-dressing does not obliterate the differences but rather heightens them.
In particular, acting is often about the experience of tension, joy, melancholy and obsessive madness that we call romance and love. Men and women, lovers and antagonists, alike and yet so different, are its center of gravity.
The game of life, and therefore the game of fiction, is not one in which things might sort themselves out in every conceivable manner. Leaving contrived comic plots aside, men in real life do not bear children. The internal emotional life of a woman, which is what an actress may be called on artistically to express, is not that of a man. One purpose of drama is to make the inner life of each sex intelligible to the other. Shakespeare knew this -- and so, when it’s doing its job, does the movie industry.
At various times, sex-based vocational terminology has come into use and later been abandoned. This is true of “doctoress,” “authoress” and “editress.” Some of these feminine endings show resilience, however, as you’ll find out if you try to get a shirt repaired by a “seamster.”
Other gender terms, such as “aviatrix,” can have a period charm because they emphasize remarkable achievements, such as those of woman aviation pioneers. No one today would call a female airline pilot an aviatrix. The term ought to be considered honorific, reserved for the likes of Amelia Earhart.
“Actress” is in a logically different category because an actress is called on to be anything a woman can be: doctor, editor, senator, murderer, saint. It also includes things only a woman can be: aunt, sister, girl, mother. This is not sexism, and trying to ban “actress” in the final analysis stands with trying to forbid the use of the word “woman” itself.
Long may we enjoy the color, richness and sheer entertainment value of love and war between the sexes. On stage and on the screen, rest assured that none of it will ever be effectively played by unisex acting persons. We need men and we need women. We need actors and we need actresses.
Denis Dutton teaches philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He is editor of the website Arts & Letters Daily and the author of “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.”