Film & TV

Celebrity Activists Do Not Help

Michelle Williams at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)
Treating movie stars and farmworkers as a single category probably will not redound to the benefit of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized.

Michelle Williams, an actress, has decided to become a spokesman on the issue of pay inequality in her profession, and appears this month on the cover of Vanity Fair with a headline to that effect.

This decision follows what she describes as a humiliating episode in which she learned in the pages of USA Today that while she had been paid a measly $80 per diem to go to London and Rome to reshoot scenes for a film she was in, her co-star, Mark Wahlberg, had received $1.5 million for the same work.

The film was All the Money in the World. Poetic, that.

The reshoots had been made necessary by the filmmakers’ decision to substitute Christopher Plummer for Kevin Spacey after the latter was accused by actor Anthony Rapp of having sexually assaulted him — when Rapp was 14 years old. Williams tells Vanity Fair that she didn’t think much about her payment for the reshoots because she “wanted to do the right thing” for Rapp. Wahlberg, who doesn’t get out of bed for less than $1 million, eventually donated his pay to Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, an activist organization concerned with sexual harassment, exploitation, and assault in the workplace.

My first thought on hearing this story was: Michelle Williams needs better representation. As it turns out, she and Wahlberg are represented by the same agency, William Morris Endeavor, which, no doubt embarrassed by the episode, donated $500,000 to the same cause.

Michelle Williams’s homily on inequality was sponsored by (in order) Hermès, Dior, Prada, Gucci, Rolex, Saint Laurent, Miu Miu (a subsidiary of Prada), Bulgari, Lancôme, Bottega Veneta, Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Moncler, Valentino, MaxMara, L’Oréal, Salvatore Farragamo, Kate Spade, Mastercard Black Card, L’Oréal again, and Movado — and all that before Vanity Fair’s table of contents: a rarefied perspective on inequality, to be sure. The cover itself has been the subject of some controversy not because of its political message but because it is, in effect, an advertisement for Louis Vuitton: Williams is a compensated representative of the French luxury brand, and she wears a Vuitton outfit on the cover, which is composed in the style of recent Vuitton ads — no surprise, as the New York Times observes, because the cover was shot by Collier Schorr, the photographer shooting the current Vuitton campaign.

Vanity Fair’s September cover sells something,” the Times writes. “And not only what it says.”

One of the things it sells is unarticulated assumptions.

It is the case that men often earn more than women in similar occupations at similar firms. It is also the case that men and women have, on average, very different employment outcomes on other fronts, too, not all of which come with an obvious moral point: Women, for example, change jobs more frequently than men do. (Millennials also change jobs more frequently than their elders.) Women are more likely to interrupt their careers or otherwise adjust their employment in order to care for children or to meet other family needs. Women’s work-force-participation rate has been declining since its peak in 1999. They may or may not ask for raises as often as men, but, in any case, they are modestly but significantly less likely to secure them, successful about 15 percent of the time compared to men’s 20 percent. (Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor, has reintroduced the importance of “agreeableness,” one of the so-called Big Five personality traits, to the public discourse.) Women work fewer hours on average, and they are more heavily represented in relatively low-paying fields such as nonprofit work.

Any one of those outcomes could be interpreted a number of different ways. If it is the case that women work fewer hours because they choose to, then that is one thing; if it is the case that they work fewer hours because discriminatory managers assign extra hours to their male counterparts, then that is another thing. If women sometimes short-change their employment because living in a free and prosperous society gives them the opportunity to invest more of their time in family life in accord with their own preferences, then that is one thing; if women sometimes short-change their employment because unfair expectations about their role in child-rearing pressure them into accepting outcomes that they otherwise would not, then that is another thing. If you are an activist with a very strong prior commitment to finding sexism and discrimination everywhere you look, then some of the data will support that. If you are an activist with a very strong prior commitment to finding other explanations for these outcomes, then some of the data will support that, too. It may be impossible for us mere mortals to view reality as such free from the filters of our own experience and the blinders of our tribal loyalties, but we can do ourselves (and, if we are journalists, our readers) a favor by being mindful of those distortions, and by being open to accountings of the facts that are different from the ones toward which we instinctively lurch.

Michelle Williams has made a point, no doubt with the best of intentions, to reach out to organizations representing women in less glamorous occupations, farmworkers prominent among them, in the interests of solidarity. Vanity Fair does not put destitute women from Michoacán employed as vegetable-packers in California on its cover. That kind of social-justice activism doesn’t sell very many Prada handbags. Of course, Williams and her fellow celebrity activists also make an unstated assumption here, too: that the situation of women in Hollywood is in the same category of things as the situation of women in Michoacán, that the underlying social and economic forces that shape the condition of each set of women are in some way similar. That is a very large and critical assumption, one that is given very little consideration in the popular discourse. No doubt the farmworkers’ organizations are happy to have help from celebrities in popularizing and publicizing their cause. Whether Michelle Williams is in a special position to undertake that project because of her work experience and the presumable configuration of her genitals — rather than because of the brute fact of her fame — is a question that is almost never asked.

Public policy is made by elites, and elites exert a disproportionate influence on the discourse that helps to shape public policy. And elites are, like any other social group, principally fascinated by themselves. (Journalists love to write about their own business, and there are too many novels about novelists to count.) The biases ensured by that distort our discourse (and our policy agenda) in ways that are sometimes comical. For reasons of historical coincidence, this country has been gripped on three separate occasions by the question of admissions standards at the University of Texas (my alma mater) and the role of race in its admissions decisions.

The case of Sweatt v. Painter spelled the end of the doctrine of “separate but equal,” Hopwood v. Texas challenged the use of race in admissions decisions on affirmative-action grounds, and the Fisher cases saw the Supreme Court granting the university license for racial discrimination. Hopwood had to do with the law school, currently ranked No. 15 by US News, and, at heart, the furor over its diversity policies is a question about whether a particular UT law-school candidate right at the margin might have to take one step down, all the way to . . . UCLA. Or, perhaps, take one step up the rankings to Georgetown. The hardworking and gifted high-fliers in Georgetown/UT/UCLA law-school territory are going to be, for the most part, just fine. They are among the demographics about whom we probably should be worrying the least.

On the other hand, a third of the black students in Detroit’s public schools drop out without graduating. The graduation rate for white students in New York City’s public schools is 20 points higher than the rate for black students. Fewer than half of the students in the District of Columbia’s public and magnet schools graduate within five years, according to a 2015 study, and not one in ten earns a college degree or postsecondary certificate.

There are important questions about the admissions practices of elite universities: It does matter that many of them discriminate against Asian-Americans, just as it is true that the average African-American high-school student has less in the way of resources and support than does the average white high-school student. But what happens at UT law — or at Harvard — has nothing to do with the average student of any race. The black applicant who might go to Princeton or get stuck going to the University of Chicago or Yale instead is part of a vanishingly small demographic whose members typically have more much in common with one another across racial lines than they have in common with high-school dropouts or community-college students of their own race. We may tell ourselves that the quest for racial justice encompasses both diversity policies at Amherst and dropout rates in Cleveland, but that kind of retreat into distant generality is of no use at all when it comes to the question of dealing with real-world problems in a real-world fashion.

In the same way, understanding the case of Michelle Williams probably does not tell us very much at all about the economic and social situation of women who are not movie stars, who do not have the option of simply choosing work with radically higher compensation — Williams is making a foray into superhero movies — when doing so feels needful. Treating the movie stars and farmworkers as a single category or continuum of related social conditions and economic forces is an error, and one that probably will not redound to the benefit of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. The recent round of much-needed soul-searching in Hollywood already has changed the way in which the entertainment business does business. Farm work is still farm work.

It is fashionable to talk about “empathy,” which is a literary device, not a virtue or a moral heuristic. Bill Clinton’s famous “I feel your pain” was formulated to serve the interests of a very small demographic, one consisting entirely of Bill Clinton. It is not sufficient for celebrity activists to say that they care about x, y, or z — it is not sufficient for them to genuinely care, either. And it probably does not matter much whether they do. Genuine good will is not something to hold in contempt, even when it comes from silly people who are lecturing the great wide world from behind a wall of Gucci advertisements, but that kind of sentiment is not as useful as we imagine it is. The ability it takes to sell Louis Vuitton products is rare and profitable and, in the wider scheme of things outside of the gilded precincts of Vanity Fair’s stylishly documented interests, of very little consequence.

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