Style guide wars: actress vs female actor

It’s such a shame when an injudicious choice of words overshadows the points that someone seeks to make. That’s what happened when, last week, The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman wrote an article for the paper’s G2 section about why Katherine Heigl would executive produce a film like The Ugly Truth after trashing Knocked Up, in which she starred opposte Seth Rogen, for being “a little sexist”.

The whole of Freeman’s piece makes some valid points — not that I agree with all of them. I liked The Proposal far more than she did, but I found myself nodding internally at this paragraph:

Hollywood romantic comedies have become the Primark dresses of cinema: disposable, crap and likely to make you wonder why you spent £10 on that piece of rubbish in the first place. It is tragically easy to see the thinking behind both Bullock and Heigl’s movies: “Hey! I’m a comic actress and I want a role that doesn’t involve me being a personality-free love interest, a shrewish wife/girlfriend, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a dumbbell. So why don’t we go back to the old school and make a Rock Hudson/Doris Day-type movie in which — and this is the real feminist kicker — I play the boss in the movie and he plays my subordinate. Amazing!” But no amount of sharp skirt suits can compensate for vibrating knickers.

But many of the comments attached to the article did not concentrate on the substantive points of Freeman’s article, but the headline. This is the part of the article which is least likely to have been written by Freeman herself, but would have been created by a subeditor. In this instance, it was given the headline

Even when they produce their own Hollywood romcoms, why do female actors still allow themselves to be humiliated?

Straight away, you can see the contentious element. Why “female actors” rather than “actresses”?

Freeman herself commented:

To all of you who are getting so exercised over the term “female actor”, take it up with the Guardian style guide.

…and later reiterated:

My goodness, the female actor / actress debate continues. As I say every flipping week it seems, take it up with the style guide. On the other hand, if that’s all most of you can think of to criticise here, my piece must be amazing.

And in Peter Preston’s media column in yesterday’s Observer he took up the cause:

Last week I was less than ecstatic about newspaper style books in general, and one in particular that saw a Hadley Freeman piece in the Guardian headlined: “The ugly truth about female actors in rom-coms”. Helen Mirren, female actor? Kindly leave the stage. And Hadley agrees with me. She’s blogged back to “all of you who are getting so exercised over the term” saying “take it up with the Guardian style guide”. Not with her, because she never wrote the two duff words; not with the sub-editor who wrote the headline and was merely following orders, but with the sacred book of ordained coinages.

Why do newspapers churning out hundreds of thousands of words a day – some of them as new as last night’s television or a blog from Tahiti – need to set living English in concrete blocks of disapproval?

Erm, let’s just look at the Guardian style guide, shall we? It’s easy to do, as it’s all online. Of the term ‘actor’, it says:


for both male and female actors; do not use actress except when in name of award, eg Oscar for best actress.

One 27-year-old actor contacted the Guardian to say “actress” has acquired a faintly pejorative tinge and she wants people to call her actor (except for her agent, who should call her often). As Whoopi Goldberg put it in an interview with the paper: “An actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor – I can play anything.”

As always, use common sense: a piece about the late film director Carlo Ponti was edited to say that in his early career he was “already a man with a good eye for pretty actors” … As the readers’ editor pointed out in the subsequent clarification: “This was one of those occasions when the word ‘actresses’ might have been used

I’ve added the emphasis to the start of the final paragraph. Good style guides recognise that there are situations where the “rules” are not hard and fast. I think that the clumsy structure of the headline to Freeman’s article is brought about by one instance where common sense was not applied. Indeed, note how the article itself describes Heigl both as an actor and an actress, depending on the context.

In Preston’s example of “Helen Mirren, female actor?”, “Helen Mirren, actor” would suffice. The style guide says that is preferable to “Helen Mirren, actress”, and I would agree. Preston seems to have a chip on his shoulder about style guides, and uses this example to justify his own prejudice. The error, though, is not in the guidance, but in the dogmatic following of such guidance without recourse to common sense.

On a related note, we recently had a flurry of letters over the same wording in a news story on The Stage, which was headlined Female actors get less pay and shorter careers.

This is a different case, though — as the headline implies (and the opening paragraphs confirm) there is a comparison to be made between female actors and their male counterparts in the same profession. If the term “actresses” had been used to change the headline to Actresses get less pay and shorter careers, that implication is lost and a longer, clumsier headline would have been needed.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.

3 thoughts on “Style guide wars: actress vs female actor”

  1. Hi Scott… God I'm so sick of this. I'd say most terms referring to an actor can be considered in the pejorative – including the word 'actor' itself… it's all to do with context. Actually the one we should all being getting hot under the collar about is 'luvvies'.

    Wish they'd just get over themselves. I'm happy to be called an actress – and the moment the dreaded 'female actor' gets an airing I'd say the derision doubles. I can do without that thanks!

    1. Oh, I agree. There are two issues here. One is the limited range of roles available to women; I think Hadley Freeman's original article does indicate quite well that some of those who have complained of the issue in the past seem to be happy to be complicit if enough money is dangled in front of their noses.

      I do think the other issue, about style guide usage, is in effect two separate arguments: whether in general, style guides need to be interpreted as guidance or strictly authoritarian rules; and whether, in the case of actress v actor v female actor, the "right" choice is made.

      Three issues, then, not two.

      And also whether there is a "right" choice in any case.

      Oops. Four. Four issues. Three of which are nothing to do with stuff that really matters in the long run.

  2. English is such a peculiar language. I think actor, actress, or just plain actor is enough. Female actor seems redundant and a bit contrived to appease P.C. tastes. We have both male and female doctors, not doctors and doctresses, right? The surrounding words, pictures, and sentences should provide the context.

    It's only because these subjects more or less live in the public eye and have/desire varying levels of fame that we make all these fine distinctions. Angelina Jolie is an actor; Nicole Kidman is an actor; Meryl Streep is an actor; Cate Blanchette is an actor; that new starlet whose unisex first name might be confused with one belonging to man… is suddenly an actress/female actor. Of course.