Mistress. Stewardess. Waitress. Actress. Those are the four examples I can think of, off the top of my head, where an “ess” has been added to signify a female connotation. The first one, mistress, isn’t exactly a positive. Stewardess has been replaced by flight attendant. Waitress is still used, but some folks just go with “server” (not sure that’s better) or make everyone a “waiter”. But the last one is the one we’re here to talk about today, because it’s the only “ess” thrown around without thinking, a term everyone generally agrees is kosher.
Only it’s not.
Because there are no words to signify when a woman is doing any of the following activities:
Flying a plane
Fixing a faucet
Racing a car
Singing (I mean, you could bring up “songstress” but I don’t think many people know that word)
Practicing law or medicine
Being a scientist
Basically, for any job we can all think of right now, no one delineates between a male or a female doing it. And even in sports where men and women compete separately, to reflect their differing abilities, they are all just runners, or basketball players, or soccer players. You’ve never heard an announcer say, “That’s a hell of a playeress out there doing her thing!”
And keep in mind, this is in an environment where it makes sense that women and men aren’t necessarily competing against each other.
So what then are we to make of that grand old tradition, The Academy Awards, and the term “Best Actress”? Why are the categories separate? And what is the difference between male and female acting?
You ready for it?
Not a thing, nada, nein, non. Acting isn’t a physical sport, and we don’t have “male only” films, ostensibly because the women would be cordoned off so as not to be overwhelmed. That doesn’t happen, and you’d be laughed out of the building were you to suggest such shenanigans. Acting is intrinsically, mental. It’s the ability to “act” like you’re a character in any given situation. Acting excellence is, and should be, completely merit based, not gender specific.
For an example of this in action take a look at the:
Nobel Peace Prize
All of which women and men compete “equally” in, all of which are based on achievement alone.
But we’ve gotten a little ahead of ourselves at this point, because we first must cede that “Actress” has got to go. It’s a traditional word, not one that should be used anymore, because it has no value in modern society. It’s a throwback from a bygone era when women had to be protected from hot weather. We used to identify men and women separately because women weren’t seen as true equals, and so their competition had to be only against one another, so they’d have a chance to win something.
Okay, so “actress” is out, replaced by “Best Performance in a Female Role”. Done, yeah?
Because there’s still no logical reason to separate the genders for acting prowess! It’s completely non-sensical.
So what about just one big ol’ fair category called “Best Acting”? Surely I couldn’t complain about that, could I? Nope. That would be fair. But unfortunately here’s what one “Best Acting” category would show, and the main reason we’re still decades away from change happening, if indeed it comes at all:
When I wrote my little Kindle Book, “See Change“, I showed how Hollywood continually gives the juiciest parts to men. That’s a subjective view, but one I attempted to prove using box office dollars. However, the USC Annenberg study showed that women only get 25 percent of the speaking roles in movies. That’s not subjective! That’s math. And so if you went with a “Best Acting” category it would soon become painfully apparent that seven out of every ten nominees were likely to be men. If women did compete against men in the field of acting, they would come up looking sad by comparison, because it’s not anything near a level playing field.
However, if you segment the ladies off into their little corner of the room, BOOM, all of a sudden you’ve got ten nominees of each gender, no matter if everyone has heard of all the “male” films, while the female-nominated films remain shrouded in obscurity, because finding five “good” roles that women tackled requires looking a lot harder, because, again, they only get a quarter of the roles out there. I’m sorry. That was a really long sentence.
Moving on …
Just take a look at the Best Director category. Of the 500 or so nominees (I’ve rounded up), something like 496 are men. Four percent of working directors are women, so the number, sad as it is, should still be closer to 20 nominees if we had something that looked like equality. NOW, one fair point would be that in 1950 directing wasn’t comprised of four percent women, and I can’t really refute that other than to say The Academy hasn’t done a good job, at any point, of seeking out or fostering female directors..
And the major issue, in terms of nominations, is that films directed by women tend not to be as big, and there are less of them overall, so it makes sense The Academy never notices. It’s the opposite of what’s called a “virtuous cycle”. Instead, it’s a “sad cycle”. Thus, the same thing would happen in Best Acting, and though it wouldn’t be as obvious, because it’s 75/25 and not 96/4, it would still be something people noticed, and probably ridiculed. And that just wouldn’t do for the proud Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Oddly enough, the NFL has a slightly similar mathematical problem, because of their four division per conference system. There have been times where better won-loss teams didn’t make the playoffs because division winners were “guaranteed” a spot. It’s just bad math by the NFL, but it comes up so rarely that no one seems to make a big fuss. So too with “Best Actress”, there are always five, because there has to be, and so no one can see the underlying issue of inequality that’s present.
So there it is, the sad fact of the matter. Even if we got rid of “Best Actress”, which there’s very little hope of, we still wouldn’t get one category. And truly, all of this is a bit like rearranging the seating chart on a doomed plane, a cosmetic thought exercise that doesn’t really tackle the root sexism of the whole movie biz. However, if we DID get “actress” labeled as pejorative, and we DID get one category for all acting, as would be just, at least then people would NOTICE how screwed up the system was. From there, change would have a chance to flow forth. Until then? We’re all just sort of whistling dixie, shrugging shoulders, and buying into a system that discriminates, ever so subtly, right in front of our eyes.
Or, if you’re a woman reading this, your eyeesses. Stay outta that warm weather, ladies!