The Screen Actor’s Guild, in its annual reward ceremonies has, since the early 1990s, been referring to females as “actors.” A quarter of century later and the Academy Awards still calls women |”actresses.”
And to the studio directors, producers, chief exes, and other Hollywood moguls this must capsulize her as, at best, a minor actor, a minus player, a lesser employee in their circuit. No matter that she has jumped through multiple hoops to achieve a degree of success, stardom, and prestige, she’s still there by invite, not by fiat, and is not a member of the club.
The actress may not become the actor because she’s primarily viewed as a performer. She follows the script. Her job is to impersonate someone much like herself, to act in the way men dream her, or Central Casting labels her, and to simulate acts that often undermine hers and women’s identities. As in slasher films, gore and horror movies; as in femme fatale, and violence victim roles, she’s really not in the picture at all, and certainly not self-directed.
The worker status of SAG is denied her by the Academy (even in a period when many insist on calling prostitutes “sex workers”) because her primary purpose in Hollywood is to attract. She’s in front of the camera, not behind it, and is known and featured for being seen, for being a screen for male projections.
To the movie industry’s power brokers, an actress is to perform on screen or off–in studios or in their sacrosanct private offices, and suites, in accordance with their directorial privileges. Whether its the claustrophobic casting couch or a misogyny-loaded scene, the man determines the action. His power over her is what upholds his status and stature.
And that command cannot, as #MeToo has definitively proven, exist without coercion. Motivated by dominance, revenge, entitlement, ownership, rivalry, rejection, and demotion, these make-and-break exploiters, wield a power which is both personal and institutional, and is never separable from male sex. Nor is it separable from that of their pornographer colleagues, or from their sexist, racist, and militarist movies which have a global reach. And which makes them more like emperors than entrepreneurs
So, the stakes are high with every female actor. Nothing can be lost by her because it’s flat out risky for self and career, the consequences, psychological and physical, being long-term and severe. Self-trained, she knows how not to stir up his anger, his dark moods, his accusations, his violence, his retributions. How to dance around his prestige, while enhancing it. How to please, and defer to his whims, no matter how crude, stupid, and oppressive. How to deflect harm and injury to his ego, and coddle his self-pity.
Judged by beauty, sex, youth, and ever-changing styles, any appeal of hers to merit is untenable, as is any appeals to other women trapped in the lower end of a highly competitive industry. Subjected to lies, distortions, “favor” exchanges, propositions, demotions, shady hiring practices, and even blackmail, the actress learns the exact material cost of being known, of having an acting career, of being a muse, and a sex object.
This is what success and glamour look like. Image is the key, and behind it is the designation of whore or the actress as whore. The actor of male fantasies gets sexed. She’ll do anything because she acts anything. If she plays a mistress, she is a mistress. Even a show of independence marks her as modern and available. She must run the gauntlet of sexual innuendo and sex jokes in which she’s the butt end. Which is why men played women roles in Shakespeare: the idea of the actress was base and loathsome, and more than suggestive of whore.
MeToo proves that the stigma sticks. This group’s revelations of sex abuse, harassment, and rape are met with veiled threats, and instant backlash. The courageous actors who speak in accusation against their tenured bosses are accused of conducting “a witch-hunt.” How’s that for an Orwellian reversal? No matter the preponderance of evidence, or how long the number of victims who testify against a producer or director, women are met with a campaign of disbelief, assigned the tag of “aggressive bitch,” and subjected to general nastiness waged by and for their smug cabal of narcissistic abusers, their flunkies, and all men who uphold a culture of pervasive sexual violence.
Which, of course, assures the collusion of male actors, the counterparts and peers to “actresses,” with their administrative kingpins. In some cases, male stars even get in on their sexual prowess, but for the others, who assess women’s disclosures by cautiously couching public statements in half regrets or in ambiguous verbiage, silence reigns. Convinced of the lesser status of their co-stars, they are as willing as their power-mongering employers, to assign them as “actress,” to view them as not fully human. As the true actors, they find the Act of their superiors more convincing than that of the actress.
In sum, the #MeToo “actress” is not all that distinct, as has often been claimed, from the immigrant farm worker, or the hotel maid whom she advances as co-victims. Both suffer sexual exploitation in a stunted and poisonous work environment, are equally brave in exposing it, and suffer the same vilification for doing so. Each proves that women in high and low positions are targets of misogynous ire and violence. And they correlate as workers, for contrary to official Hollywood opinion, female performers are workers… and yes, actors.