The Death of the Actress

For the past few mornings, the newspaper has been ferociously promoting the film Philomena for Academy Award consideration.  If there were an Oscar for trying to win an Oscar, I think the producers of Philomena would be contenders; one of the nominations they are seeking so aggressively is for Dame Judi Dench, for what the ads call “Best Actress.”

I believe that the category is still named that, and would venture that Dame Judi considers herself an actress, but both my suppositions buck the trend against calling actresses “actresses.”  As part of the wave of gender-nonspecific language which is engulfing us, women in the acting profession are now to be known as “actors.”

I’m afraid I don’t get why, or see what is achieved, beyond grating on the ears of those of us accustomed to women being “actresses,” and depriving the English language of a most practical and descriptive word.  To communicate the meaning of “actress,” one has to append the word “female” to “actor,” which adds two clinical and unimaginative syllables to a two-syllable word, where a bisyllabic word once sufficed. Putting aside their lack of color, those two extra syllables can add up over a lifetime, especially for someone who spends a great deal of time talking about women in the acting profession.  Surely the pundits in the entertainment industry could put that time to better use.

“Actress” is a rich and colorful word, oozing connotations and giving us the images of countless idolized women in the acting profession.  True, in centuries past, “actress” connoted something in the way of moral laxity, but that makes the word all the more juicy — and I believe that, today, people are able to make the distinction between women in the acting profession, and women in the oldest profession.  A word’s having meant something else adds to its texture, even when it no longer means what it once did.

Where, I wonder, lie the difficulties with the appendage of the “-ess” suffix to a word to indicate that the person involved is a woman?  I can understand why someone might object to calling a female postal carrier as a “mailman” or to a woman supervising a council meeting being referred to as a “chairman” (on the other hand, what could be more cumbersome than “madam chairperson”?), but “actress,” “waitress,” “laundress,” “poetess” and “baroness” are terms which are intrinsically and uniquely feminine (in the grammatical sense), and imply no judgment beyond gender identification.  Indeed, the “-ess” words are on loan from languages that have grammatical gender, and that are inflected accordingly.    That makes for even more attractive words like “comedienne” to describe Joan Rivers, and “executrix” for the woman entrusted with seeing that my final wishes are respected.

My issue is that the move to abandon these very ripe “-ess” words impoverishes the English language.  That’s happening to a horrifying extent everywhere today, it’s true, but everyone else doing it doesn’t make it right.  Members of the acting profession use words as their tools, and should enjoy getting their tongues around the most flavorful words in our language.  You can savor the word “actress”; “female actor” is about as tasty as the cardboard box leftover from your child’s Happy Meal.

There’s a terrific episode of the Dick Cavett show which airs on TCM from time to time. The guest is Bette Davis, who smokes, drinks, and regales us with tales of her marvelous adventures.  She also refers to herself repeatedly as an “actress,” and shows that she is proud to be one.

If it’s good enough for Margo Channing, it should be good enough for anybody.

(reprinted from, originally published 2012)

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