Actress or Female Actor: What's the Appropriate Title?

by Mariana Tramontina

Source: TaleFlick Talent

"Not as a political statement, but I've always referred to myself as an actor," Cate Blanchett said in an interview during the 2020 Venice Film Festival. "I'm of a generation where the word 'actress' was always used in a pejorative sense. So I think I claim the other space."

It's always been controversial whether to use "actor" or "actress" when referring to female performers. Recently, the debate has gained more traction after festivals and awards started changing their rules to ensure more diversity. After all, is there a correct title?

As societies have evolved, so has the language. Many people consider the suffix "-ess" to be sexist and outdated, especially in professional contexts, implying a somewhat lower status and salary. Terms such as "authoress" or "poetess" are deemed archaic and mainly used in historical references. However, there are contrasting views about "actress," including some of those holding these titles.

In professional settings, "actor" is a common term for a performing artist regardless of gender. According to dictionaries, "actor" refers to an individual who acts, while "actress" exclusively applies to the female side. As Whoopi Goldberg said to NBC's "The Today Show" in 1986: "An actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor – I can play anything."

Moreover, the term "actor" is derived from the verb "to act," and it's inclusive by itself, just like other common titles in the entertainment industry: director, producer, editor, screenwriter, designer, choreographer. It then leads to another question: if there is no difference in acting skills between men and women, why are performing awards still divided by gender?

Equality in the awards

The Screen Actors Guild Awards, one of the major entities in the film industry, do not use the term "actress," awarding trophies to the "Best Male Actor" and "Best Female Actor" in leading and supporting roles.

In 2017, the MTV Movie & TV Awards stood as a turning point for equality in the entertainment industry by no longer handing out separate awards for male and female performers. Since then, the acting trophies have been given to "Best Actor in a Movie" and "Best Actor in a Show." 

A year later, the People's Choice Awards replaced their gender-specific categories with "Movie Star." The Berlin Film Festival also presented its first gender-neutral acting prizes in March 2021, followed by Spain's San Sebastian Film Festival

On the other hand, most traditional organizations are still held at conventions. The Motion Picture Association of America (Oscar), the Golden Globes, the American Theatre Wing (Tony), and the Television Academy (Emmy) still use "actor" and "actress" as their prominent awards.

Gender diversity 

There is also a case to be made that, displacing the word "actress" and adopting the term "actor" to describe anyone performing, is a way to bring equality not only for women but also to avoid excluding specific groups of people.

"Billions" star Asia Kate Dillon made headlines in 2017 for questioning the gender-specific designations of the Emmys' acting categories, uncertain of whether to submit for Best Supporting Actor or Best Supporting Actress.

Dillon, who identifies as non-binary, has advocated for an end to segregated acting divisions, claiming that it would benefit all its non-binary and gender non-conforming members. Just like it is unnecessary to have a separate category for the Nobel or the Pulitzer, one can argue that it’s time for the film and television awards to focus only on recognizing the best acting performances.