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Actor or actress?

April 3, 2012

I have just reviewed Esther Freud’s enjoyable novel Lucky Break, which is all about a group of drama students and the careers they follow, and I wrote ‘Esther Freud trained as an actress’, which indeed she did. I was then gripped by indecision – should I instead have used the gender-neutral term actor? An important element in the rise of non-sexist language is that of gender-neutral terms for professions – nobody says poetess or manageress any more, a change which I entirely support. So why does it still feel funny to say actor of a woman?

I think it may be because in the case of manager, poet, conductor etc, the job spec is exactly the same whether one is a man or a woman. Poetesses, like poets, write poems; manageresses, like managers, manage. There is no need for separate terms. But it’s arguable that actors and actresses do, in a sense, do different jobs: they don’t usually perform the same roles. If a director is looking for a Cleopatra, then they want an actress, not an actor. Fortified by this reasoning I went ahead with actress, and felt confirmed in my choice when I saw that Esther Freud is described as having been an actress on the book-jacket – a form of words she presumably approved.

But I still don’t feel 100% sure; if the book jacket had described Freud as an actor I would have felt obliged to change my word to agree. Any views on this tricky question welcome.

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3 Comments
  1. C. Robshaw permalink

    I submit Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, partly because it’s relevant, partly because it’s my favourite acting of anyone ever.

  2. Peter Howell permalink

    Hi Brandon

    Yes this is a difficult one. However, I’m not sure that your argument about male and female actors being in some ways fundamentally different quite stands; they’re both pretending to be someone else, and sometimes, for example in a Shakespeare play or a pantomime, they pretend to be of a different gender. So I’d go with ‘actor’ rather than ‘actress’ – better to be accused of over-zealous political correctness than sexism, I think.

    I have a similar problem with an essay I’m writing at the moment. I’m paraphrasing part of an essay by Richard Rorty in which the pronoun ‘she’ is used in a gender-neutral way: ‘When the romantic intellectual is asked such-and-such, she responds thus:…’. But the ‘romantic intellectual’ he’s talking about is Foucault, who I’m pretty sure was a man, despite what my students say about that ‘Michelle Foucault’. Rorty’s paper was originally given at a conference in Paris, and first published in French, in which the pronoun ‘on’ is used, which avoids the issue of course (I have no idea whether Rorty originally spoke in French or in English, and unfortunately he’s dead now so I can’t ask his opinion). I decided to keep the ‘she’ in my paraphrase, in order to keep a flavour of the English-language text, but my editor scribbled loads of red ink all over it and muttered something about ‘political correctness gone mad.’ What do you think?

    [By the way, wasn’t there recently a court case in which some very disturbed soul had a history of attacking black people because he had racist paranoid fantasies? After treatment, the racist fantasies had gone, so he attacked people indiscriminately. The judge called it “madness gone political correct”…]

    • Hi Peter. Yes, pantomimes and Shakespearean cross-dessing did cross my mind when I was doing the post. But aren’t these exceptional rather than normal cases? Still, I don’t feel sure. I think my problem with this is that I can see a good case for using ‘actor’ universally, but it still just doesn’t sound right (in the way that ‘poet’ or ‘manager’ when used of a woman do sound right) – maybe I was just trying to rationalise that feeling.

      On the use of ‘she’ as a gender-neutral pronoun I feel on much firmer ground. I have already posted about that (see my earlier post Philosophyspeak’) and my view is that it sounds ridiculous in some contexts and is not necessary in any, as we have a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun in ‘they’, hallowed by long usage. I think I will post on this topic again – thanks!

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