Gender Neutral: Actor

I was responding on Facebook to an article about non-binary entertainer Indya Moore. The article, correctly identifying that Moore uses “they” pronouns, referred to them as an “actress”.

My comment was that a gendered term ought not to be used with a non-binary entertainer (unless they specifically request it), and suggested “actor” instead.

This led to an interesting response: “Actor” is also gendered.

My first reaction was to reject this claim. “Actor” is well-established as a gender neutral term; many women entertainers prefer “actor” to “actress”.

But there are several excellent reasons for complaining about “actor”.

First of all, and the position I was being offered as the foundation, is that British law forbade women from being stage performers. It is well-known that Shakespeare had to cast men for all parts.

These laws changed in the middle of the 17th Century, and the word “actress” was applied to women performers. By now dropping the term and using “actor” for everyone, my discussant insisted, we were erasing that history and, as a result, a significant contribution from women.

The linguistic facts are more complicated that that. The words “actor” and “actress” both pre-date their use for stage performers (more below), and “actor” and “actress” were used fairly interchangeably for women during the early years. However, it’s certainly true that “actress” was the dominant term from the mid-17th Century to the mid-20th Century.

Indeed, despite the post-WWII drive to replace “actress” with “actor”, the former term remains comparatively common in print, according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer:

Source: Google Books NGram Viewer

For their part, the Motion Picture Association of America (Oscar), the Golden Globes, the American Theatre Wing (Tony), and the Television Academy (Emmy) all still use “Actor” and “Actress” for their main awards, while the People’s Choice Awards replaced the terms with “Movie Star” in 2018.

Etymologically, “actor” comes from the Latin, being a male agentive form of the verb “agere” (to act, to do). In general, Latin formed agentives by using the past participle stem and adding -or for men and -rix for women. -Rix became -rice in French and -ress in English.

We see from the world of law, for instance, that “act” and “actor” still have this more general sense of doing something, not the narrower sense of being a stage or screen performer. “Actor” in English is from the 14th Century, but was not applied to stage actors until two centuries later; the use of “actress” in this generic sense also pre-dates the stage usage by about a century.

Meanwhile, two other common words from the entertainment world — “director” and “editor” — seem to never have developed common feminine equivalents (note: “directrix” is also a mathematical term):

Source: Google Books NGram Viewer

It is an uncomfortable reality that in most Indo-European (IE) languages, male forms of words are generally the default form, with female forms being marked somehow. It’s a fair criticism that simply using -tor reinforces this patriarchal history.

Now consider the word “man”. In Old English, “man” was used for all people; “wer” and “wif” were used for males and females, respectively. Hence, “wid-wer” became “widower”, “mid-wif” became “midwife”, “wer-wolf” became “werewolf”, and “wif-man” became “woman”.

Even as late as 1776, we see Thomas Jefferson using “men” in the apparently gender-neutral sense in the Declaration of Independence… but, at the same time, Thomas Jefferson is a key example of a White man centering his own experience at the expense of women and non-White people.

If the idea is to use the male-default forms of words as gender neutral, that means returning to the gender-neutral “man”, something that completely ignores the last few centuries of linguistic development and feminist thought.

This makes a good argument against simply using “actor” and getting rid of “actress”, despite the social inertia.

A rebuttal: For better or worse, we have inherited Latin. In some cases (like “man/woman”), we have a suitable gender neutral version (“person”, from Latin “persona” and unrelated to “son”). In most cases, we don’t: Our allegedly gender neutral forms are or descend from the unmarked male defaults.

In other words, if we’re going to reject “actor” as a gender neutral term, on what basis would we then keep director, editor, aviator, operator, doctor, translator, and all the other words that were formed under the same process?

“On what basis” brings us back to the foundational argument: If we’re not going to reject “director” as a gender neutral term, why would we reject “man” as one? After all, it comes from the same “male default” mindset.

I don’t suggest “man” as a gender neutral term because of all that baggage that has amassed in the last few centuries. It may have been gender neutral once upon a time, but it is no longer.

Which leads to the question: Is “actor” truly gender neutral? Or have the gender politics of the last few centuries rendered it gendered?

My answer: I really don’t know. I thought I did, until I really thought about it.

The People’s Choice Awards, at least, has chosen to dodge this issue by using “Male Movie Star” and “Female Movie Star” in place of “Actor” and “Actress”, but “movie star” is insufficient to cover everyone who is a stage or screen performer.

We could also look at the development of “waitress” and “stewardess”: Even though both of these have common “default male” equivalents (“waiter” and “steward”), the acceptable gender neutral equivalents are different words entirely (“server” and “[flight] attendant”). (“Seamster”, the male version of “seamstress”, is rare.)

The key difference between these two terms and, say, “editor” and “director” is that at the time of the linguistic change, restaurant servers and flight attendants were roles largely held by women. Reverting to the male versions was not seen as a viable option, an insult on top of the injury of the sexism in those fields.

This suggests another option: “Performer”. A different word entirely, but one which is clearly related to the role. And unlike -tor words, -er words don’t have a female form: They are truly gender neutral.

The MPAA’s “Best Actor” would become “Best Male Screen Performer”. The American Theatre Wing’s “Best Actress” would become “Best Female Stage Performer”.

Better yet, get rid of the gendered awards completely, so non-binary performers like Indya Moore don’t have to declare a bucket or miss out.

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