In a perfectly balanced society gendered nouns would be obsolete. But ours is not such a society — yet.

A few weeks ago Cate Blanchett, the jury president at this year’s Venice Film Festival, made headlines by declaring that she has ‘always been an actor’ — not an actress. She is hardly the first female thespian to make the distinction — Emma Thompson, Emma Watson, Meryl Streep and Tilda Swinton have also all referred to themselves as actors before.

What’s in a name?

In many ways the word ‘actress’ is both trivial and necessary — it simplifies matters whilst we sill have awards separated by gender, and can help avoid ambiguity; for example, claiming that Judi Dench is the finest actor in Britain is very different from saying that she is the finest actress in Britain.

However, is this a question of semantics, or socialisation?

Gendered nouns are not just a biological categorisation but a social construct. The word ‘actress’ was first used in the 17th century after women first began acting on the English stage in 1656. However, women were at first interchangeably referred to as actors and actresses, and it was only after 1700 that ‘actress’ became the preferred term, possibly popularised by the French ‘actrice’.

This inclination started to change from the 1960s onwards as there became an increasing stigma attached to the word ‘actress’. The term still had lingering historical associations with being a prostitute, and many second-wave feminists argued that such distinctions were frivolous, derogatory, and counter-intuitive to the fight for equality. Cate Blanchett touched upon this in her interview, when she argued that she is ‘of the generation where actress was always used in the pejorative sense’, which is why she chooses to ‘claim the other space’.

As language is bound up with social context, it can both reflect cultural prejudices but also reinforce them. Nowadays one might argue that gendered nouns entrench binary gender categories, which are not reflective of our increasingly gender-fluid world. One might also argue that by adding suffixes such as -ess, -ette, and -ine to make nouns female, we are effectively ‘othering’ women by saying that the masculine version of the noun is the norm.

Yet despite its negative associations, the word ‘actress’ has proven to be much more resilient than other gendered nouns. Terms such as comedienne, poetess, authoress, doctress, sculptress and teacheress have all fallen into archaism and obscurity, whilst there are simply no female equivalents when discussing professions such as a writer, painter or artist.

It is also interesting that the word ‘actress’ remains popular given that many other areas of our vocabulary have become more gender-inclusive. More and more people are now using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. In America, ‘waiters’ and ‘waitresses’ are now called ‘servers’; ‘police officer’ has replaced ‘policeman’ and; ‘flight attendant’ is now the norm over ‘air steward’ or ‘air stewardess’. By using more neutral language, the gender of the person has become less important, and instead we focus on the profession — should the same not be true of the word ‘actor’?

A new, genderless era?

There is an argument that the word ‘actress’ persists because gender is integral to performance in a way that it isn’t for other art forms; men and women bring contrasting physicalities to roles and use their bodies and voices in different ways. On the other hand, as Cate Blanchett said, ‘good performances are good performances’.

Berlin Film Festival has even gone as far as removing gender categories in its awards, a move which Tilda Swinton, who also spoke in Venice, described as ’eminently sensible’. She said it was ‘inevitable’ that gender-neutral awards would become standard across the film industry, as ‘dividing people up and prescribing a path for them’ is a ‘waste of life’ and contrary to the ‘boundary-less and perpetually inclusive state of cinema’.

Whether or not this decision will gain traction elsewhere remains to be seen, but it does raise more difficult questions. Do these gendered categories reflect the breadth of gendered performers and performances? Cate Blanchett was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category in 2008 for playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, whilst Jaye Davidson was nominated for his portrayal of a transgender woman in The Crying Game. Furthermore, why aren’t other categories gendered? There is no Academy Award for Best Female Director or Best Female Assistant Director — should there be?

Perhaps the actor / actress distinction, like pronouns, should come down to personal preference. Some women may actively want to identify as an ‘actress’ because the word contains an elusive glamour or sensuality or other context that cannot be captured by the word ‘actor’. It is similar to thinking about the distinction between the words ‘god’ and ‘goddess’ — both evoke power, but in very different ways, and are therefore not completely synonymous. When we are celebrating differences, the division is potentially more useful.

Language shapes reality

Language change also inevitably provokes a degree of backlash. Recent discourse around terms such as ‘womxn’, ‘cis’ and ‘Latinx’ has provoked a variety of reactions and debates, with critics arguing that they are awkward, contrived, politically correct examples of first-world problems. This reluctance to adopt new words or change existing ones is to be expected, for our words and perceptions are inextricably intertwined. By asking people to change their habits of speech, we are actually asking them to change their habits of thought — and that is easier said than done.

Linguistic relativism believes that language not only reflects our reality, but also shapes and informs it; for example, the more words we have for colours, the more colours we actually experience. Words are therefore not just a random jumble of letters, but a conceptual frame of reference that help us to navigate and understand the world around us. For centuries, ‘he’ has been the dominant singular pronoun if you did not know the gender of the person you were talking about — for example: ‘The doctor, did he give you the prescription?’ This arguably reinforced the assumption that the person you were talking about was male unless stated otherwise — the actor / actress distinction now risks doing the same.

There is no straightforward answer, but that doesn’t make the debate any less important. Cate Blanchett’s original statement may be pedantic and picky, but it is also pertinent and pivotal to equality. Just like language itself, it is fundamentally ambiguous, and that is what makes it so interesting.

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