I didn't realize there was so much real debate over this. I was watching the Academy Awards last night, and noted the diction. They call the category "Best Actress in a Leading Role" and so on, but I recall also watching the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the category they have is "Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role" and personally, I think they have it right. The diction is so much more precise. (Or maybe they're both precise and I just like what the SAG honors better.) The Academy is honoring the actress; the SAG honors the performance.
In the days of the Motion Picture Production Code (between the 1930s and 60s), the gender-neutral term "player" was encouraged, but now is deemed archaic when referencing an actor. We still see this term, though, in acting groups or companies, such as Tulane's Patchwork Players.
Anyway, let's look at where ACTRESS comes from.
First used in English in the mid-1800s as a combination of the word ACTOR (first used in English in the mid 1300s, from Latin āctor, from āctus, past participle of agere, to drive, do) and the feminine noun ending -ess.
-ESS, -ENNE, -ETTE, -TRIX
have all been present in English at some point, but are being done away with to varying degrees. (These all obviously come from French, except for -trix which comes from Latin.)
- -ESS was first used for noble titles such as countess, princess, duchess. Lots of these nouns were created in the 14th century, and didn't start to sharply decline until the latter half of the 20th century. Of course. We no longer use devouress or dwelleress. --but I wish we did.
- In the fourth edition of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (1977) was the first time we really started seeing these genderless job-titles. Flight attendant popped up instead of steward and stewardess. Authoress, poetess, scultpress, editress all disappeared in exchange for their formerly masculine now gender-neutral counterparts author, poet, sculptor, editor.
- According to the OED, very few of these -ess terms are still current. Among these: actress, adventuress, enchantress, hostess (though women TV and radio show hosts are just hosts), seamstress, seductress, sorceress, temptress, and waitress (the gender-neutral server is now also looked down upon).
- Some of these feminine forms took on different meanings all together during their evolution. Ambassadress, mayoress, and governess all disappeared in their political forms, but because governess took on the connotation of childcare, it remained in use. Also, mistress remains in use though master now also has a gender-neutral use. Imagine if we said: She is a financial planning mistress. lolololololollololololol
- -ENNE. We don't have a whole lot of these and the OED says using this usually isn't derogative. Equestrian has the form equestrienne; pedestrian has no corresponding feminine term. Although we have both comedienne and tragedienne, there is no feminine variant for thespian.
- -ETTE really isn't used for people anymore except for bachelorette and brunette, I guess since it's not only a feminine suffix but also diminutive. We don't see majorette, farmerette, suffragette or usherette but we do see cigarette, kitchenette and etiquette--which are all really derived as smaller forms of their bigger nouns.
- -TIRX. We don't see this one a whole lot either--mainly only remains in legalese, like administratrix, executrix, inheritrix. ... I don't know why we like dominatrix but not aviatrix or oratrix.
Sooo... looking at this from a strictly statistical standpoint, the term ACTRESS should be on its way out.
Half-way related: Kim Elsesser's New York Times Op-Ed article. She argues in favor of gender-neutral acting awards.