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ESSAY

From actor to actress and back again

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 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."

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