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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: June ::
Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1201  Monday, 12 June 2000.


[1]     From:   Robert C. Jahncke <
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        Date:   Friday, 9 Jun 2000 12:24:41 EDT
        Subj:   Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress

[2]     From:   David Crosby <
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        Date:   Friday, 9 Jun 2000 12:41:12 -0500
        Subj:   Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress

[3]     From:   Florence Amit <
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        Date:   Saturday, 10 Jun 2000 00:22:20 +0000
        Subj:   Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress

[4]     From:   Sam Small <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Jun 2000 00:32:33 +0100
        Subj:   An actress for me

[5]     From:   Judy Lewis <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Jun 2000 19:19:08 +1200
        Subj:   Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert C. Jahncke <
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Date:           Friday, 9 Jun 2000 12:24:41 EDT
Subject: 11.1193 Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1193 Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress

You could get a lot of heads scratched, a lot of brows furrowed, if you
called yourself an actrix. -Strephon

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Crosby <
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Date:           Friday, 9 Jun 2000 12:41:12 -0500
Subject: 11.1193 Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress
Comment:        RE: SHK 11.1193 Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress

Geralyn Horton writes:

snip> If what you have in mind when you see "actress" is somebody who
can play
Juliet or Cleopatra (much as I'd love to!) I belong on a different
list.>

Just last summer Frances LaTour, who is no longer on anyone's A-list of
"actresses," played Cleopatra at the RSC in Stratford. Mark Rylance, who
I doubt was ever on the "actress" list, played the same role at the
Globe.

The point was made by many that (and I paraphrase) we no longer need the
distinctions between genders that were common in earlier uses of the
language. Some suggested that it is a normal linguistic simplification
process, similar to the loss of "thou" and "thee" and the verb forms
that agreed with them.

According to the OED, the story is not quite so simple. English, like
virtually all Indo-European languages, had its own way of designating,
when desirable, the feminine of certain nouns. It used the suffix
"-ster" as in "spinster," a woman who spins. We also had "seamster" or
"sempster," a woman who sews. After the Norman conquest English began
adopting a great many French words, among them nouns that were made
feminine by adding the suffix "-ess(e)," which derieved ultimately from
Latin and Greek. Some of those still in use are "countess," "duchess,"
"hostess," "lioness," "mistress," "princess," and "tigress." Soon
English was making up its own feminine nouns on the same pattern:
"authoress," "giantess," "Jewess," "patroness," "poetess," "priestess,"
and "quakeress." English appears never has been as euphonious as the
Romance languages, so it is not remarkable that some of these are
formations explicitly rejected by current correspondents, whereas the
earlier French set seem more acceptable in current usage.

"Mistress" perhaps best expresses Geralyn's association of sexual
looseness with the term "actress," and it certainly has come down in the
hierarchy of linguistic connotations since it was simply the feminine
form of "master." "Countess" and "duchess" might be viewed as archaic
terms for obsolete social phenomena, but not many have objected to
"Princess Diana" or "Lord Larry" and "Dame Judy." Lionesses and
tigresses may still squeak by on the basis of being non-human, but
"hostess" continues merrily along with little justification that I can
think of.

The gender distinction was so important in the 15th century that when
"seamster" was no longer perceived as feminine, the French "-ess" as
added for good measure. A kind of double feminine in the way that
"children" is a double plural formed from earlier "childer."

I does seem interesting that we have to work so hard to expunge certain
usages we now find offensive, while other forms that the Victorians,
say, deemed offensive (words like "leg," for example) have wormed their
way back into polite usage. I gather the censors will even allow us to
say "ass" and "pissed off" on network television now. But have they
banned "actress"?

Koreans and Bengalis (among others) would be delighted if we dropped
some gender designations from our everyday speech. Those learning
English have the devil (may I say "devil" on the list, Hardy?) of a time
making our distinction between "he" and "she" in the third person
singular. A distinction we ignore, of course, in the third person
plural.

Here's to a more (or less) rational language.

Dave

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Florence Amit <
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Date:           Saturday, 10 Jun 2000 00:22:20 +0000
Subject: 11.1193 Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1193 Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress

Well I thank you. Being a sculptress and a draughtswoman have always
made me uneasy. (But shall it be draughtsperson?  Even worse. A new word
is required.) By the way, houseperson?

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sam Small <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Jun 2000 00:32:33 +0100
Subject:        An actress for me

Oh dear.  Poor me.  No supporters.  Not one.  All alone on the freezing
battlements. Please allow my lonely rebuttal.

You don't call a female doctor a "doctress" or a postal carrier a
"postwoman".

Very silly. Doctors, waiters, postworkers, teachers, nurses etc. are not
employed to specifically portray either men or women on public display.
Actors and actresses are.

"I'm an actor.  An actress is someone who wears a feather boa."
--Sigourney Weaver

I don't know why the above actress is so insecure.  I presume she's
happy being a woman?

The term I am REALLY getting sick of is "PC".

And I am more sick of PC comments.  I consider Shakespeare the greatest,
widest, bravest and freest writer I have read.  The very antithesis of
the politically correct.

. . . some female actors take exception (to actress) and see (it) as an
underhanded method of putting women in a subordinate position.

So the word "woman" is an insult? Interesting . . .

"What do you call a female Judge?"

Easy - a judge.  A female theatre player? Easy - an actress.

Does he (Sam) consider Emily Dickenson a great poetess? Golda Meir a
great Jewess?

This is a good point.  Poetess is an old word that comes from the
anti-female Victorian period when the males were surprised that women
could perform creative arts at all.  Instead of Jewess we now say Jewish
woman. But isn't it the same thing only two words and more letters?

The feminine and masculine forms of words is disappearing in many
different areas, and it's just a normal linguistic development, nothing
insidious about.

Normal?  Well, I guess the PC community is having some effect, but I
don't think it will last.

I would have no objection to being called "a great actress" if I were
one. Alas, I am not. I'm a dumpy, lumpy person of the female sort:

You can still be a great actress AND be lumpy and dumpy.  I spent some
time in a London acting agency.  Acting ability of all shapes, sizes,
ages and genders were in demand almost equally.  We have Thora Hird and
Dawn French here.  Both great actresses - both lumpy/dumpy.

No two people are interchangeable.  But there are many people who can
impersonate genders-and ages and ethnicities-other than the ones they
were born into.

Larry Olivier made a lot of people uncomfortable when he blacked up for
the film "Othello".  Me too.  I also don't enjoy seeing 35 year old
Juliets.  But hey, lets have Michelle Pfieffer playing Shylock - OK?

"I *like* the word *actress*. It is not a put-down. To be called a great
actress is a great compliment." Really?  In every circumstance? Would
you consider it a compliment if applied to YOU?

I would love to be called great.  But a woman? No - it would be
inaccurate. Nor would I like to be called a child or a dog or a tree.

The job of actor and actress are exactly the same.

Again silly.  The job of an actor is to portray a man, that of an
actress, a woman.  Quite a difference.  Look in the sonnets and you will
see very differing roles for the boys and the girls. Not at all
interchangeable.  Sonnet 20 lines 4,5?  Ah, Shakespeare.  There's a man
who knew the difference between man and woman.

Love to you all,
SAM SMALL

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Judy Lewis <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Jun 2000 19:19:08 +1200
Subject: 11.1193 Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1193 Re: To be an actor or not to be an actress

I think the argument that we don't sat 'doctress' or 'writeress' etc
misses a very salient and fundamental difference: that the acting
profession does usually require a male to play a male part and a female
to play a female part.  Your sex does not disbar you from being a doctor
- to male or female patients - but it probably disbars you from lots of
parts on stage and especially on film.

The -ess ending to words like poet was belittling and patronising, but I
agree with Sam that it is not belittling to Emma Thompson or Julianne
Moore to call them actresses.  As long as the Academy Awards still
present Best Actress Awards - because the alternatives are too clumsy -
then the term will continue.

The great danger of insisting on the generic term actor for both male
and female is that it can lead to even greater invisibility for women -
and the possibility that awards will start being for actors - only one -
instead of one for each sex.  I can't see that would do the cause any
good at all.

Look at the 'chairman/chairperson' situation.  The original idea was
that the gender-specific word would be replaced with a non-gender
specific term that could be equally applied.  Instead, we have the
situation - in this country anyway - of a man still being referred to as
a 'chairman' and a woman a 'chairperson'.  Invisibility!

As a film reviewer, I find the term actress a convenience that I would
be reluctant to lose.  The newspaper I write for has a policy of using
the word 'actor' for both sexes, but it is surprising how often they
have to leave 'actress' as being the only possible word in context
(especially at award times).
 

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