Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The single universal acts up (again)

The term ‘actress’ has stirred up quite some controversy in recent years. The Guardian has banned it from its pages, stating in one style guide: “’actress’ has acquired a faintly pejorative tinge” (Marsh and Hodsdon 2007, 19), the BBC Learning English programme explains its decreasing popularity due to “the ‘connotation’, or suggested meaning, of being a prostitute” (BBC 2005) and a moderator of the ‘Using English’ forum describes it “as sexist” (UE 2010). But what is the real problem underlying the use of the term ‘actress’? And why is ‘actor’ considered to be a more egalitarian alternative?

The English language does not offer many opportunities for women to linguistically assert themselves as women, which is linked to its grammatical system as much as the conceptual development of what it means to be human. Fundamentally, throughout most of history, terms concerning public life were firmly linked to man: in society it was man who was the main, or more precisely, only, actor – quite literally on the Elizabethan stage – and therefore the dominant representative of humankind. When woman did enter the public scene, she did so as the patriarchal concept of woman, that is, as an unequal member of humanity.

As Maria Black and Rosalind Coward argue: “[w]omen are precisely defined, never as general representatives of human or all people, but as specifically feminine, and frequently sexual” (Black and Coward 1998, 115). It comes as no surprise then that it is the term ‘actress’ that holds negative connotations while the term ‘actor’ remains untaintedly universal, that is, able to stand for man (and apparently woman) as fully human.

However, the linguistic deviation of woman from man does not only call her morality into question, as a commentator on another forum indicates: “a woman calling herself an ‘actor’ is trying to separate herself from the connotations of a person who gets roles because of how she looks, or because she is a celebrity [...]. She is trying to say that she is serious about the craft, and is not just some piece of eye candy” (Ask MetaFilter 2006), which not only reflects the patriarchal understanding that only man can be serious about his work, but further categorises woman in herself as, at best, ridiculous and, at worst, inferior in her abilities and therefore essentially ‘subhuman’.

But when did this idea start that man could be the only ‘real’ human?

As the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray states: “[t]he positive connotation of the masculine as word gender [and conceptual superior] derives from the time of the establishment of patriarchal and phallocratic power, notably by men’s appropriation of the divine” (Irigaray 2007, 61). In short, a very long time ago.

Following on, if we eliminate terms such as ‘actress’, do we not feed into the idea that woman is (still) not fully human in her own right, that is, as equally human as man? Do we not simply reassert the understanding that if a woman is linguistically shown as woman, she must be inferior to the single universal that dominates humanity, which in turn, due to our history, is dominated by man? Further, do we not linguistically and conceptually disallow the possibility of woman’s separate public existence as well as discredit her historical achievement as woman?

As the final commentator of the above forum states: “‘actress’ let's me conjure up images of Bette Davis (which is a good thing) in a way that ‘actor’ never could” (Ask MetaFilter 2006), meaning language has the ability to connect us to our history as women – however difficult that history might be – at a time when mainstream education and media still barely allow woman to have any history at all.

So what is really at stake when abolishing terms such as ‘actress’?

When linguistically reducing two terms to only one, we are contributing to the conceptual reduction of humanity to only one valid point of view, to only one valid way of being human, that is, to the point of view and way of being of man. However, as Irigaray asserts, the human has never been one to begin with but always already two: “it is woman, it is man. And it [the universal] is found in the encounter between these two universals” (Irigaray 2000, 29), which highlights the underlying flaw in our understanding of the human. Therefore, if we continue to linguistically sacrifice woman in favour of man, we are working against a more plural understanding of humanity – an understanding that will (eventually) allow us to (re)define what it means to be woman, man, and human.

In the short-term, terms such as ‘actress’ might, due to woman's restricted place throughout most of history, hold certain undesirable connotations, but in the long-term, they will allow us more leverage than some might think. After all, naming – being able to name ourselves as women and therefore assert we are equal members of humanity – is a powerful tool.

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Black, Maria and Rosalind Coward. 1998. Linguistic, Social and Sexual Relations: A Review of Dale Spender’s Man Made Language. In The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader, ed. Deborah Cameron, 100-118. London: New York: Routledge.

Irigaray, Luce. 2000. Democracy Begins Between Two. Translated by Kirsteen Anderson. London: The Athlone Press.

Irigaray, Luce. 2007. Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference. Translated by Alison Martin. London: New York: Routledge.

Marsh, David and Amelia Hodsdon. 2007. The Guardian Book of English Language. Reading: Guardian Style.

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