Earlier this week, producers for the hit Netflix drama The Crown admitted that Claire Foy (who plays Queen Elizabeth II) gets paid less per episode than Matt Smith (who plays Prince Philip). This, of course, has upset feminists, who feel that the discrepancy between the salaries of people who earn tens of thousands of dollars per episode is an issue of high importance. The Hollywood “gender pay gap” has joined the list of grievances promoted by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in Hollywood. But what if the pay gap isn’t really about gender at all? And what if saying so hurts — rather than helps — women in Hollywood?
According to Variety, The Crown producers attributed Matt Smith’s higher salary to his “‘Doctor Who’ fame.” As an actor who had recently skyrocketed to stardom by being on a wildly popular TV show, Matt Smith was in a position to ask for a large salary. Claire Foy, a relatively unknown actress at the time, was not in such a position. Even so, creative director Suzanne Mackie said, “Going forward, no one gets paid more than the Queen.”
There’s a problem here. In general, the determining factor deciding an actor’s salary in Hollywood is his or her fame. The more famous the actor, the more likely the audience will be to come and see the show. This allows actors to ask for higher sums of money after they’ve appeared in popular shows and movies. Saying that whichever actress plays the Queen will automatically receive more money than her co-stars implies that the actress’ femaleness is somehow deserving of financial reward.
One could argue that this method of determining salary is unfair — that each actor should get paid a set rate based on the amount of work he or she does. And that’s an argument that could be made (although it would ultimately lose, since producers looking to hire actors who will draw an audience are more likely to entice them with higher salaries). But making that change also wouldn’t be about gender. Claire Foy would have made more money in The Crown, but she still would have made less than Damian Lewis in Wolf Hall, where she played Anne Boleyn to his Henry VIII.
One could also argue that there are better roles available for men than for women, and that this allows men to become more famous and therefore make more money. And that may be true. But addressing this issue by simply paying women more for the roles they already have — rather than advocating for better roles for women — implies again that the actress’ femaleness is the thing she deserves payment for.
The same logic applies to insisting that black actors must be represented at the Oscars. They certainly should if their performance warranted recognition. And there may be a case to be made for more color blindness in casting. But giving awards to black actors because they’re black completely delegitimizes the award. How can a black actor in today’s cultural climate know for certain that they’ve received an award for their superior performance when many in Hollywood are essentially advocating giving out awards simply for being black?
Making Hollywood’s gender issues about pay (or Hollywood’s racial issues about awards) actually promotes — rather than solves — these disparities. Claire Foy doesn’t deserve higher pay because she’s a woman. She deserves it because, now that she has played Queen Elizabeth so expertly on The Crown, she is, arguably, just as famous as Matt Smith. In this — and in most everything else — making the issue about identity rather than achievement is never the answer.