Why I Identify As An Actress, Not A Female Actor

By Keelia Clarkson
·  5 min read

The term “actress” has become less popular in recent days, but here’s why I still use the word to describe myself.

I’ve been lucky enough to work as an actress in the entertainment industry over the last few years, working on countless film, television, and indie movie sets. And before making my foray into the industry, I’d taken acting classes and trained with private coaches in L.A. and New York for years.

Becoming an actress had been my dream from the time I could remember. The moment I realized the beautiful, ethereal people I saw on screen while watching The Lord of the Rings at just 5 years old were real people and not holograms, I knew that’s what I wanted to do one day.

I’d spend evenings watching old black-and-white movies and beloved classics, captivated by the stories, the costumes, the witty dialogue, and the drama of it all. It wasn’t the likes of Carey Grant, Humphrey Bogart, or Rock Hudson that I connected with, though. It was Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, and Doris Day – the leading ladies, the actresses.

I would lay awake at night, envisioning myself being awarded “best actress” at the Oscars, being nominated alongside a bevy of other actresses I would call my peers. And while I’m still waiting on my Oscar nom, at the small film festivals I get to be a part of, hearing the word “actress” associated with my name is something I truly love. Calling myself an actress is something I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do. It represents a craft I take pride in, a job I’m excited to perform, and a dream that I never let go of.

How the Tides Have Shifted

Today, being called an “actress” is, at best, out of style, and at worst, offensive. In more recent decades, some female performers have begun preferring the male-associated term actor over actress, and this movement has only continued to gain traction over time.

One reason behind the shift? Many critics say the feminine-associated term “carries an unnecessarily frilly air, suggesting a subsidiary relationship to man’s work,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The word actor, it’s said, simply sounds more like a serious profession, a respectable vocation.

Another common argument goes something like this: “We don’t call a female doctor doctoress, or a female lawyers lawyeress, or a female author authoress. Why divide the people who act for a living by their sex?”

There Are Historically-Based Arguments

Way back in the day, acting was a male-only profession, despite there being female roles written in plays. This changed when, in 1660, the first professional actress performed in Shakespeare’s Othello. Soon enough, the term “actress” began being used to describe the women who were acting alongside the men in these productions.

Those who take issue with the term from a historical standpoint often assert that throughout the 18th century, many actresses were likened to prostitutes. An actress’s actions on stage were considered uncouth and immodest, as a woman whose work included putting herself up for display on stage. Because of this, critics say, the word “actress” will forever be considered inferior to the male-oriented “actor.”

Many critics say the feminine-associated term actress “carries an unnecessarily frilly air.”

With this in mind, as well as the supposed “frilly-ness” of the feminine-suffixed word, are the critics right? Should we do away with the term “actress” in favor of “female actor” or simply “actor”?

Why These Critiques Don’t Resonate

Whether or not the term actress was ever used as a means of placing the women performing on stage back in the 18th century in the same category as a prostitute frankly doesn’t matter hundreds of years later, in 2023, when no one today uses it in that sense. Instead, the term as it’s used now is merely a way of describing a performer’s sex. 

I wonder if using this argument, which is flimsy at best, is a way of ignoring what I believe to be the real reason behind wanting to ditch actress: misogyny, whether conscious or not.

Doing away with a feminine term in preference of the masculine term, arguing that actress sounds “frilly” while actor sounds “serious” is, simply put, misogynistic. It promotes the notion that anything masculine is inherently more powerful, of greater value, and more influential, and that what is feminine is inferior, silly, and inconsequential. According to this, in order for a woman’s work to be taken seriously, she must associate it with masculinity. She must turn in her female card and blend in with the boys in order to be a real, respected actor.

So What’s the Answer?

The desire behind losing gendered terms like actress is to put women on equal footing with men, but this tactic doesn’t truly promote women, it only erases them and their unique identities, talents, and accomplishments. Ultimately, it gives in to the sexist ideas we should be fighting against.

Losing gendered terms like actress only erases women and their unique identities and talents.

The answer to the very real sexism that has hindered women in the entertainment industry (and beyond) and the second-class citizenship that many women have experienced will not be addressed or solved by essentially agreeing with it.

The answer is not to rid ourselves of all that is feminine, all the way down to suffixes, and opt for the masculine instead. Rather, the answer is to be proud of being women, to bring dignity and meaning, beauty and gravity to feminine words, and in turn, to femininity on the whole.

Closing Thoughts

I love being a woman, and I love calling myself an actress. To me, the word illustrates a woman who is elegant, talented, poised, artistic, and tenacious. And I think the renowned actresses of today, like Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Kate Winslet, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Stone, and Florence Pugh, prove that.

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