Why Emmy Rossum’s Refusal of Equal Pay is Dangerous

   I’m going to say some unpopular things about the gender pay gap. Typically, this is a straightforward issue. Dealing with wage inequality in the average workplace, women with the same job and experience as men should get paid the same. It is fairly simple concept (and one that I wholeheartedly support, to be clear), but this same idea is much more complex in Hollywood, where fame is a commodity.

The topic took off as something of a movement after Patricia Arquette’s Academy Award acceptance speech, and with Jennifer Lawrence’s now famous essay on Lena Dunham’s website. It was written following the Sony hack, which revealed that she was paid less than male co-stars on American Hustle. I was not a fan of this article (some of the reasons for which I will discuss below, though there is also a level of crassness in her writing I find grating; at one point she guesses the amount of time women have been able to vote, admitting to being to lazy to look it up), but I wisely kept my mouth shut at the time.

Now that Emmy Rossum is making headlines by demanding she be paid more than parity on the show “Shameless,” I feel compelled to point out some of the hypocrisy in the pushback for pay equality. While I believe in the removal of any gender pay gap that may be occurring in Hollywood, I don’t believe it should be accomplished with a gap in logic. 

        Let me pause to point out that I am fully aware as a white male that my voice comes with a certain level of privilege and some blind spots that, by definition, I may not be aware of. Let me also point out that I have been a working actor for fifteen years and rarely had a year above poverty level, so I find it difficult to feel sorry for the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Emmy Rossum, who have never struggled financially a day in their adult lives (Lawrence even admits to not being at all relatable in her essay). When it comes to the equality of working actors, I never have and never would stand for a female co-star being paid less. But things get complicated when fame enters the picture. There are many other factors to consider, some of which have me siding with the arguments of those defending Rossum right now. Some, but not all.

Argument #1: The star should always be paid more.
The first argument that is commonly being used when arguing why Rossum deserves to be paid more than any of the other stars of “Shameless” is the fact that she is the lead actor, that she is the character we spend the most time with. While this argument is logical, it shows a limited understanding of the film/television industry. The amount that stars are paid must include consideration of their worth, and more specifically what type of platform their fame provides the production. In short, how many viewers they will bring from their established fan base.
When Emmy Rossum was first cast in her role on “Shameless” she had far less of this than co-star William H. Macy, who is an Oscar-nominated actor with over 50 years of experience in the industry. So naturally Macy was paid more.
Now, at this point in my argument there are always a few who will bemoan the unfairness of this practice. Never mind the fact that it is a business decision carefully calculated (though not carefully enough where Johnny Depp is concerned) by how many viewers they bring, not how many scenes they are in. There are still those who claim that this practice is thinly-veiled sexism, but they are mistakenly ignoring the many times it has also benefited female actors.
Despite complaining about inequality of pay in her essay, Lawrence had no issue with accepting a $20 million paycheck on Passengers, which is estimated to be double what Chris Pratt was paid, even though he apparently has more screen-time and a larger role. And then there is the case of Charlize Theron insisting on being paid the same as Chris Hemsworth during the production of The Huntsman: Winter’s War, even though she was barely a supporting character in the narrative. Is this equality, or merely ego? (And yes, I would say the same about a man. Once again, consider Depp.)
And this is not a new practice. Many women in the past have also benefited from having higher marketability than their co-stars. When “Friends” first aired on television in 1994, Courtney Cox received higher wages because she had established a career in film prior to being cast. When the rest of her cast members reached the same level of fame, there were re-negotiations and parity was reached.
Financial parity has been a standard practice for the television industry for decades, including Warner Bros. TV, who are the ones that made that decision with the “Friends” cast and are now in negotiations with Rossum for the eighth season of “Shameless.” They have offered Rossum equality with Macy (which seems more than fair, in my humble opinion), but she is refusing to sign the contract until offered more than the rest of the cast, including Macy. While this is where the argument of her having the lead role usually comes back into play, I would remind readers that Macy has received three Emmy nominations and one SAG Award win for his performance on the show, while Rossum has yet to receive a single nomination.
I’ll also point out that many of the same people who claim Rossum should get paid more merely playing the main character also tend to be the ones arguing that Lawrence deserves to be paid more than Pratt simply because she is a bigger star. This points to a larger problem of reactionary opinions flooding the internet where logic should be used instead, typically paired with the bad habit of reading the title of an article but not the content itself. I’ll not add to the endless discussion of fake news, but instead point to society’s unsettling new trend of finding evidence to support opinions rather than forming opinions based on evidence.
Rossum herself has argued that her reason for wanting more money has to do with back-pay for the years her wages were less than Macy’s, but she was paid less because she was worth less (from a marketing standpoint), not because she was a woman. The cast of “Friends” did not receive back-pay either, including the men whose careers skyrocketed past Cox in the late 1990s. Those who are considering the possibility that sexism is responsible for Rossum not being given the raise she is demanding should take a long look at the evidence of history before they commit to that belief.
And there is the fact that this late in a series, virtually no performer (male or female) has ever had a pay increase above their co-stars. Parity and equality is the goal that productions work toward as the show becomes more popular. But if Rossum’s request is granted, it could change that, for male actors as well as female. If nothing else, imagine how this will change the dynamic between the cast members on set. 

Argument #2: Actresses have been afraid to ask for equality in the past, for fear they would lose a job.
In Jennifer Lawrence’s essay, she claims to have given up on fighting for millions more in pay during the negotiations of American Hustle because she didn’t want to be labeled “difficult” or “spoiled.” She was worried that the risks of asking for more were not worth the rewards. As she points out, she was the star of two major franchises at the time and did not need the money.
Lawrence didn’t speak up about getting paid more, because she was worried that there would be negative consequences, and this is true. There might have been, but this dilemma is not exclusive to female actors. The “lucky people with dicks” (as Lawrence puts it) are not excluded from concerns of how their demands will be received, despite the actress’s ignorant claim that “every man (she) was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’”
First of all, I find the assumptions made about the thoughts of others to be insultingly narrow-minded, as there have been many repercussions for male stars asking for more money than the studio was willing to pay. Miles Teller was originally in negotiation to star in Damien Chazelle’s musical, La La Land (which opened with record numbers this weekend), but he lost the job after demanding more than the $4 million that was offered. This is a risk any actor takes when they insist on being paid more money than the studio thinks they are worth, regardless of gender. Beyond that, Lawrence doesn’t know what others are thinking. She does not have knowledge of each male co-star’s concerns or neurosis, and it is naïve and unfair to claim that she does.
        It makes no sense to make villains out of the male actors who were willing to ask for more, as they are not responsible for pay discrepancies between their co-stars. Often they are not even aware, unless a studio hack makes that information public. (For the record, however, I don’t necessarily agree with co-star Jeremy Renner’s response to the news, which was a bit too callous for my taste.)
Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration the demeanor with which females are treated in other areas of the industry. There are many male executives who have been accused of being patronizing to female stars during negotiations. Lawrence even quotes a producer who calls another actress a “spoiled brat” during negotiations. While there is no way for me to prove that this treatment is unjustly different from the way male stars are handled, it is not difficult for me to believe that there is an air of sexism in a many of these proceedings. And for that reason (and possibly only that reason), I applaud Lawrence for her willingness to speak up. At the same time, the bravery of this act is diluted some by the amount of power she wields as a major movie star and the highest paid actress of 2016, and the air of entitlement that comes with this level of fame.  

Argument #3: Women deserve more than men to make up for years of inequality.
I find the logic of this argument to be the most frustrating, because it means the willful acceptance of hypocrisy as normal and fair. That $20 million in Lawrence’s pocket does little to help other actresses. I understand the argument that it is a symbolic win, that if Lawrence can be paid that much, other women can be as well. The problem with this logic is that there have been actresses paid more than men since the beginning of the film industry, and it has done nothing to fix the problems. Mary Pickford was the first star (male or female) to receive a $1 million dollar contract from a studio, and that was in 1919. Think about it; nearly 100 years ago a woman made more than any other man in this industry and we still have gender issues today, so why should we believe that Lawrence receiving $20 million will affect anyone but Lawrence?

Argument #4: Actresses have a shorter shelf life.
Now that I have likely angered many with my deconstruction of these first three arguments, let me point out one aspect that has been mostly ignored by the media, one that points to a larger problem in the industry than wage disparity. Let’s forget the money aspect of an actor’s career for a moment, and instead consider the career itself. There has long been an unspoken rule in the film industry, which has often been referred to as the ‘Rule of 40.’
This is different than Rule 40, which is a policy restricting the amount that Olympic athletes can participate in advertising profiting. The ‘Rule of 40’ is an unofficial way of pointing out the difference between the careers of aging actresses, as opposed to their male stars. When an actress turns 40, she almost immediately begins to depreciate in value, at least as far as the industry is concerned. The rule does not apply to male actors, and is why George Clooney is still a major star at 55, even though a very select few actresses maintain that same level of fame as they get older. Julia Roberts is six years younger than Clooney, but her career has a fraction of the success that she had when the industry still deemed her worthy of being a sex symbol. There are countless examples like these, celebrated actresses demoted to supporting roles and smaller productions.
The biggest example of this incongruity can be found in the case of the 1999 film, Entrapment, which cast Catherine Zeta-Jones as Sean Connery’s love interest, despite a 39-year age difference between them. This takes into consideration elements of gender inequality, as well as a double-standard for age equality in Hollywood. This ends with casting, but it starts with the type of roles being written for women, as well as the gender of those given the opportunity to do the writing.
        Perhaps my biggest problem is not the fight for pay equality, but rather the star that is being heralded as the icon for the movement. The discussion of gender in Lawrence’s essay is more about the disparity in conversation patterns than the pay gap. Nothing in Jennifer Lawrence’s essay is really about equality. It is about her deciding to speak up for herself in order to get more money. For herself.
If Lawrence truly believed in equality, she would insist on being paid the same as her co-stars, male and female, leading and supporting. Can you imagine the impact of a movie star turning down $20 million in order to ensure her colleagues all receive equal wages? What an amazing headline it would make to hear that Lawrence had decided to split a $20 million paycheck among her working-actor co-stars. It isn’t as if the star needs the money. She was the highest paid actress in the world this year. If the issue of equality really mattered more than the money, Lawrence could change the industry in one gracious move and then return to taking an obscenely unnecessary amount of money on her next project.
Of course, this is the same as claiming that Donald Trump should use his fortune (assuming he actually has one; still waiting on those tax returns) to make America great again. I’m not naïve enough to think that this will ever happen, but words have little impact over time if there are no actions to back them up. I do believe that Jennifer Lawrence has a right to speak up about the disparity in pay wages, but I also believe in my right to call her out on the hypocrisy when her actions don’t match her words.
Wage inequality is a serious matter in the real world, but Hollywood rarely resembles reality. There are many other factors at play, and it is irresponsible to claim gender inequality without looking at the specifics of each individual case. This is not to say that gender pay gaps don’t occur in Hollywood, but merely that this is one of many possible reasons for differences in wages. And perhaps the next pay gap that should be dealt with is the one between movie stars and working actors, regardless of gender. 

        And finally, in direct contrast to the controversial statements made by Matt Damon about diversity during the casting of the latest “Project Greenlight” production, I believe we should spend more time making sure women are given equal opportunities for creative expression than worrying about whether a movie star has made $10 million or $20 million. We need more female directors and cinematographers, to combat the male-gaze tradition of filmmaking. We need more female screenwriters to tell female narratives, preferably ones that don’t exclusively star actresses in their 20s. We need more female producers, strong voices to make sure these projects are completed with the intended vision of the artists. And as much as it may pain some to hear this, change is going to require the support of the men working in this industry, which won’t happen by simply pointing the finger at them. 

I would be the first to sign a petition for true equality in Hollywood, the first to show up to protest. But let’s be clear; equality is not what Rossum is asking for. She has every right to demand more money, even if I happen to believe it is unwarranted. But Warner Bros. has just as much right to refuse without being accused of sexism.   


1 comment:

Chris Mackey said...

Very good post, and I agree with it 100%. JLaw had no problem cashing her huge checks for Hunger Games and many other films, knowing her male co-stars (and female co-stars) received much less. That doesn't sound like someone who's very interested in equality as much as it sounds like someone who's saying "more money for me, me, me."

Emmy Rossum can ask for more money, but let's be clear, her show Shameless is not a blockbuster show. It brings in about 1.5 million viewers weekly on Showtime. Some of the storylines have become repetitious. Other storylines, the newer ones, are just stupid. If she wanted a raise, the time for that was a few seasons back, when the show was fresh. Her film career isn't much to speak of, and her tv career is basically made up of Shameless. That's fine to ask for a raise, as long as you're not so egotistical about what your worth to the point of saying gimme what I want or I'm walking. As I've just pointed out, if Warners balks at her ultimatum, her career might pretty much be over.