Saturday, June 28, 2008

Actor or Actress? That is the question

So, in my poll on whether a female actor should be a called an actor or actress, 70% of you voted for actress. I only asked because the word is going out of fashion fast as you scour the smarter showbiz pages - the assumption must be that any noun that ends in "ess" is somehow inferior to the masculine and that, in any case, the job word should not be gender-specific.

Personally, I do not think that "actress" is derogatory at all. But "poetess" does sound more than faintly ridiculous. Would I call, say, Ms Baroque, a "poetess"? If I did it would sound as if I were making some other point, such as about her poetry or her standing as a poet, or about women poets. Thanks to our partial education system and a million legs-wide-apart scrotes in the media, we still think of poets as men. Was Sylvia Plath a poetess? Yet so many job words are neuters: teacher, pilot, doctor, writer, journalist, politician, artist, executioner.

What words connote in the first place must account for these irrational ideas. If I think "surgeon" as masculine it is because I unthinkingly associate the job with men. If "actress" strikes me as acceptable it is perhaps because the worlds of stage, screen and TV have major stars of either sex in about equal proportion (irrespective of sub-sexist considerations such as pay or ageism) of dramatic necessity. The power of women in this profession is established so the feminine word is not tarnished. I have never warmed to "comedienne" - it sounds a faintly desperate exercise to distinguish from the orthodoxy of comic cockers - but empress seems quite OK to me, as does queen. The good King Elizabeth does sound not quite right at all.

But are we to be consistent? If poetess is not all right, nor can actress be. It would of course be most refreshing to default to the feminine noun without fear of causing offence. "Pierce Brosnan is a marvellous actress, he bowed to Princess Charles at the end of the show as if his rumoured damehood depended on it." Say it long enough and it starts to catch.


Ms Baroque said...

"Would I call, say, Ms Baroque, a "poetess"?"

I do wish you wouldn't, dear.

I'd vote for actress, though. A female "actor" sounds as ludicrous as the purple-boa'd creature that is a "poetess."

Princess Margaret said...

I am more than happy to call you, er, King, Madame.

Anonymous said...

"Pierce Brosnan is a marvellous actress, he bowed to Princess Charles at the end of the show as if his rumoured damehood depended on it."

I hope Mr Brosnan sues.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Jonathan Queen would like to comment

lavinia said...

In my youth I was an aviatrix - and a very good one too!

VK said...

I do not think any profession must be made gender specific. If would vote for Actor.

Those who voted for Actress, would you "ess-fiy" Auditor ?