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Ask Lyn: Is the term "actress" out of date?

Ask Lyn: Is the term "actress" out of date?

Ask Lyn: Is the term "actress" out of date? cover photo on Stagedoor
"I read an interview with Patricia Hodge recently in which she said that she didn’t feel demeaned by being called an actress and she didn’t see “why we felt the need to change it.” Do you use actor or actress?" - Pia, Parsons Green

The world changes. We move on. Most publications now refer to actors not to actresses. In the same way that they wouldn’t describe a female identifying poet as a poetess. But the term actress lingers. In fact, some are rather attached to it, arguing that women fought to take their place on the stage and the term actress reflects that fight. The wonderful Denise Gough once said that she didn’t mind the ess on the end because “I would be no less afraid of a lioness than a lion.”

Me neither, but actor doesn’t denote the gender but simply refers to the act of acting, which is why I favour it. Since the term actress started appearing at the start of the 18th century it has too often been used in demeaning way. To this day some of the tabloid press still use the word actress when describing a woman while implying that the idea she might actually do any acting is laughable. That kind of misogyny thrives through the way it twists language.

So maybe the term actress needs reclaiming, but the reason I’d go with actor as a matter of course rather than actress is simply because it limits rather than expands. I like Whoopi Goldberg’s much quoted, but still pertinent, comment that “an actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor. I can play anything.” Indeed, most of us during our primary school acting careers have at some point played a tree or a flower and some like Kathryn Hunter, Fiona Shaw and Maxine Peake have also gone on to play King Lear, Prospero and Hamlet. In some of these portrayals they are not playing specific gender.

Which brings us to another reason why I am in favour of using actor because it is a catch-all that doesn’t refer to gender at all and therefore embraces not just those who identify as either male or female, but which can also include those who identify as non-binary. It is good to see award ceremonies moving towards an acceptance that best male actor and best actress categories set up binaries that exclude non-binary performers. Nobody wins the Nobel prize for being best female identifying or on male physicist, they win it for being good at physics. So why not just give awards to actors because what they are very good at is acting? Seems sensible to me.

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Written by

Lyn Gardner

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