Actress' reputation

Mrs R posed an interesting question to me tonight. She said, “Actresses used to be considered to be on about the same level as prostitutes. Nowadays it’s a respected profession. How did that come about?” I told her someone on the Dope would know. Don’t let me down, people!

I don’t think much has changed. If I understand correctly, it was entertainment insiders that looked down on actresses. Regular folk still adored them.

And a lot of people still accuse any actress of having gotten any of her jobs on the casting couch. If envy was wings, lots of people would fly.

I believe that the OP is talking about the late 19th century, not the late 20th century and the casting couch. Previous to WWI, most women in the performing arts were, as I understand it, either prostitutes on the side or something more akin to “sugar babies”, at the high end.

I have a few thoughts to an answer, though I couldn’t say for sure.

One thing that I would suggest is that film may have contributed, since the 1910s/1920s would probably be where I’d estimate this shift to have taken place. Outside of the film producers, it would be difficult for most customers to have had an opportunity to try and solicit their favorite actress for sex when we’re talking about a film that’s going to be mailed around the world. So that may have affected the general perception.

I’d also suspect that traditional theater - ballet, opera, stage plays, etc. - simply became a more professional art. These things may have started principally as ways for the unethical to recruit pretty girls off the street, teach them a few tricks, and profit off of selling them to the nobility (similar to geisha) using the arts as a ruse. But, over time, people who actually liked the art for the art would have gotten involved, created professional schools, cast people on the basis of talent, etc.

And overall, the class stratification of society was breaking down at that point. The world went from being a place of paupers and nobility to being, principally, a world of middle-class folk. And those middle-class people were going to see stage plays, and the same middle-class folk were acting in those plays.

it was mostly religious reasons that actresses were considered lower than prostitutes

there were a few notorious ones like Theodora and nell gwynn …. remember that until the 1700s males played female parts a lot of the time in Europe then plays became more romantic and musicals s

but its sort of like being a porn star now ……30 years ago you didn’t want anyone to know so they used puns or didn’t bother telling you who they were …now pretty much its just another a career choice

In a way, as the old class system collapsed, actors and actresses *replaced *the old aristocracy, at least in the eyes of the public. In the past, successful actors were people who hung out with aristocrats; now, aristocrats are people who hang out with successful actors.

Not so sure that actresses were considered on par with prostitutes.
No one would have found it remarkable that a wife accompanied her husband to the Theatre.
Few would have approved of her accompying him to the brothel.

Nor am I sure that acting is seen as just another career choice even today. Just look at all the actresses who “happily” slept with Harvey Wesinstein…




https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nana_(novel) / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blanche_d'Antigny

I expect it was mostly because of the invention of movies and the ensuing rise of movie stars that made it happen. Once some actresses became famous and/or wealthy they were high status, and therefore calling actresses as a group prostitutes was no longer acceptable.

Didn’t prostitution use to be rather common among young women on their own in the 19th century? Aside from being a maid, teacher, nurse or factory worker, what sorts of things could young uncoupled women do? Was it common for people to work as waiters like actors famously do today?

Best as I can tell, the only working women who had any regular interaction with upper class men were maids and prostitutes.

Gonna want either a cite or a semi-logical argument for that one.

I think Michael is on the right track here - there were a lot of prostitutes around in the nineteenth century and I bet a lot of them called themselves “actresses” if they wanted to make themselves look respectable. Kind of like a lot of people these days who call themselves actors are, if you want to be strict about it, actually waiters and taxi drivers who’d like to be actors.

Also, it was an itinerant and insecure profession, and if you were an out of work actress you probably could only realistically tide yourself over with prostitution. All other work options for a young woman like household servant or factory worker demanded such stringent hours that to take that sort of job would mean giving up on actressing altogether.

Going further back… I don’t actually know how the shift from the Shakespearean style “men only on stage” happened. But I imagine there would also be pushback about women going into any sort of role that was formerly men only and “they’re all whores” has always been a handy sort of insult to throw at women you don’t like

I think it was earlier than the movie era, at least in the UK. At least one actress with a reputation as a courtesan married into the aristocracy in the eighteenth century (can’t remember her name), but some forms of theatre became perfectably respectable (from the point of view of society’s self-appointed moral guardians) and lucrative enough for the performers not to need to look for “protectors”. Dancers and music hall artistes still had a dubious reputation, but assorted young “Gaiety Girls” were thought respectable enough to marry into the aristocracy.

Charles II. Who liked Nell Gwynn’s oranges.

He had also lived for many years in France, where women had been performing on stage for decades.

Well that’s another tie-in that makes sense - the English considered pretty much all the French to be loose livers of dubious morals. And as for Charles II …

I remember reading a 19th Century novel about a woman who was left pregnant (by her husband, who was reported dead) and was forced to fall as far as she could and become an actress. So the image was firmly entrenched that an actress was pretty far down on the social scale.

It probably started changing in the Victorian Era. Actresses, like all women, were perceived by society to be chaste. By simply dressing and behaving according to societal norms, they slowly shed the image.

Movies finished the job. You had actresses like Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford becoming popular, with a clean “good girl” image. The studios stressed that and made sure to quash any scandal. By the end of the silent days, the connection with prostitution had pretty much been overlooked.

…but enough about their wine habits…