Sexual harassment and assault may be the ugliest aspects of sexism in Hollywood, but they’re hardly the only problem. And in recent weeks, the entertainment industry’s long-standing pay inequities have returned to the fore. Comedian Mo’Nique has called for viewers to boycott Netflix after the streaming service offered her less for a stand-up special than the company paid Amy Schumer and Dave Chappelle. And after Ridley Scott decided to replace Kevin Spacey in “All the Money in the World,” it turned out that despite Scott’s protestations to the contrary, everyone had not stepped up to work for free: Michelle Williams had agreed to work for her per diem, while Mark Wahlberg’s agents negotiated an additional $1.5 million fee for him.
It’s true that individual Hollywood stars have more power than the average woman who finds out that she’s being underpaid. They can go public, knowing their stories will count as news and that they have fans who will rally to them. But the storm of coverage conceals an uncomfortable truth: For all their fame, women in the entertainment industry may have a harder time securing long-term pay equity than their counterparts in less glamorous industries.
One challenge both actresses and women in other industries share is the fact when they switch jobs, their compensation is often based on what their last employer paid them. In the entertainment business, salary negotiations often center around so-called quotes, an actor or director’s baseline salary as determined by their prior projects, which provide a kind of protective minimum starting point in negotiations. But that floor can also look a lot like a ceiling.
The “salary question” has been banned in a number of states on the ground that it locks in pay inequity permanently. But for actresses, this may not help: A producer doesn’t have to ask your agent what you made on your last movie when he or she can find the number in Variety, Deadline or the Hollywood Reporter.
The entertainment business also shows just how tricky it can be to define the “equal work” half of the equation. If a job involves packing boxes, making widgets, or driving a long-haul truck, equivalence is easy to quantify. It’s harder to do so on a movie set.
Say you break down actors’ planned contributions by the number of scenes they have to shoot and the number of lines they have in each of them. Even then, that’s merely a starting point. Should actors be compensated differently depending on the nature of the scenes they’re in, if one is more demanding than another? Film-making is unpredictable: What happens when an actor with fewer scenes ends up working more hours because those scenes need to be re-shot for reasons beyond their control? And because movies and television are project-based industries, these issues will have to be negotiated every time actresses go in for new jobs.
Salaries in Hollywood are also affected by blunt calculations Hollywood executives make about who is worth more to them. When an outlet such as Netflix makes an offer that suggests a man is more valuable than a woman, or that a white woman is more valuable than a woman of color, that’s not some sort of accident. Netflix doesn’t give Chappelle $60 million for three stand-up specials because that’s the number executives hit on a dartboard. They’re paying Chappelle $20 million per special because they think that’s what it will take to get him to work, and because they think there’s a reasonable shot he’s worth it in terms of drawing people to subscribe to Netflix or producing earned media for the service.
I don’t mean to imply that Hollywood is a purely rational industry that always makes wise decisions about where to invest money for the greatest return. If that were true, Hispanics and Latinos wouldn’t be grotesquely underrepresented in pop culture, Hollywood wouldn’t be a full employment program for the Hemsworth family and we’d have a “Black Widow” movie already.
Rather, I’m saying that disparities such as the ones Mo’Nique is highlighting are a window into the entertainment industry’s often opaque logic, and how hard it will be to change things. Bad press might get Netflix to change some of its behavior temporarily, but even then it would take a lot to mobilize a meaningful number of the streaming service’s almost 100 million subscribers into a boycott significant enough to commit the company to pay equity in all cases. And though horrible coverage convinced Wahlberg to donate his extra fees for “All the Money in the World” to the new Time’s Up initiative intended to combat sexual harassment, I doubt he will start taking pay cuts if he finds out his female co-stars are making less than he is on future projects.
Hollywood’s progressive reputation goes a long way towards concealing mercenary practices. And while actresses have supercharged conversations around pay inequity and sexual harassment, they may find that fame only goes so far to combat the basic dynamics of their industry.
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