I love language. And not just speaking it, or using it (although I love both of those), but also in dissecting it, analyzing it, trending on it. I remember very clearly learning how to use double and single quotation marks, along with indenting for dialogue when I was 7 years old. When I was 11, I soaked up the unit on Grammar when everyone else was wishing it would end. When I studied French in High School, I was astonished, and thrilled to learn we had 8 tenses in our language, and what I learned from French grammar, I happily applied to English (consciously starting to use the dying subjunctive, among other things). When I was in college, I studied abroad at the University of Manchester and took a Linguistics/Phonetics course that was not offered at my home university. I couldn't get enough of breaking down the sounds of our letters and words (even with the English accent!), and deepening my knowledge of sentence structure. I applied for, and received, a Humanities Grant at Colgate University to study American Grammar, tracking its development.
Okay, so have I sufficiently convinced you that I'm a Language Geek? I love the rules of grammar, I've always dug punctuation and spelling (and hey--I use this hugely to my benefit in being a playwright. You've probably all read something I written, right? It's not conscious, but I use a whole lot of punctuation in my work. I know a playwright can't use italics or emotional directions, but we have our punctuation and by Shakespeare, I'm gonna use it!), and I am not likely to be caught using one of "The Top 20 Grammatical Mistakes People Commonly Make." However--what I have also learned through my studies of this language is the fact that we all know. Like everything else throughout history, language evolves.
And this is okay.
We know there are always going to be new words added to our vocabulary as technology evolves. And grammatically speaking, our language has not stayed the same over the past few decades either. Do I use the subjunctive ("If I were a rich man...")? Yes, I do. Sometimes. Because I like it. Do I think it is grammatically "correct" to use the subjunctive? Not necessarily. Not anymore. Do I need to put a comma before the last item in a list? Maybe. Maybe not. There are some things that are just simply correct and incorrect. I am never going to advocate for accepting, "I can't hardly wait" (double negative there), even though that seems to be endemic in our culture for the past 20 years. But there are some things that will bend. Is it wrong to end a sentence in a preposition? Not anymore. Does this bug some people in an older generation who were taught this, do or die? I'm sure it does. But this is language. It is the nature of humanity. I'm actually okay with this, because it's exciting to see where things go. And sometimes I even will make choices against a grammatical rule I know because I think it sounds better this way. Or I'll use a word in a way it's not commonly used, because, again, I like it this way. As Claire Dunphy on Modern Family said in Patriot Games, "Vocabulary is mostly a matter of confidence." That's how things evolve. I'm aware of the rules (and I still think they should be taught more than they probably are being taught now), but I'm aware they change.
And this brings me to my title here. Female Performer--is she an actor or an actress? When I was a child, I used actress, because, well, I like the rules of language, and if that's the word for a female performer, I'd use it. When I was older, I realized people weren't saying that anymore, and figured, why does there have to be a distinction anyway? So I switched to calling female performers actors, or "female actors." So what's the deal with this word? Is it actor? Is it actress? Is it offensive to call a female performer an actress? Is it offensive to call that performer an actor?
Well, probably yes to both. Because, you know, whenever there is an option, someone will get offended. But the theory behind it is this: We don't call a female doctor a doctress. We don't call a female teacher a teachress. So why do we call a female actor an actress? Do we need to make the distinction at all? Is this a diminutive form of the word? Then again, do we call the daughter of a queen a prince? Isn't it okay to call her a princess? And maybe it's okay to make the distinction between male and female, because, after all, roles do often tend to be cast specifically for a male or female. A third option would be to call a female performer a "female actor" (as opposed to simply "actor" or "actress"), but is this better? We're clarifying the sex, but still using "actor." Then again, we're also implying "actor" is a male word by having to add "female" in front of it. Is it necessary to use 2 words instead of 1, if we have 1 word to mean the same thing?
Truthfully, in the 1600s when women were allowed to join the men on stage and perform, "actor" and "actress" were both used to describe female performers. The French word "actrice" apparently influenced English speakers to adopt that term over actor, and the French have that word because they, like other languages, have a gender specific language (objects/nouns have male/female versions/articles and adjectives match the gender. English does not commonly have this.). No offense was originally intended. There even was a time when performers were called the gender neutral term "player," (you can even see this in some older plays).
However, these days? Honestly, I don't know. It seems etre dans le vent to use "actor" for both male and female performers. But at the Oscars, women are still given awards as best "actress." I don't know what Actors' Equity's stance is on the matter. You'd think they might have an obvious one, given their name, right? I mean, the Equity isn't just for male performers...Would a "Prince's Union" be thought to be comprised of princesses also? So in that sense, we see the benefit of using "actor"--it can simply apply to all. Fewer words. Actors' and Actresses' Equity is quite a mouthful. Then again, it's a fairly divided issue that isn't the most pressing, so is it worth their ruffling feathers over an opinion? And could they come up with a consensus anyway? Truly, when it comes down to it, there are a lot more heated, pressing and important issues that the Equity needs to deal with. This seems to just come down to a personal choice. And that's the way sometimes language goes.
So for me? Well, before I wrote this post, I was definitely an "actor" or "female actor" kind of dramatist. And I still like the inclusive nature of the one term. But as I come to a close here, while I probably will stick with that for now, I think I will do so with far less resolve than before. I don't feel there needs to be any great offense to the term "actress" and there is something quite pretty about the word itself. So I am open to changing, evolving. Back to my childhood word.
Share your thoughts! What do you think about the terms actor and actress? What do you use personally? Do you think there is a generational difference in those who use "actor," "actress" or "female actor?"