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Mark Shenton: Should we say ‘actor’ or ‘actress’?

Denise Gough. Photo: Manuel Harlan Denise Gough. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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In an interview in The Observer last week, Denise Gough commented, when she was asked why she preferred to be called an actress rather than actor: “We fought to be on the stage. We should reclaim that word: I don’t know where it came from, this fucking notion that putting ‘ess’ on the end makes us weak. I would be no less afraid of a lioness than a lion.”

When I tweeted this, I got more reactions than for just about any tweet I’ve ever sent: more than 230 retweets, and nearly 800 likes. But it also provoked a discussion about the right term to use.

Intriguingly, it was a couple of male observers who defended the use of a gender neutral “actor” for all most forcefully.

Director Matthew Xia said: “I don’t use gender-specific job terms if the job is the same no matter who is doing it. This language reinforces a patriarchal hierarchy. The job is acting. What’s done by actors.” Another director, Robert Shaw, seemed to be rather dismissive when he said: ”Luckily, she’s a fabulous actor so we can love her for that and forget this bollocks.”

When I replied that it was surely up to Gough what she wants to be called, he said: “She’s dissing half a century of feminist analysis of the patriarchal use of language but can’t be arsed to educate herself about ‘where it came from’.”

The Guardian’s readers’ editor addressed the same subject in 2011 about what the appropriate term is, and referred to his paper’s own style guide where the word actor is to be used “for both male and female actors; do not use actress except when in name of award, eg Oscar for best actress”. It is also the style guide’s view that “actress comes into 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)”.

As Whoopi Goldberg put it in an interview with the paper: “An actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor – I can play anything.” Goldberg played Pseudolus, usually a male role, in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1997, taking over from Nathan Lane. Next year we’ll see Rosalie Craig stepping into another role originally written for a man in Sondheim’s Company in the West End.

In the six years since that article was written, women have played such roles as King Lear (Glenda Jackson), Hamlet (Maxine Peake), Prospero (Harriet Walter) and Henry V (Michelle Terry), so perhaps the distinctions between male and female are indeed redundant.

But there is no correct answer. The Guardian style guide’s editor further stated: “Most female actors these days, young and old, do not see why acting should be treated differently from medicine or any other profession. We described Harriet Walter as one of our greatest actors. Calling her one of our greatest actresses is not the same thing at all and, I would argue, a much greater affront to her dignity.”

But his readers’ editor colleague replied: “I see his point about leaders in a profession, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with him on this one. Being obliged to describe someone as a “female actor” suggests that we still consider the term actor to be fundamentally male, so why not keep the unambiguous “actress”? Better still, why not leave it up to writers and subeditors to decide which would be the most appropriate term according to context, rather than prescribing what should appear?

Tellingly, the performers’ union Equity has no policy on this. “We don’t feel there is a consensus,” said a spokesman. “In fact, the subject divides the profession.”

This is demonstrated by the varied responses to Gough’s quote. Fiona Shaw once said that about the relative dearth of roles for women: “A young actress’ life is entirely different to an actor’s, and I don’t see any diminishment of status in being called an actress as opposed to an actor – if anything, the badge of shame is the badge of pride because it’s a much tougher job.”

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