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From actor to actress and back again

ESSAY

Breaking the gender barrier wasn't the end of the struggle for females who act. It was only the beginning . . .

January 18, 2009|Sheri Linden

"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.

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