An actor is someone who acts. This is fairly straight forward, right? Why then all this actor/actress business? Are we differentiating between the sexes unnecessarily, perhaps even demeaning women with a patronising, politically correct term? After all, categorising people by something as frivolous as their gender in a profession where people play make-believe is kind of silly, isn’t it?
In the olden days, an actor would have been male by default, we all know about men cross-dressing for female roles in Shakespeare’s plays (they did it for art, you understand), women just didn’t do that kind of thing. They were too busy being oppressed to flap about in wigs and silly clothes. When people without penises finally started to get on stage*, they were called either actors or actresses, the latter being a feminine suffix, taken from the French.
In France, gender permeates language in strange ways, for example bridges (inanimate structures built to cross obstacles) are male, kind of like how boats are considered female by their lonesome, sexually frustrated captains. Fair enough, you might say, bridges kind of follow the same basic principles as male genitalia, but in the German language bridges are feminine, and in English they have no grammatical gender at all. Furthermore, there’s a pretty strong possibility that linguistics actually effect cognition, so the way we speak determines the way we think. There’s a debate as to whether our psychological faculties are universal or a result of learning, and if the latter is true, language is going to have a huge impact on the way a culture thinks about stuff. Simply put: if you call a bridge masculine, you perceive it as masculine. You say; “look at that big strong, trouser-wearing, pipe-smoking, moustache-growing bridge”. But it’s not masculine. It’s a bridge.
Of course, ‘actress’ isn’t the only word with this cute little feminine flourish; look at Goddess, a female God, who I guess are usually male. There’s lioness too, and authoress. Yeah, y’know an authoress? Like someone who writes books, but female.
It might not seem like a big deal to separate the sexes like this, and no doubt plenty of people will think this article is unnecessarily provocative, but finding a gender-specific alternative for a word that doesn’t have to be inherently gender-specific creates a subliminal message that women are second to men. The worst thing about sexism is that it’s so damn insidious; it’s the little things that we brush over, because they don’t seem important in the grand scheme of things. But these casual little insults build up in the overall psyche of society, and create a mood that either a) it’s OK to be a little sexist or b) sexism on the whole just isn’t a big deal anymore (it still is).
So, because you read Gorilla Film Magazine, I’m guessing you’re not an arsehole, and you wouldn’t call a female carpenter a carpentress. I mean that would be kind of degrading, right? But hold on, I hear you bellow, spraying marmalade and toast particles all over your laptop, it’s different for actors, their roles are gender specific, moron!
Lets look at how we can get past that problem.
“I’m looking for an actor to play the part of Mary, a 42 year old woman with an East London accent”
And hey, if a bloke did want to audition for the role, who is to say he can’t? Everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Adam Sandler have played women. At least I think Sandler played a woman, every time I try to watch one of his more recent films I wake up in hospital with no memory of how I got there. Plenty of women have played men too, though not nearly as many (possibly because female actors were frowned upon up until the mid sixteen hundreds). You could also just specify ‘must be female’ in your ad, without ever having to tie gender connotations to the word ‘actor’.
“Jennifer Lawrence, wasn’t she that actor in Winter’s Bone?”
Yes she was, and she was pretty good in it. She was pretty good at acting in that film. Not actessing. That would be silly.
Most women in the acting profession prefer the term ‘actor’. Whoopi “Evil Hyena“ Goldberg famously said; “An actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor – I can play anything.” This pretty much encapsulates the problem with applying gender to the word ‘actor’; it takes away its power. But what about awards ceremonies? The female recipients need a term that separates them from the men, right? In that one case, surely it’s acceptable to use the word actress? After all, we can’t have two awards for best actor!
Sure thing skipper! You have the award for best actor, award for best actress, the award for best black actor…
Whoa, hold on there! Best black actor?
Well if we’re going to have separate awards for the best actor who is male, and the best actor who happens to be female, why not separate them into different colours too? That way more people will get awards! There’s no way that’s degrading!
It’s almost as if awards ceremonies are worried that having only one best actor award would mean women would never win, so they have to come up with another award just for them. For the category of being a woman. Which is kind of sexist, when you think about it.
*Editors note: before cinema screens there were these things called theatres. They were basically the same thing but the entire narrative would be a single take, long shot in 3D.