A while ago, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post blog answering this question they got from a reader:
“My mom just criticized me for describing Anna Kendrick as a comedienne. We’ve done away with stewardess and editrix, but what about actress? And should we stop referring to Hispanic women as Latina? When are gender-specific titles appropriate, if ever?”
Not long after that, Michael L. from Palm Springs wrote in and said, “I just watched the new trailer for the coming Meryl Streep movie Suffragette. I’m very curious to know how that word came to be.” So it seemed like a good time to address the topic again.
These days, gender-specific nouns are often considered inappropriate. Our stewards and stewardesses are now flight attendants, and our policemen and policewomen are now just officers. All the major style guides recommend avoiding gender-biased language.
There are exceptions—for example, the AP Stylebook does still recommend waiter and waitress instead of server—but today, those exceptions seem surprising, and they are becoming more rare.
‘Actor’ or ‘Actress’?
To directly answer one of the reader’s questions, comedienne sounds old-fashioned to me, and casting director Bonnie Gillespie says that these days, people in the industry tend to use standup or comic to avoid the gender issue altogether.
Actress seems less antiquated because the industry still separates men and women for awards, choosing a “best actor”and “best actress,” for example. Still, award shows are the exception and, according to Gillespie, people in the industry typically refer to men and women as simply actors. (In this case, the AP Stylebook says that both actress and actor are fine for a woman.)
“When I get emails or calls from talent agents pitching a new client for something I’m casting, they’ll almost always say, ‘I just signed this great new actor. She’s a redhead,’ and so on,” Gillespie says. “There is a negative connotation behind the word actress almost generationally. People in the industry who are 70 plus will still say ‘actress’ more than those of us who were raised during a different era, as feminism goes, and they mean nothing derogatory in using the word actress, whereas someone who is in her 30s may be trying to make a dig [if she uses the word].”
Is ‘Latina’ OK?
Moving on to the next part of the question, Latina doesn’t seem to carry the same stigma as other gendered words. Style guides support the Latino-Latina distinction and note that it is sometimes preferred over Hispanic. Since the Spanish language uses gendered nouns, having masculine and feminine forms may seem like less of a call-out―it follows a normal pattern instead of hinting at bias. Alternatively, David Morrow, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press (the publisher of the Chicago Manual of Style), speculates that people may view Latina differently because the word isn’t formed by adding a diminutive suffix such as –ess to a noun that describes a man and therefore isn’t loaded with gender bias in the same way as words such as authoress.
In her book Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, Maya Angelou reiterates this sentiment, writing, “The woman who survives intact and happy must be at once tender and tough. … She must resist considering herself a lesser version of her male counterpart. She is not a sculptress, poetess, authoress, Jewess, Negress, or even (now rare) in university parlance a rectoress.… A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a woman called by a devaluing name will only be weakened by the misnomer.”
Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules.