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the term "actor" vs. "actress" for females

NotMamaRoseNotMamaRose Registered User Posts: 4,090 Senior Member
edited August 2013 in Musical Theater Major
I had a very interesting discussion with the director of a very old and very reputable community theater in our area the other day, and I thought I would take it to you all on this board. It just might spark some fascinating debate/discussion! :)

Our topic was the relative merits of the terms "actor" and "actress" when describing a female performer.

My friend, who is herself a woman, said she prefers the term "actress." She points out that women performers know going into an audition that they will be cast according to their gender, so why not use the gender specific term to describe them? ("They know that they are not going to be cast - at least in most cases -- as Hamlet or Othello, for instance. They know that they are auditioning for female roles.") She claims that the prejudice against the term "actress" that exists in some quarters is a holdover from the days when starlet wannabe's described themselves as "actresses/models," which had a slightly unsavory connotation. She states that that connotation has long been left behind, and that "actress" is a perfectly good word.

On the other hand, my D (a rising hs junior) thinks of herself as an "actor."

Love to hear what our young performers (of box sexes!) think. :)
Post edited by NotMamaRose on

Replies to: the term "actor" vs. "actress" for females

  • WallyWorldWallyWorld - Posts: 255 Junior Member
    Well, even though I am neither young nor a performer I will throw in my two cents. In our circles it is more common for women to be called actors. I have no great desire to hear it one way or the other though. Historically and currently there has been a fair amount of cross gender casting. The people that we know in a position to make that call for their companies tend to be liberal and supportive of diversity and equality. I just figured they chose “actor” for women to imply equality. It’s also easier. “All the actors were good. Let’s have a party for the actors, etc.”
  • NotMamaRoseNotMamaRose Registered User Posts: 4,090 Senior Member
    Yes, that seems to be the trend. But at the Academy Awards, for instance, there are categories such as "Best Actress in a Feature," or "Best Actor." And though you are correct that there certainly are directors who do cross-gender casting, it is still the exception, rather than the rule. For example, very few directors would cast a woman as, say, Curly in "Oklahoma" or as Sweeney in "Sweeney Todd." Usually, if a script calls for a male, a male is cast, and vice versa. Most female actors/actresses I know don't expect to be able, for instance, to audition for the part of Romeo; they hope for the part of Juliet or the Nurse! Know what I mean? One could also argue that the playwright's intentions and the integrity of the work is at risk/at stake by bending the rules too much. (I am not arguing that, but I know people who would. In fact, last year, I attended a seminar about this whole issue. But that's off topic ...)
  • brdwyboundbrdwybound Registered User Posts: 44 Junior Member
    The only time I've witnessed a major crossing of genders in a show was when one of my good friends was cast as JoJo in Seussical in a major community theatre in my area last summer. I recently watched the video of her in the show, and I asked her why they didn't just cast a boy in the role. She said at the callbacks the majority of people there were males, but they decided to go with a girl incase a boy's voice began to change in the middle of the show. Obviously this has to do with age, but I thought it was interesting, and I had never thought of casting a girl in a boy's role for that reason.

    As for the actor/actress terms, I usually say "actor" for both genders. I used to use actor/actress, until someone pointed out that waitor/waitress is the same type of deal, and for some reason I've always said "waitor".
  • alwaysamomalwaysamom Registered User Posts: 11,523 Senior Member
    NMR, I'd have to respectfully disagree with your friend. The word actor is not gender specific so I don't see the problem with females referring to themselves as actors. In our experience, most people we know in the profession, as well as those who are currently students, refer to a female who acts as an actor. I've also never heard of any type of prejudice against the term actress by anyone who cares to use it. I think either can be used!

    Cross-gender casting is very rare. One of the few instances of it that comes to mind is when a 'big name' actor is cast in a play, e.g., Whoopie Goldberg as Prologus in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.
  • fishbowlfreshmanfishbowlfreshman Registered User Posts: 827 Member
    I tend to use whichever one happens to flow off my tongue best at the time. I guess I usually say "actress" when referring to myself or other thespians of the female persuasion unless I want to be all pretentious and stuff. I typically use "actors" in plural regardless of sex and "actor" in the abstract - i.e. "actor training." Errrrr ... Maybe I should just call myself ... student? :confused:
  • gsp_silicon_valleygsp_silicon_valley Registered User Posts: 1,542 Senior Member
    When describing people (both female and male) who perform, actor seems appropriate. When specifically referring to female performers, actress is more appropriate.

    It really isn't that complicated.
  • NotMamaRoseNotMamaRose Registered User Posts: 4,090 Senior Member
    silicon, you are right: it really isn't complicated! :) People just use whatever term is most comfortable for them. I just found the discussion I had with my friend interesting, and thought it might be food for though (and kindling for a discussion!) on this list. Some people have strong negative feelings about calling female performers "actresses," as they somehow associate the term with "actor lite." :) :) I hadn't given it much thought until my friend brought it up. (In addition to running a small professional theater, she used to be an English teacher, so she is very knowledgeable about words and theater!)
    Even more thought-provoking than her take on "actor" and "actress," however, was the ensuing discussion we had about casting, and how women actors/actresses do not go into auditions expecting to have all roles of either gender open to them. Women know, in general, that they are auditioning for Lady Macbeth, and not Macbeth. In that way, acting is very different from most other jobs that people apply for. Men and women can be nurses or doctors or dentists or writers or cooks or managers or bankers ... well, you get my drift, even though this writer isn't saying it well. Just thought it would make an interesting discussion with this group.
  • ElliottsMomElliottsMom Registered User Posts: 362 Member
    Personally, I like know that Michael Learned is an actress. There are more and more unusual names theses days (take it from this baby nurse) and it's often difficult to figure out the gender.
  • ckpckp Registered User Posts: 147 Junior Member
    The only time I really think you might be in a situation where you have to tell people that you are either an actor or an actress that would effect casting, would be once you are a professional on their way up (i.e. a meet and greet) and by then cross gender casting is VERY rare...besides if you are offered professional roles as a struggling actor, you take them! It's an acting job, which is much more than 95% of "working" actors have! And I don't think someone would cross-gender cast you just because you call yourself an actor...that's like saying someone won't go on a date with you because you go by "Ms." instead of "Miss"

    It would also be a very big and interesting challenge to play someone of a different sex, and that is a big plus when it comes to a role.
  • NotMamaRoseNotMamaRose Registered User Posts: 4,090 Senior Member
    ckp, I never meant to imply that someone would cast an actor across gender simply because she chose the name "actor" rather than "actress." I simply made the point (again, for the sake of discussion, which I find interesting! :)) that female stage performers do not usually go into auditions expecting to be cast in male roles, such as Hamlet, Sweeney, etc. They go in *knowing* that their chances of a role are limited to the female parts. My friend, the director (a woman) made that point because, as she said, women know from the outset that they will be playing women, yet many spurn the female-ish title "actress," simply because it sounds female! Of course, whether one calls herself an "actor" or "actress" is a matter of personal preference.
  • actressfoshoactressfosho Registered User Posts: 53 Junior Member
    I call myself an actress. Fo' sho'! :D
  • christeapchristeap Registered User Posts: 52 Junior Member
    I'm a girl, and I call myself an "actor" just because the word is easier to say than "actress." ^_^;;
  • brdwyboundbrdwybound Registered User Posts: 44 Junior Member
    I just came across this quote, and I know alwaysamom mention Whoopi earlier in this thread so I thought it was quite ironic that I just happened to find it:

    An actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor; I can play anything.

    -Whoopi Goldberg
  • BalaventBalavent Registered User Posts: 2 New Member
    "Actor" and "Actress" ARE gender-specific words, as are "waiter" and "waitress", "aviator" and "aviatrix", "executor" and "executrix", etc.

    A rather bizarre belief has developed among some people that words which indicate the sex of the person in question somehow diminish women. This is ludicrous, and quite possibly sexist.

    These words are simply descriptive.

    I strongly suspect that no woman will ever turn down an academy award because she was called an actress and not an actor...
  • actingmtactingmt Registered User Posts: 1,900 Senior Member
    They are gender specific but "She is an actor," tells you gender. I prefer actor to actress because actress tends to sound a little flaky. But I agree that actor can sound pretentious.
This discussion has been closed.