Dating back to the early 1700s, the term “actress” first emerged to separate men and women in a male-dominated profession. But as society continues to confront and expand upon gender norms, many are calling for an end to divisive vocabulary. So which is the correct terminology: actor or actress? Let’s look at this modern debate.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” Courtesy Apple TV+
In the simplest terms, “actor” describes a male performer and “actress” describes a female performer. However, acting is the art of bringing a character’s experiences to life, exploring the motivations and choices outside of oneself. The research, effort, and skill behind this transformation is true regardless of the person playing the role, so why the need for gendered terminology?
The difference between actor and actress lies not in the required duties of the profession but in linguistic distinctions and societal expectations established centuries ago. Ancient Greek theater saw men play female roles, as women were expected to raise children and tend to the home. While there is some evidence of women taking the stage at this point in history, it was considered highly salacious, with female performers being viewed as promiscuous or morally loose.
This continued into William Shakespeare’s time, where men and boys played everyone from Lady MacBeth to Juliet. Women held few rights, and with female perspectives suppressed in society as a whole, a woman’s presence was consequently devalued on the stage; “women’s” stories were written and told by men alone. Across the globe, acting was not considered a reputable pursuit for women. Japanese kabuki historically banned women, as did Beijing opera, where men played all the roles.
Staring in 1660, the Restoration period under King Charles II introduced women to the stage, with an official 1662 patent from Charles to dramatist Thomas Killgrew reading: “And we do likewise permit and give leave that all the women’s parts to be acted in either of the said two companies for the time to come may be performed by women.”
Adopted from the French actrice, “actress” became the preferred term for a female performer. And while women were now allowed on stage, they were largely ridiculed under a social structure “where women playwrights (along with actresses) were widely attacked as libertines and ‘husseys’”, according to Gillian Perry’s “Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre, 1768-1820.”
The female pursuit of acting did not start gaining public acceptance until the late 1800s and into the golden age of Hollywood. Florence Lawrence, a woman who acted in nearly 300 films between 1906 and the late 1930s, is considered one of the first true movie stars, and paved the way for future generations of women in film.
“Barbie” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
As women experienced more legitimacy and opportunity in Hollywood, the term “actress” prevailed, shedding some of the shame and scandalous implications behind females in film and stage. Legends such as Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor brought new prestige for women in the industry, though gaining legitimacy didn’t impede challenges such as lower pay, sexist treatment, and public expectations. “The word ‘actress’ has always seemed less a job description to me than a title,” said golden age star Gene Tierney.
The actor vs. actress debate emerged in step with the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. The continued distinction between males and females who act started being viewed as not only unnecessary but also demeaning toward women performing the same job as men. Cate Blanchett has said, “I have always referred to myself as an actor. I am of the generation where the word actress was used almost always in a pejorative sense. So I claim the other space.” Similarly, Whoopi Goldberg told The Guardian: “An actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor—I can play anything.”
Many professions have adjusted job titles to be more inclusive. Consider the switch from “stewardess” to “flight attendant,” or “secretary” to “administrative assistant.” Yet as society’s understanding of gender evolves, some labels have been harder to shake.
“The Last of Us” Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
The actor vs. actress debate is perhaps most acutely felt during award ceremonies, many of which continue to separate the highest acting honors into male and female categories. While many shows have dropped gender-specific awards—such as the Grammys, Gotham Awards, and Independent Spirit Awards—major ceremonies like the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, and Screen Actors Guild awards have not.
In 2017, nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon wrote a letter to the Television Academy while deciding which Emmys category to campaign for. “I’d like to know if in your eyes ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ denote anatomy or identity and why it is necessary to denote either in the first place?” they wrote.
“The reason I’m hoping to engage you in a conversation about this is because if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are in fact supposed to represent ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a woman’ and ‘best performance by a person who identifies as a man’ then there is no room for my identity within that award system binary,” the letter continued. “Furthermore, if the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are meant to denote assigned sex I ask, respectfully, why is that necessary?”
Acting is the only category where the sexes are separated for the same prize; other top categories such as Best Director and Best Cinematographer combine all genders. (In 2023, women held only 28% of the Academy Award nominations where men and women were both eligible.) This division is particularly limiting to nonbinary actors who must submit as either male or female, when neither encompasses their true identity. In 2022, “Yellowjackets” star Liv Hewson, who identifies as nonbinary, recently withdrew their name from Emmy consideration due to category restrictions.
“There’s not a place for me in the acting categories,” Hewson said. “It would be inaccurate for me to submit myself as an actress. It neither makes sense for me to be lumped in with the boys. It’s quite straightforward and not that loaded. I can’t submit myself for this because there’s no space for me.”
“The categories at the moment feel extremely gendered with the language around them,” said “The Last of Us” star Bella Ramsey, speaking on their decision to enter the best actress Emmy race. “I don’t want the limitations in terms of the language in the categories to be a reason that nonbinary actors like me can’t be celebrated. And it can open up a conversation about how it feels—as long as I’m aware of the fact that it’s not ideal, but also that finding alternatives is really complex.”
“Priscilla” Credit: Sabrina Lantos
Work is not inherently gendered, yet acting is not the only type of job that receives binary distinction. Consider antiquated (if informal) divisions such as “male nurse” or “female athlete,” which subconsciously communicate that the job in question is designated for the opposite gender. Societal pressures and beliefs have kept certain professions in black and white terms, but as modern society continues to explore the gray, challenging outdated terminology is an important step in opening opportunities for all.
Not sure when to use actor vs. actress? Regardless of the role or who’s playing it, the correct term is “actor.” Retiring the use of “actress” promotes equality, signifying that men, women, and gender nonconforming individuals can all pursue the same art without stigma or stereotype.