Why call the president of a company or department a “chairman” if the person who holds that position is a woman? The simple word “chair” could do the trick. Why call the airline worker who attends to you during an airplane flight a “stewardess” if the person who performs the job is a man? “Flight attendant” is the preferred choice these days. Does your local sit-down restaurant have a “host” or a “hostess”? Does it really matter?
I’m a bit torn when it comes to “waiter” and “waitress.” The preferred gender-neutral term among restaurant workers nowadays seems to be “server,” but I don’t like that word. I’m all for not specifying the sex of the person who brings the food to your table, but “server” smacks of servitude. So, I tend to stick to the traditional appellations until something better comes along.
Even the very helpful “masseur” and “masseuse” have been supplanted among most professional massage clinics with “male massage therapist” and “female massage therapist,” no doubt to avoid any erotic connotations of the profession. “Dominatrix”? Well ... let’s move along, shall we?
There is, however, an exception I make when neutering professions: “actor” and “actress.” Several female thespians of my acquaintance insist on calling themselves “actors” because, they reason, just as it shouldn’t make any difference what gender the director or the producer or the screenwriter is, it also shouldn’t make any difference what gender a performer is. I would agree that behind the camera, it (ideally) should make no difference what any filmmaker’s gender is. It shouldn’t matter if your best boy is a woman or your script girl is a man (and I understand that the terms “gaffer’s assistant” and “continuity,” respectively, are replacing these older expressions). So, yes, behind the camera, everything should be gender-neutral.
However, once you get in front of the camera, it’s a different story. Whom are you going to cast as your male lead? An “actor” of any gender? How about casting your female lead? Will a male performer do? I think you’ll agree that — in almost all cases — a film director will want to cast male roles with male performers and female roles with female ones. And to help facilitate this gender-specific casting process, it’s useful to secern male performers from female performers. So, there’s good reason to reserve the word “actor” for a performer of the male gender and “actress” for a performer of the female gender.
Granted, there have been, and will continue to be, occasions when filmmakers and theatre directors have gone against this traditional way of casting roles. One reason for doing so is because some parts, especially supporting parts, don’t really necessitate being played by either an actor or an actress. Repertory-theatre companies in particular can get some milage out of casting a supporting role written for one gender with a company member of the other. For instance, a local theatre production of West Side Story once transformed the character of the (male) dance organizer Gladhand into Gladys Hand in order to make use of one of its actresses.
Other times, filmmakers have cast characters of a specific gender with well-known performers of the opposite gender and had them play those characters as the gender written. Recent examples include Cate Blanchett as a Bob Dylan figure in I’m Not There and John Travolta as the mother in the musical version of Hairspray (both 2007). However, such a casting strategy usually results in distancing the audience from the story to some degree, and the viewer won’t turn a blind eye to the artifice involved in summoning up the fictional world, at least not to the degree that is usually desired. Sometimes, this is the intended effect. When John Waters cast the outré drag queen Divine in his early female leads (such as in the original 1988 version of Hairspray), the director obviously didn’t want his audience to lose themselves in the already ultra-campy stories. Convincingly disguising a cross-gender cast role (such as Meryl Streep as a male rabbi in the 2003 mini-series Angels in America) is extremely hard to do, thus almost unheard-of.
Then there are those times when a director will change the gender of a character — sometimes a well-known lead character — as a way of changing the tenor of the story. When he was directing his thriller The Stranger in 1946, Orson Welles wanted the investigator in the story, who was on the trail of an undercover Nazi (played by Welles himself), to be a woman in order to suggest a sexual preoccupation for the German spy on the part of the sleuth. (Welles was overruled by the studio, and the part of the investigator ultimately went to Edward G. Robinson.) More recently, for her 2010 film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Julie Taymor cast the lead character of Prospero with Helen Mirren and changed the character’s name to Prospera. To transform the gender of such a famous Shakespearean dramatis persona had considerable social implications for Taymor’s film.
In short, the gender of any on-camera or onstage performer matters — whether the performer is cast traditionally or non-traditionally. To cast male roles, a director will almost always want male performers in the parts, and to cast female roles, a director will almost always want female performers. To do otherwise would have a profound effect on how the audience perceives the story. Therefore, the acting profession is gender-specific. If the profession is gender-specific, I don’t see why the names of the acting occupations — “actor” and “actress” — can’t be gender-specific as well.