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Actor or actress part II

April 6, 2012

I’ve had a certain amount of comment on my previous post about the actor vs actress question. In particular it’s been brought to my attention that male actors don’t always play male roles and female actors don’t always play female roles (pantomimes, authentic Shakespeare productions in which all the parts are played by men or boys, or productions which use cross-gender casting, e.g. Frances de la Tour playing Hamlet). Fair enough, although it’s nevertheless true that these cases are exceptional: generally, an actor could be defined as someone who specialises in male roles and an actress could be defined as someone who specialises in female roles – if that makes sense then there would be a good and non-sexist reason for having separate terms. I do think it’s always worth asking what is the motive, the agenda behind having a separate term, and when it is to imply that the male version is the norm (this is clearly the case with silly coinages like poetess) then I’m against it; but it does seem possible at least in principle to have sex-specific terms because they refer to real differences, without implying the superiority of one over the other (after all, man and woman are sex-specific terms, and no one is arguing that they should be replaced by a single sex-neutral term).

I’m informed by my friend Bruce Dessau that Roberrt Elms was talking about this on BBC Radio London today, arguing strongly for the abolition of actress. Among the arguments he advanced was that no one says paintress for female painters – but I think I’ve dealt with that one in my remarks above: female painters don’t necessarily paint different subjects from male painters, whereas female actors usually do play different roles from male actors.  He also said that if you referred to a woman as ‘the best actress in the world’ this would only mean the best at acting among women; how could you make the claim that she was the best at acting out of everyone in he world without the gender-neutral term actor? That’s a fair point.

I still haven’t made my mind up on the question, although I suspect that the tide is so strongly with actor for both sexes that I’ll end up switching to it and feeling fine about that. In the meantime, though, my review has gone off with the word actress in it. Bruce says that if he used actress in a review for the Guardian the subs would automatically correct it. It’ll be interesting to see whether the subs at the Sindie do the same. Review appears on Easter Sunday.

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One Comment
  1. C. Robshaw permalink

    Yeah, but couldn’t you then argue for even more specificity? I mean, black actors are almost always cast in black rôles, fat actors play fat guys, & Tony Cox isn’t going to get many parts that weren’t written for a dwarf, & then we’d end up with all kinds of words. But really, shouldn’t an actor just be someone who acts? Then if you wanted to specify male or female actors, you could just say: male actors, female actors.

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