This Is How White Liberals Can Be Allies in Fighting Racism and Oppression of Minorities
In November, the Washington Post reported on an unexpected outcome of the Kevin Spacey sexual harassment scandal: a textbook example of a man being paid more than a woman for doing the same job. Following Spacey’s firing from the movie All the Money in the World, lead actress Michelle Williams received roughly $1,000 to reshoot scenes, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the $1.5 million paid to supporting actor Mark Wahlberg. Williams and Wahlberg are both represented by the William Morris Endeavor agency, though they have different agents, and director Ridley Scott had previously told USA Today that "everyone did [the reshoots] for nothing," informational bits that seem to add to the situation’s overall shadiness. For all the exculpatory arguments being floated around the internet (Wahlberg’s agent is the real-life Ari Gold; Williams had a bum contract), a pay difference of 1,500 times remains laughably difficult to justify. Wahlberg donated his reshoot fee to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, along with a statement expressing the kind of sudden interest in gender pay parity frequently sparked by bad press.
The story stands in contrast to Tuesday’s news that actress Jessica Chastain, who is white, used her privilege to help ensure that actress Octavia Spencer, who is black, would receive the pay she deserves but is consistently denied due to racism and sexism. During a panel titled Women Breaking Barriers at the Sundance Film Festival, Spencer described how a conversation about the gender pay gap led to an exchange about the salary advantages white actresses have compared to actresses of color.
“We were dropping F-bombs and getting it all out there,” Spencer joked. “And then I said, but here’s the thing, women of color on that spectrum, we make far less than white women. So if we’re gonna have that conversation about pay equity, we gotta bring the women of color to the table. And I told her my story, and we talked numbers, and she was quiet, and she had no idea that’s what it was like for women of color.”
Chastain suggested they take a “favored nations” approach to salary negotiations on an upcoming comedy project the two will be starring in together. By tying their pay together, the actresses would take home the same paycheck. “Fast-forward to last week,” Spencer said. “We’re making five times what we asked for.”
This is a story that could be horribly misconstrued as a “love see no color” moment in the media, and if it is ever made into a film, Hollywood will surely insist that Sandra Bullock play Chastain. But get beyond whiteness’s reflexive tendency to applaud itself for every millimeter of power willingly given, and there are reasons it’s genuinely noteworthy. Chastain deserves recognition for doing the right thing, and for being the exception that proves the sad rule, unwittingly showing how rarely that happens. As Spencer noted, “People say a lot of things,” but doing is a lot harder. “She’s walking the walk and she’s actually talking the talk,” Spencer said of Chastain. “When it came down to it, she was right there and shoulder to shoulder.”
Performative allyship is always more abundant than action. Whenever a longstanding issue of inequality rises to the level of widespread visibility—meaning the groundswell of horrific stories forces the powerful to recognize what the disempowered have long told them existed—the country enters a period of “national conversation” that rarely goes much beyond words. The trickle-down effect, in terms of substantive corrective actions, can be hard to locate, because all too frequently there's no there there. What passes for activism is often just virtue theatrics that play well in a society obsessed with optics, but aren't necessarily aimed at leveling unbalanced playing fields.
It’s been noted again and again that the MeToo movement has overwhelmingly focused on the sexual bullying of white women who have fame and money, while ignoring the daily struggles of the most vulnerable women and non-binary folks. If the women who are calling men out keep failing to call themselves out—or asking men to push for equality while refusing to cede some of their influence—nothing changes. White women’s feminism and advocacy should look like what Chastain did, but it rarely does. We’re left with meaningless hot takes, pussy hats, and Facebook filters. The questions for people who say they want real equity are: what power do you wield and what are you giving up to make that happen? Solidarity is often a top-down matter. Folks on the lower rungs are often overlooked until their fates are linked to those whose presence is given greater value.
In her 2016 memoir, Taraji P. Henson wrote about how she was paid the "equivalent of sofa change” for her Oscar-nominated supporting role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt received millions. Henson didn’t have the name recognition of her costars at the time, nor the fame she has now, but even with those factors taken into account, the pay disparity seems outlandish given she was a “solid up-and-coming actress with a decent amount of critical acclaim for her work.” She got a low-six-figure deal, the smallest of fractions of her co-stars' salaries, and was told she’d have to pay for her own hotel accommodations for the three-month shoot.
Henson spells out in her book why the onus is on those with power to speak up:
The math really is pretty simple: there are way more talented black actresses than there are intelligent, meaningful roles for them, and we’re consistently charged with diving for the crumbs of the scraps, lest we starve. I knew the stakes: no matter how talented, no matter how many accolades my prior work had received, if I pushed for more money, I’d be replaced and no one would so much as blink.
Last year, during an interview with Variety, Chastain said she was done “getting paid a quarter of what the male co-star is being paid. I’m not allowing that in my life.” Clearly, she realized it was a declaration that required a concurrent commitment to all the other women in the field to make sure they aren’t subject to starvation economy survival methods. Spencer—who for the record, beat out Chastain in the Oscar's Best Supporting Actress Category—will hopefully receive a pay bump on every film from here on out, though Hollywood's commitment to sexism and racism make that unlikely. On Twitter, Chastain suggested truly supportive male stars put their money where their mouths are to achieve gender pay fairness. "[Octavia] had been underpaid for so long," she wrote in the message. "When I discovered that, I realized that I could tie her deal to mine to bring up her quote. Men should start doing this with their female costars."
Actress Jada Pinkett Smith, speaking at another Sundance talk, drove the point further home.
“It’s nice to go out and march. We can do that. It’s nice to wear black at the Golden Globes—it’s nice to do that. But what are we doing behind closed doors? And I’ve got to give our sister Jessica Chastain her props because she stood up for Octavia and put it down. And that’s how we all need to do it for each other.”