By Kate Maltby, CNN
If you think Rex Tillerson has had a bad week, spare a moment’s pity for Suzanne Mackie, Left Bank creative director and executive producer of “The Crown.”
Sitting down for what they probably expected would be an uneventful panel discussion at an industry conference this Tuesday, Mackie and two other producers let slip that Claire Foy, who played Queen Elizabeth II for the first two seasons, was paid less for her work than her on-screen husband, Matt Smith.
As if to preempt instant outrage, Mackie added, according to Variety, that future season leads would get pay parity: “Going forward, no one gets paid more than the Queen.” If her comments were a sop to Twitter, they didn’t work.
In a week that’s seen Russian aggression on UK soil, the sacking of Tillerson and the creation of a President for life in China, “Claire Foy” was still one of the highest trending terms on Twitter. Feminists and fans are outraged.
Is this another example of the gender pay gap, in which women are still frequently paid less than men for equal work? Ostensibly, yes. Foy played the lead role, wore the titular crown, and appeared on all the promotional posters solo. Yet she still earned less than the most senior man on set.
This wasn’t even a case of less pay for equal work — it was less pay for more work.
But things aren’t that simple. As many on the right have been quick to point out, this is a case of what the market will bear. Smith is a bigger name actor in the US, having already led the iconic “Dr. Who” franchise. In the UK, Foy arguably has equal appeal, with major roles under her belt in two big BBC series, “Wolf Hall” and “Upstairs Downstairs.”
But to recoup their $130 million budget for the first season, Netflix always needed a US audience. Is it Smith’s fault that he was already commanded a higher salary than Foy before they’d even heard of “The Crown?” We can’t ignore the fact that Mackie, who has received opprobrium for her comments, is herself a woman. Is she really part of the problem? Or is she working, like any other professional, to navigate industry norms?
The truth is that it’s a bit of both. Sure, Smith and Foy were paid what their agents could reasonably negotiate, based on past earnings. It shouldn’t be forgotten that there are more leading roles generally available for men, but fewer for women, which makes it easier for men to earn star status and earning power.
Meanwhile, far more women go into acting than men. In the UK, where both Foy and Smith learned their craft, two-thirds of the applicants to drama school are female, one third male. In Hollywood, where both are now competitors, only 24% of lead roles were written for women (it could be worse — in 2014, it was 13%). So there’s a classic problem of supply and demand here — far greater supply of female actresses for every role, far fewer who’ve already proved they can carry a show. This dynamic permeates from the top of the industry to the bottom. Hence Foy’s lesser salary than Smith’s.
The point that feminists should be making in response — and many are — is that this underlying structure is a problem in itself. It might not be the fault of Netflix that they’ve inherited such a gendered market for leading actors. But it is within their power to do something about it. The very subject of “The Crown” makes it a good start.
This is a woman’s story — sure, a woman in exceptional and privileged circumstances — but a woman who faces extreme versions of questions the rest of us make every day. How do we raise our children and care for our parents? What does female leadership at work look like? Can the men in our lives accept genuinely equal relationships? (Spoiler: Try not to marry Prince Philip.)
By telling stories with female leads, Netflix is already playing a part in shifting the norms of the entertainment industry. Others should follow.
“The Crown” also has exceptional power over star salaries because it replaces its cast regularly. That’s why Mackie’s reassurance that future actresses playing the Queen will receive top pay will be little comfort to Foy. Foy and Smith played the royal couple in the earliest incarnation of their youth, for the first two series. Usually, even an unknown actress can accept a low salary for the first couple of seasons, then ramp up her fee once she’s become indispensable to an ongoing hit.
But “The Crown” is billed as six-season biopic, in which older actors take over the lead roles every two seasons. Olivia Colman has already been announced as the lead actress for seasons 3 and 4 — as one of the UK’s biggest names, she should hardly need to fight for a major check. Foy’s been dropped just when she could have started to name her price.
That’s why Mackie’s response seems so disingenuous — and why feminists in the entertainment industry are particularly angered by Netflix’s abdication of responsibility for the disparity between male and female salaries in their premium show. If they’d been serious about fixing Hollywood’s skewed market, they’d have shown Foy on day one that they valued her at least as much as Smith. That would have had ripple effects for the salary of other actresses across Hollywood.
Yet the reality of that skewed market goes far beyond one series or one production company. If there’s to be serious change, the entertainment industry has to do more to make women the heroines of the world’s stories.
“The Crown’s” most important legacy for women in TV will be the juicy screen time it has given a talented actress, rather than the number of zeroes on her check. Baby steps, but we’re getting there.