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'Actress' And 'actor' In A Play On Words

March 09, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

"Is your department fair or is it sexist?" one of my favorite editors asked me the other day.

"Fair," I replied.

"Then why do you use the term actress ?"

"Why shouldn't we? It does the job. Actress. A lady who acts. Uh, a woman who acts."

"A female actor."


"You don't see the condescension in that?"


"If you were a woman, you would."

Talk about condescension. But after a similar conversation at home, I am willing to concede that we may have an issue here.

Here is the question: Should the term actress be dropped from Times theatrical reviews, and should all players, male or female, heretofore be referred to as actor s?

The argument for the affirmative, if I'm getting it right, goes something like this: The term actress is a classic example of how an innocent-seeming word can send demoralizing under-messages about the capacity of women to take an equal part with men in the work of the world.

Like poetess, it's a devious word. It pretends simply to be informing the reader that the artist in question is a female. But there is something belittling in the suffix ess --not unlike the effect of ette when it's tacked onto a word.

Just as a roomette isn't quite a room, a poetess isn't quite a poet. She may be a clever versifier. She may bring off some charming effects. But her gender forbids her the force of a Milton, the scope of a Shakespeare, the exuberance of a Dylan Thomas.

Similarly, an actress can be sexy, winsome, funny, even powerful in her woman's way. She can steal your heart away (Laurette Taylor in "Peg O' My Heart") or break it (Taylor in "The Glass Menagerie.") But she will never shake the rafters in "Lear," as a Donald Wolfitt could do. She can't sear your soul in "Hamlet," as Garrick and Barrymore and Olivier could do. The ess in actress is a diminutive. It stands for "less."

This subliminal message has its effect on young women going into the theater, and on the way men treat women in the theater--directors and producers, especially. And it is a lie. A woman can achieve just as much stage size as a man. Think of Jessica Tandy in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Think of Judith Anderson in "Medea." Think of Glenda Jackson in "Hedda Gabler."

To call these performers actresses is as demeaning as calling Birgit Nilsson a songstress . They are actors --an empowering kind of word that ought to be made available to everyone who takes the stage, not just to males. It should be as independent of the artist's gender as is the word dancer, which we apply equally to a Makarova and a Baryshnikov, or singer, which fits both Pavarotti and Nilsson. Remember the time she went through three tenors in the same evening?

Thus, the argument for junking the term actress. The argument for keeping it goes this way: Terms like poetess and aviatrix do, indeed, seem to have been designed with the hidden agenda of making women feel like fools for thinking they could compete with men.

But actress is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as coming into the language from the French at about the same time that actor did--i.e., the mid-16th Century, when women were starting to appear in plays on the Continent (although not in England.)

This would become an important victory for women, the first example of their infiltrating an all-male profession and turning its codes around. But the term actress simply noted the fact that now there were female players as well as male. It was as unjudgmental as lioness or goddess. And it has been used that way ever since. When Bernhardt was called a great actress , for instance, this didn't imply that she stood in the shadow of a great actor like Coquelin. They were twin giants of the 19th Century.

Obviously--the argument for "actress" goes on--there's sexism in the theater. But when the curtain is up, it's talent that tells, not gender. Which is how it should be in every profession. The parity that women have achieved on the stage--in the Western theater anyway--is a good model for the professional respect that they still are seeking in such male protectorates as medicine and the law. (See Rosamond Gilder's 1951 book, "Enter the Actress," for the full story as to how the victory was achieved, including the chapters on such capable actress-managers as Madeleine Bejart, Moliere's mentor and mistress.)

Rather than taking the actress as a symbol of the female eunuch, feminists should point with pride to the fact that for 300 years, men in the theater have had to take their female colleagues seriously. That includes playwrights. If Shakespeare didn't write with a woman's voice in mind, Moliere and Ibsen did. Sheridan and Oscar Wilde did. And Marsha Norman certainly does today.

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