Actor or actress? Join the debate…

Caroline Sheen, who prefers to be called an 'actress'.
Caroline Sheen, who prefers to be called an 'actress'.
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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Just so you know, I am – more often than not – likely to refer to a performer as an ‘actor’ regardless of their gender.

But that is only because the style guide of The Stage says that I do so, unless I am referring to an awards category or if a performer calls themselves an actress. We would never say 'female actor', because it just sounds wrong.

The Stage consulted The Guardian's style guide in drawing up its own guide. The Guardian states that the word actress comes under the “same category as authoress, comedienne, manageress, 'lady doctor', 'male nurse' and similar obsolete terms that date from a time when professions were largely the preserve of one sex (usually men)”.

Whoopi Goldberg is quoted as saying: "An actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor – I can play anything." I rather like that. And given the recent calls of performers such as Emma Thompson for more gender-blind casting, perhaps actor is the best term that can be applied to all performers, regardless of sex.

If it was adopted more generally, however, it would be interesting to see how awards ceremonies cope. Having watched the BAFTA film awards this weekend, and seen how the categories divide performers into actresses and actors, would we find ourselves just having a ‘best actor’ category in which men and women are lumped together?

This week I did a quick, informal poll on Twitter to see what the consensus is out there. I found two things: firstly, I have never had so many people respond to a question I have asked. Secondly, I didn’t realise opinions would be so divided – particularly among women.

Here are a selection of the responses I received. Have a read and see what you think:

Fiona Allan, chief executive of Curve in Leicester:

Louise Brealey, actor in Sherlock:

Susan Penhaligon, actor (or actress):

Caroline Sheen, West End star:

Diane Neve, theatre fan:

Beccy Wire, performer:

Chris Smyth, theatregoer:

Stephen John Davis, actor:


[poll id="76"]


  1. “It should be a matter of choice for the individual.”

    This gets my vote. I’ll never forget the time I was having a business meeting and I said something about “my wife” and the woman I was meeting with told me that it was rude and demeaning to use gender-specific language and insisted that I refer to my wife as “my partner.” I told her that would be confusing because I also have business partners. She told me to call them “my associates.” I started to feel like I was having a grammar lesson.

    I thought the whole thing was rather silly, as did my wife when I came home and told her. My wife doesn’t have any issue with being called a “wife” than I have being called a “husband,” so why do others care? If we had an issue ourselves, we would use different words.

    And trust me, my wife often uses much worse words to describe me!

  2. If I’m a female Doctor, I am not a Doctress. If I’m a female plumber I am not a Plumbess. It describes the job, not the gender. ACTOR, please.

  3. I think the actor/actress issue is quite a minor issue… In my opinion it is just away of showing the gender of a performer… It’s no big deal… The name actor or actress has no difference… It’s just like if you have 2 different gender parents and the mum wants to be called dad, it doesn’t make a difference really but it’s the norm that the different genders be called him/her, mother/father, actor/actress… So as far as I’m concerned I’m on the side of “be what you want to be” x

  4. No question about it…..DEFINiTELY to stay as it always has…….I really hate the term Actor when referring to an actress…..absolutely dreadfu, and don’t give me all this equality and other rubbish….leave well alone….

  5. There isn’t a need to distinguish between male and female actors. However it would make giving out the BAFTA for leading actor and leading actress more confusing :)

  6. As a job title/position I personally choose Actor. Reason – Men and women do the same job. It’s same argument used for back in the dark ages when they changed the title Manageress to just Manager (and all the others too). Same job = same title.

    To lead on from that, I also use Actor for political reasons. As with the Manager/Manageress reason – same job should equal same pay and representation! So until we get the that too I’m going to make a point of calling myself an Actor.

    I do hate, as a personal thing, that the generic term, is also the male term – but that’s bigger centuries old issues that need addressing there!

    As a descriptive shorthand, I understand how Actress is still valid and could be fought for to use. ie. If a casting brief is calling for Actors to play the role of “Sam”, people would take that to mean Sam was a man, therefore Actress could viably be used if “Sam” was a girl, but then surely it would work just as well to just have a female or male box to tick, just like all the other things on a casting brief, like age, ethnicity etc.

    In a future world when we have equal representation and respect and pay, then I’ll may consider using Actress again. Till then I’m an Actor, Female………

  7. Were I a woman, I should be honoured and privileged to be called an Actress. This is just another example of stupid political correctness.

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