When Gender Meets Language

by Lina Purtscher

Ah, the joys and terrors of learning a new language. There's nothing more satisfying than remembering how to say something right, sitting there in class smiling to yourself. Parlez-vous français? Oui oui! Yet each step forward also reminds you of how far you have to go, and how much is still left to be learned. To be humble.

So of course, you don't tend to question things very much when learning a new language -- you mostly just accept things as they are. But that doesn't tend to stop you from wondering...

I was wondering quite a bit the day that I learned the word "professor" in my French I class earlier this semester. "Le professeur" my teacher wrote on the board. French is a language with grammatical genders for different words, and here my teacher had written "the professor" in the masculine form ("le" is the article that indicates this).

Us students followed this up with a question, of course -- what word should we use to speak of her job position? Imagine our confusion when she told us that unlike other words for jobs, the word "professor" has no accompanying feminine form in France. The feminine article "la" can sometimes be put in front of the masculine professeur, but it doesn't change the gender of the word itself; it only indicates that a woman is filling the position.

 What do you mean, there is no feminine form of "professor"??

What do you mean, there is no feminine form of "professor"??

What did this mean?! Half of me wanted to get out my soapbox and start on a feminist rant. Why would there be no feminine form of the word? Are men considered the "standard" for professors, while women simply step in when needed? Are professors who are women expected to aspire to some kind of male ideal, to someday be authoritative or professional or respected enough to finally merit their own feminine form of the word??

But of course, my teacher was only telling us the ways things were, not making social commentary. She's not the spokesperson for the entire French-speaking population, only a teacher teaching us what someone once taught her.

A tiny asterisk by the word in my French textbook kindly informed me that in France, professeur is officially an invariable masculine noun. Yet other French-speaking countries, most notably the region of Quebec in Canada, have officially added the feminine form of the word, la professeure, with that "e" at the end marking the word as feminine. 

Aha! Here it is, I thought. Canada just must be a more progressive and feminist country than France, end of story. After all, what don't the Canadians do right? [see below: their dreamy, feminist prime minister, Justin Trudeau]

 Clearly, Canada's PM Justin Trudeau was born to make memes. (credits to  Vox )

Clearly, Canada's PM Justin Trudeau was born to make memes. (credits to Vox)

Yet while attempting to get to the bottom of all this, I stumbled across a major roadblock. France, Canada, and the French language aside, it turns out that plain old English in the U.S. has had and continues to have such debates over gendered words. Talk about missing the forest for the trees! 

The usage of "actor" as a gender-neutral term over the word "actress" seems to be particularly contested. Publications such as The Guardian have been on the frontlines of this debate, in a way, because they write daily about the acting world. When they changed their style guide back in 2010 to privilege the use of "actor" for performers of all genders, they reasoned that the term "actress" was becoming dated: "actress comes into the same category as authoress, comedienne, manageress, 'lady doctor', 'male nurse' and similar obsolete terms that date from a time when professions were largely the preserve of one sex (usually men)."

They've certainly got a point -- when was the last time you heard the word "authoress"? I'm an English major, and even I've  only heard the term a smattering of times to refer to some of the earliest female authors in the biz! It sounds purely ridiculous today.  Most importantly, I think the term "author" has truly become gender-neutral. When I ask "Who's the author of that book?" I don't automatically assume the author's gender to be male -- I just want to find out what incredibly talented person wrote it!


Quite understandably, many women in the acting world have come to embrace the title "actor" over "actress." Though some complain that it leads to confusion and many questions of "Wait, but are they a man or a woman?" the term "actor" for many represents desires for equality within the profession. While the term "actor" was universally applied to all when women first joined the profession--after the Shakespearian days of men portraying both male and female characters--the word "actress" was eventually coined, presumably as the number of women in the profession grew. However, the word "actress" has picked up some rather degrading connotations since its coinage, including associations of actresses with prostitutes and mere apprenticeship, rather than full-fledged acting.

"Actress" is also seen as a limiting, gender-essentialist title, restricting female actors to solely portraying women on screen or on stage. As Whoopi Goldberg once remarked, "An actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor - I can play anything." Well said, Whoopi, well said.

Still, true equality is lacking in the industry. The Oscars continues to have a "Best Actress" category, while Morgan Freeman recently pointed out the blatant gender-specificity of the awards statuettes during his speech at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards. The SAG Award statuettes, just like the Oscars statuettes, are very clearly male in their features and figure, yet are handed out to all winners, regardless of gender. Seeing them, it's hard not to think of the statuettes as being literal "gold standards" for acting, and of course, quite predictably male. From awards to movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, it's clear that the slow shift in industry language reflects an even slower shift in the treatment of female actors and in the sexist environment of the acting industry--though both shifts, I believe, are gaining steam and public attention like never before.

As for gender equality in the French language? Language is a stubborn, fickle thing, changing faster than one can document, while also retaining traces of long-forgotten ideas and attitudes. Just last year the French government banned all use of gender-neutral French in official government documents following the release of the first-ever textbook promoting a gender-neutral version of French. This halt in progress contrasts ironically with rapid changes in the French language during WWI, when the need for women to fill the jobs vacated by men off at war spurred the creation of feminine counterparts to masculine job titles. Coincidentally, academics were often exempt from the draft that called up so many men from other industries for service; perhaps this is why le professeur never developed a feminine form. 

Quibbles aside, as measured by the old saying "Actions speak louder than words," both France and Canada seem light-years ahead of the U.S. on matters of gender equality. A solid thirty-nine percent of the seats in France's lower congressional house are held by women, making the country 14th in a ranking of women in national parliaments (to the United States' pitiful 99th place, in a ranking of 193 countries); Canada's current cabinet has just as many women as men serving as ministers. Both Canada and France have paid maternity leave, and the leaders of both countries have made commitments to fighting the gender wage gap.

It seems then, that gender-neutral language is not a mere reflection of the gender equality within a society. Yet language shapes our views and attitudes as a society, which in turn can shape policies, actions, and movements--and it seems that our country could use a little help on both fronts.