Saturday, September 25, 2010


In the first Dirty Harry movie, one suggestion for Harry's nickname is his hatred for minorities. Ironically, of course, Harry's partner in that film is hispanic, and in the sequel (Magnum Force), his partner is african american.

In the third film in the series, some attempt at emphasizing the essential decency of Harry's character (and its consistency with his hardline conservativism about law enforcement) is made by giving him a female partner. As might be expected, Harry at first spurns her, but gradually grows to accept and respect her. For her part, his partner proves her worth at police work, ultimately saving Harry's life.
Tyne Daly as Harry's partner shooting the bad guys in the climatic scene of The Enforcer.

The message is clearly that women can be just as badass and hard on crime as men and that sexism is not a necessary correlate of conservativism about law enforcement.

How ironic is it, then, that on a documentary about the politics of the Dirty Harry movies (on the Magnum Force DVD), when Tyne Daly is interviewed, she is referred to as "actor"?
I suppose this may be one of those cases where the PC thing to do is not immediately clear. Using "actor" for an actress seems to me to follow the pattern of using a male-marked word for all members of a group (e.g. "mankind" for men and women), so I would have thought it showed disrespect to use it.

Conversely, of course, the "-or" or "-er" marking strictly speaking just denotes agency. The seeming markedness of "actor" or "mister" comes from the existence of a corresponding "-ress" form. "-or" words like prosecutor or perpetrator which do not also seem non-marked.

According to wikipedia, using "actor" for actresses is considered by some the PC thing to do: "As actress is a specifically feminine word, some groups assert that the word is sexist. Gender-neutral usage of actor has re-emerged in modern English, especially when referring to male and female performers collectively, but actress remains the common term used in major acting awards given to female recipients and is common in general usage."

But if we buy this reasoning, should we also call women "mister"? Etymologically speaking, mister derives from Indo-European megh, or "great", via Latin magister ("teacher"), from which also "master". So, historically, the "-er" of mister is also an "-er" of agency, implying we can use it in a gender neutral fashion to refer to women respectfully as well.

1 comment:

The League said...

This is a little useless, but:

1) During my very brief period of acting, even at that high school level, everyone who performed was called an "actor", male or female. We were told, at the time, this was common practice. And Daly's billing as "actor" may well be a hold over from some period when this was fashionable.

2) You may note on Star Trek, female officers are referred to as "Mister" and "Sir" (first noted, I think, in Star Trek II). Apparently titles will become gender neutral by stardate 8100.