Actress vs Female Actor

Inspired by a debate in my office, I want to know Dopers’ opinions on this subject. Should a woman who acts be known as an “actress” or a “female actor”?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “actress” as an obsolete term, but is still used. What do you guys think?

The correct term is simply “actor.” My sister is in that particular profession. She and her female counterparts all call themselves “actors.” After all, we don’t call female executives “Executivesses” or actually say “Female Executive.”

I don’t think they have a problem with “actress,” it’s just a pointless word.

I use ‘actor’ as well as ‘actress’ to refer to thespians of the female persuasion. This applies both when I’m talking about myself and others.

As for the OED calling ‘actress’ obsolete, that’s pretty much a cultural thing, no? About a billion people in India use ‘actress’ in everyday parlance.

I use actress where it helps to know that the person being referred to is female, and actor where gender is irrelevant. I don’t regard “actress” as an indicator of sexism, however, because it has such wide usage in common parlance.

I also use waiter rather than waitress, as the sex of a waiter is for the most part irrelevant to their job. Once again, not a matter of sexism because of wide use, but a useless distinction for the most part.

When the Academy eliminates a distinction between male & female actors for giving awards, then I’ll be comfortable with the term “female actor”. There’s no award for female director, femal costume designer, or female music composition is there? If the distinction between the sexes is great enough to warrant separate awards for male & female actors, then there is enough of a difference to maintain a grammatical (sp?) distinction, IMO.

Bonus: Do people get bothered about gender distinctions in other languages? If I start up a porn site featuring “sexy latinas”, will I get an earful for not featuring “sexy female latinos”?

First of all, a correct reading of the OED shows it does not say actress (meaning “female who acts”) is obsolete.

What is obsolete is the form meaning “a female who does something” (Derived from “to act” meaning “to take action,” not “to perform on stage”) In other words, the usage:

is no longer used.

However, actress, meaning “A female player on the stage” is not listed as obsolete. Neither is it listed as such in the American Heritage or Websters Unabridged at The usage note in the American Heritage merely says that some people object to terms like it. Mirriam-Webster ( makes no mention of it being obsolete.

It seems clear that the word is still current English, with some people objecting to it. Most actresses seem to have no problem with the term; in one case they justified it by indicating that an actress is someone who portrays women (which would make Divine an actress). It does seem to have far fewer objections than other -ess words.

Bad officemate! Trying to win arguments by not reading things properly. Hits officemate on nose with a rolled up newspaper

That’s what I thought.

OK, so my office mate is just being strange!

We use “actress” in our magazine unless “actor” is within a quote. What’s the big deal? A lot of languages have separate words for male and female professions.

Well, this was my point exactly. What is the big deal? Is it a big deal? Apparantly I’m a “traditionalist” for thinking “actor” and “actress” is no big deal…

I usually say “actress,” myself, but it doesn’t bother me at all to hear actor used to describe a woman. If I’m referring to a whole group of actors, even if they’re comprised of a mix of males and females, I say “actors,” as opposed to “actors and actresses.”

what does it matter? They’re just words…

Even sillier is the whole “waiter/waitress” thing – restaurants moving to “server”. That one makes me laugh – the notion that “waiter” (a 6 letter word ending with “er” with no mention of sex) is sexist, but “server” (a 6 letter word ending with “er” with no mention of sex) is somehow better.

I have an acting degree from an arts college, and we used the terms interchangeably. Personally, I use actor, in my movie reviews and in everyday life. The general tendency in the future, I suspect, will be toward “actor” as a genderless term. Right now, not, except for people who like to make a fuss, but later, yes.

How dare you?

Divine was not an actess - she was a great actress!


This is a pet peeve of mine. I’m not against language evolving, but just let it evolve naturally, and not take a sharp turn overnight at the hands of the pc polive. I can almost pin this thing down to the late 80s. It wasn’t a gentle change.

The distinction is useful. There is no sexism involved. Will the words “she” and “her” be off-limits next? Yair sure we don’t say “aviatrix” any longer, but then we don’t say “aviator” either. Both beautiful words, but their loss is easier because it was part of natural change. but it’s almost like we were told to suddenly stop saying “actress”, or we’d go blind.

It’s a dumbing down of the English language. We had two simple, two syllable words which gave a finer definition. Now we have one which we have to qualify clumsily with “female” tacked on the front. It’s stupid.

My point exactly “female actor” is clumsy clumsy clumsy. Apparantly however, my office mate disagrees…

Hear, hear, TLD! I, too, use the word “actress”, and say too bad if the PC sniffer gallery get all uptight and blustery about it.

The language bends to the conventions of the time, true – but in this, we are just making things worse, rather than clearer.

It’s not necessarily dumbing down – it’s the fact that, in some cases, a differentiation between male and female is unnecessary. Thus some words with the -ess ending are going out of usage.

AH gives a good example in the word “scuptress.” There is no need to differentiate between that and “sculptor,” so “sculptress” is falling out of use, since the additional information given by the -ess is either not relevant or generally obvious by the sculptor’s name. It similar for the change from steward/stewardess to “flight attendent.” In part, that part of the hyperliteralization trend in the language, but since there is no difference in the steward’s and a stewardess’s, there is no reason to differentiate because of sex.

“Actress,” however, has not had much real opposition, possibly because of the difference between performing male and female roles. There are certainly a few die-hard PC people who have objection, but most do not (this may have to do with the fact that an actress is not considered automatically inferior to an actor).

I really think this is a non-issue. “Actress” is still perfectly acceptable, and very few people are actually objecting.

I object. I am not a derivative. I know it’s somewhat nitpicky of me, but so what? We no longer refer to “authoresses” or “poetesses” or any such thing so why is “actress” still in use? I agree that in the context of the Oscars “female actor” would be clunky, but for everyday parlance? I am an actor, plain and simple, and most of my female colleagues feel the same.

Who said you are derivative? If the two are worthy of two different awards, then there must be some sort of meaningful distinction between the two. Liguistically marking the distinction doesn’t mean that you’re derivative. It just means that you are different from a male. Nothing wrong with that.

Well, think about it a second. If an actress is a female actor, does that mean that an actor is a male actress?

If “actor” were the neutral term, and males were called “actrons” or something, you might have a point. But “actress” is clearly a linguistic derivation of “actor” to separate the women. It’s a useful derivation, because of the nature of the work, whereas “sculptress” and “aviatrix,” two examples previously mentioned, add no new or useful information to the performance of the job.

As far as the usefulness of the designation, consider an audition notice. It usually says something like, “Need 4 actors, 3 actresses.” Alternatively, you could say, “Need 7 actors (4 M, 3 F),” but then you might have to further explain whether the parts are intended as being gender-neutral, like in Godspell where some (if not most) of the roles can be played either by men or women. “Production: King Lear. Casting 14 actors (5 M, 3 F, 6 either).”

To me, both terms have utility depending on the circumstances. I can see the point of the gender-politics argument, and I think linguistically it’s clearly a derivation, but I don’t feel strongly enough about it to draw a hard-and-fast line either way.