What is Labor, Anyway?

Entertainers work for a living, too.

Michael Schulman has a thoughtful response to an annoying Internet meme: “The Shaming of Geoffrey Owens and the Inability to See Actors as Laborers, Too.”

Not long ago, I was visiting the set of a popular TV show for a story and recognized an actor who was there shooting a guest spot. I remembered Geoffrey Owens not from “The Cosby Show,” on which he played Elvin Tibideaux for five seasons, but from my sophomore year at Yale, where he was teaching undergraduate acting. Owens, the son of the former U.S. congressman Major Owens, had himself graduated cum laude from Yale, in 1983, and has since taught at Primary Stages and Columbia University. He’s also been on Broadway—most recently in 2013, in “Romeo and Juliet”—and on prestige TV shows such as “The Affair.”

In other words, Owens is what we think of as a successful working actor: known but not a “celebrity,” with an IMDb page that rarely skips a year. Apparently, that’s why a woman shopping at Trader Joe’s last week, in Clifton, New Jersey, was so jarred to see Owens bagging groceries that she snapped his photo and sent it to the Daily Mail, which ran the headline, “From learning lines to serving the long line!” Fox News picked up the story, and on Saturday a Twitter storm erupted—most of it shaming Fox News for shaming Owens for working for a living. “So, 26 years after one TV job, this guy looks differently (shock) and is earning an honest living at a Trader Joe’s. The people taking his picture and passing judgment are trash,” the actor Justine Bateman tweeted. The editor Max Weiss wrote, “RT if you think Geoffrey Owens took a much more honorable path in his life than Bill Cosby.” Even Dana Loesch, the N.R.A. spokeswoman, weighed in: “I hate stories like this. He’s a man working hard, there’s shame in publishing this story but not in this man’s job.”

While I hadn’t clicked through to any of the actual stories, I’d seen various reactions to it on Twitter and Facebook. Not having followed Owens’ post-Cosby career, my reaction to the reactions was pretty much Bateman’s: the man had a recurring gig on one of the most successful TV shows in history; there’s no shame in not being able to sustain that success.

But, as the essay’s title suggests, Schulman has a broader point:

As egregious as the story was, it was a fitting subject going into Labor Day weekend. We don’t tend to think of actors as laborers, despite the robust unions that represent them—Actors’ Equity and sag-aftra. The most visible actors serve as aspirational figures, celebrated (or vilified) for their glamour and luxury. When we do hear about salaries, even in the context of gender discrimination, it’s often in the million-dollar range. As plenty of people pointed out on social media, conservative outlets like Fox paint Hollywood actors as coastal élites, out of touch with working Americans, only to turn around and “expose” one of them for earning a paycheck. There was, of course, a racial element as well, which the writer Mark Harris described as a subtext that begins “See? Even when you give them every opportunity, they still end up. . . .” One wonders if Owens would have drawn any attention if he’d been spotted working as a coal miner or some other “salt-of-the-earth” job thought of as honorable and manly, rather than in a “softer” form of labor that is itself suffering from what The Atlantic called “The Silent Crisis of Retail Employment.”

Actors have long been part of the gig economy. Roles and benefits come and go unpredictably. Side jobs with flexible hours are a fact of life. The performers I know have been office managers, S.A.T. tutors, dog-walkers, P.R. assistants, financial advisers, and, of course, waiters. One actor friend is learning calligraphy so she can start her own business. A comedian I know used to wait tables at a restaurant uptown, but she wouldn’t tell her friends which one it was, for fear of being caught in the act of working. Even when roles do come along, they can be a financial strain. One friend of mine was recently in a sold-out Off Broadway show that was critically acclaimed and extended twice, for which she earned a starting salary of five hundred and six dollars a week. Most non-performers think of the struggling-actor life as a temporary pit stop on the road to fame and fortune, but name recognition isn’t a retirement plan. It’s worth pointing out, too, that Owens is also a victim of Bill Cosby, with residual checks presumably drying up now that broadcasters are pulling “The Cosby Show” from syndication.

Leaving aside the absurdity of Every. Single. Thing. being seen through the lens of Donald Trump and the current political scene, it’s an interesting point. While I’ve long been aware that the vast majority of people in the entertainment industry fail to “make it big,” or even “make it” at all, I don’t think of them as laborers. Indeed, even though I know that those who do succeed at the highest levels often work under arduous conditions for long hours, I tend not to think of them as having a “real job.” That’s true of actors and singers but also professional athletes and fashion models.

The Owens flareup came just three days after another actor had to explain the economics of the performing life. At the New York gubernatorial debate last Wednesday, Andrew Cuomo called Cynthia Nixon a “corporate donor” and accused her of calling in favors with the mayor’s office. “You are a corporation,” he repeated again and again. (He was talking about Nixon’s request that helicopters not fly over Shakespeare in the Park performances—an obvious public good. She also maintained that she has never made political donations through her corporation.) When Cuomo returned to the subject later, insinuating that Nixon was taking advantage of tax loopholes, she explained: “Having a corporation is something that actors have all the time. It’s like being a small-business owner or a freelance worker.” She also denied media reports that she was worth “tens of millions of dollars,” when the moderator asked her, on the spot, if she would forego the governor’s salary. (She said yes.)

Surely Nixon lives a comfortable life, but the focus on her personal wealth—and not Cuomo’s—implies some privilege over and above the work that she’s done as an actor. By undervaluing the labor of creative professions, we put artists in a double bind: their artistic work isn’t seen as work, but it’s also assumed to be so lucrative that any non-acting job they might pursue is suspect. Geoffrey Owens and Cynthia Nixon both became famous after starring on beloved sitcoms, which means that their work had value for millions of people. And yet we can’t help making presumptions about their bank accounts, as if acting is less a career than a ticket to dreamland.

I hadn’t heard about that particular Nixon-Cuomo dustup. I must admit that it’s rather rich for someone whose path was made so much easier by a famous father to be playing to the “pampered elitist” card in this way. The “you’re a corporation” and “corporate donor” lines of attack just come across as moronic.

I have mixed feelings about the rest. Nixon is right that, in her previous line of work, she was essentially a freelancer. But I’m dubious that her acting career has prepared her to be chief executive of a major state. Running her career isn’t analogous to running a major corporation, for example. It’s true that Ronald Reagan went from an arguably less successful acting career than Nixon’s to become governor of California. But he’d at least had years of experience as president of the Screen Actors Guild and as a prominent political activist. And it was half a century ago.

Otherwise, I agree that Nixon and Owens’ “work had value for millions of people.” I don’t begrudge them whatever financial success that came with it. (That’s less true with, say, the Kardashians, who seem to be famous mostly for being famous.) But there is a certain “ticket to dreamland” quality to the endeavor. There are surely more talented actors out there who never, for whatever reason, got the shot that Nixon and Owens did.

Schulman concludes,

Perhaps it’s time to stop differentiating what kind of work we think is “real”—whether it’s acting, bagging groceries, writing (hi!), governing a state, or tilling the fields—and start valuing hard work in whatever form it comes.

I’ve long found the notion that those of us make our living doing intellectual tasks are somehow not part of the “working class” annoying. But it’s just easier for most people to understand why operating a jackhammer or laying bricks all day is hard work. It’s all the harder to think of sitcom stars and supermodels as “labor.”

Indeed, I think that’s true for most people even in the industry. One of the recurring themes on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” series is the host’s poo-pooing his interlocutors’ notion that their success is somehow undeserved. Seinfeld constantly points out just how hard it is to write a good joke and get people to laugh.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Entertainment
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Sometimes I look up actors in wikipedia because I know their names but can’t remember where from. I check their filmography and usually find the film I remember them from. It would be easy to look at all the stinkers they have partaken in and make fun of them for not knowing a good role from a bad role but the fact is most are given the choice of bad roles or no roles at all 9with a good one coming along every now and again). It has been said that Samuel L Jackson’s films have the highest earnings in total of all actors working today. I have no idea if this is actually true, but looking at his filmography it is obvious that the man never stops working. Good roles, bad roles, he keeps at it.

    Rare are the actors who can actually pick from the bad ones the few good roles that come their way. I am sure SLJ could be a little more picky, but I suspect he has too much fun when acting and would rather not sit at home waiting for that perfect role to come along.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    (Sidenote: I appreciate seeing a post that is not about the latest outrage of the day)

    I suspect acting is a lot like baseball. Those at the top make major money, and even those that regularly appear with them probably make a solid, six figure living. But those in the equivalent of AAA ball give up an awful lot in order to pursue what they love. And those in AA, well, that’s just unsustainable without someone else supporting them.

    Tiffany Hadish, who is on fire right now, had her big break last year in the movie “Girls Trip”. It was a buddy film with four “equal” parts played by Hadish, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Regina Hall. You can bet that there was a spread of at least two zeroes on their various earnings. In fact, Hadish has an absolutely hysterical interview on Kimmel where she describes what happens when her on-set world of $20/day rental cars and Groupon swamp tours more or less crashes into Jada and Will Smith’s somewhat different lifestyle when one of them is shooting a movie. If you haven’t seen it, you should. She’s heading two movies about to come out and this interview is the reason why. It’s funny, yes, but I also get the feeling she’s doing a little schooling to all of us on the realities of acting life. When the movie became a breakaway hit and she ended up hosting SNL and her monolog touched on this reality in multiple ways. She talked about how much money the movie had made but she hadn’t seen any of it. She talked about googling herself and seeing that she was supposedly worth $2M but wanted to know where it was. She talked about growing up in foster care in East LA (and thanked everyone who paid taxes between 1990 and 1999 because she wouldn’t be there without them.) And she talked about the dress she was wearing. She bought it for the Oscars and it cost $4K and she wore it on the red carpet and everyone told her it was absolutely taboo to wear it again on SNL, but she didn’t care, this dress cost more than her mortgage and she was going to wear it “multiple times”.

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  3. Kathy says:

    Making up a good joke is easy. Making up hundreds of good jokes every year is not.

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  4. Scott says:

    I have several members of my family who went to NY to break into an acting career. Some did some acting gigs, some off-off Broadway plays, one even went as lead in a small play at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. However, none of it led to a bill paying career. Eventually, they moved into other professions such as restaurant and store management, etc. To the rest of the family is admiration in the trying. That is what your 20s is all about. And no shame. Thank goodness.

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  5. Kylopod says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: It’s interesting you bring up Jackson. Before his rise to stardom in Pulp Fiction, he took a lot of thankless bit parts in movies like Coming to America and Goodfellas. (The first time I saw Pulp Fiction, which came out when I was in my teens, I thought of him as “the guy imitating Danny Glover in Loaded Weapon 1.” Many of his earlier roles I didn’t see till later, with a lot of “Hey look! There’s Sam Jackson!” moments.) This is common with a lot of movie stars: when you go back to their pre-stardom roles you find them doing basically drudgery. It’s not because they were choosing bad roles, it’s because that was all they were being offered. There are the occasional lucky few who become instant stars in their first movie appearance. Most of them, though, have to work their way up the ladder.

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  6. SenyorDave says:

    One of my favorite lines that makes the point that acting is a job came from Sir Michael Caine, one of my favorite actors:

    “I have never seen it,” he once said of Jaws: The Revenge (1987), in which he took a supporting role, “but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

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  7. Kathy says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    It would be easy to look at all the stinkers they have partaken in and make fun of them for not knowing a good role from a bad role but the fact is most are given the choice of bad roles or no roles at all

    If I may add to that, often it’s not easy to tell a good role from a bad one. For one thing, a given actor may not know the genre they’re filming, and whether their character is good or bad in that context. For another, the script an actor reads may only be distantly related to the finished product.

    No one sets out to do a bad movie or to write a bad role. But with so many movies made, and so many people involved in each, bad movies and bad roles are inevitable.

    And so are good movies that pass under the radar on release, and don’t get an audience until later on (if ever). Exhibit A. The Shawshank Redemption (IMO, one of the best movies ever made)

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  8. Scott F. says:

    As a former Actor’s Equity stage manager, I can attest that a view of acting that ends with TV, movies or even Broadway misses a whole universe of theater workers who labor every bit as much as anyone in an office building or a factory. The audience sees the actors (who work much harder than outsiders can see to put the written word on the stage), but also behind the curtain there are stagehands, electricians, designers, directors, costumers and stage managers all putting in long, long hours to make the magic happen.

    And a view of musicians that ends with the radio and large concert stages would not know the calculus of choosing a career in music either. Most don’t know that if one considers the number of highly trained and skilled candidates against the number of career sustaining positions in their field, it is statistically harder to get into a professional orchestra in the US than it is to get into the NFL.

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  9. As I’ve noted on social media, the fact that people are calling out this guy as the person from The Cosby Show worthy of being shamed is, given what happened to Cosby himself, rather ironic.

    Additionally, it’s worth noting that but for Cosby doing what he did the show would still be in syndication and Owens would be getting at least some income from that.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.:

    . . . behind the curtain there are stagehands, electricians, designers, directors, costumers and stage managers all putting in long, long hours to make the magic happen.

    I think we’re all at least vaguely aware of that. Hell, it takes 15 minutes to get to the bonus scene in an Avengers movie because the credits are so long! But they’re a different animal entirely: most of us think of those people are workers in a way we don’t movie stars.

    @Scott F.:

    Most don’t know that if one considers the number of highly trained and skilled candidates against the number of career sustaining positions in their field, it is statistically harder to get into a professional orchestra in the US than it is to get into the NFL.

    I don’t know how meaningful a statistical comparison that would be in that it depends on what the relative comparison pool is. There are certainly more orchestra gigs than the 1728 roster spots on the 32 NFL teams (2048 if you count the low-paying gigs on the newly-expanded practice squads). But I don’t know how you’re defining “highly trained and skilled.” A lot of people play college ball; far more play at the high school level.

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  11. R. Dave says:

    As a side note, I have to say that I’m always amazed that people are able to recognize celebrities so long after they’ve left the public eye. I don’t know if I’m somewhat “face-blind” or something, but I rarely even recognize celebrities that are currently active when I’ve encountered them in real life. There’s no way I would ever have recognized some guy from a show I watched back in the 80s.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    Apparently, that’s why a woman shopping at Trader Joe’s last week, in Clifton, New Jersey, was so jarred to see Owens bagging groceries that she snapped his photo and sent it to the Daily Mail, which ran the headline, “From learning lines to serving the long line!”

    Bagging groceries is fine work.

    Had Owens had a side business as a financial planner or something, it would have been the same story but without the meanness and negativity. “He’s not just an actor, he’s smart too!”

    There are people who hate blue collar workers in this country. A lot of people. And they sicken me.

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  13. Grewgills says:

    @R. Dave:
    Yeah, I was terrible at that as well. I had a brief stint in production and some in post. I would go to parties and after the fact my roommate would tell me who I had been talking to for half the night. Usually it ended up being a B list WB or CW star, occasionally it was someone more well known, but unfailingly I would not recognize them. That might explain why they stayed in long involved conversations with me, my cluelessness.

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  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @SenyorDave: Patrick Stewart has a similar story. In a talk show interview the host noted that he had a part in a terrible slasher movie (don’t know the name of it) and was asked why he took the part. He replied that a storm had just blown out a picture window in his home and he was short of funds to replace it. His agent called with an offer of a terrible horror/slasher movie and would he consider doing it. He reports that he asked what the movie paid and told his agent if they would cut a check for $5000 (the cost of the window replacement) up front, he would take the role.

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  15. DrDaveT says:

    While I’ve long been aware that the vast majority of people in the entertainment industry fail to “make it big,” or even “make it” at all, I don’t think of them as laborers.

    Again, James, this seems to say more about you than it does about them or their work.

    The distinction between labor and ownership is a very bright line — do you get a salary that is independent of revenue, or do you get a share of revenue or profits? Some of the highest-profile actors are in fact not labor — they get a cut of the profits, or (if they’re smart and have the leverage) of the revenue.

    The evisceration of the labor movement in America is one of the driving forces behind the alienation of blue collar workers in red states. Big Labor is not innocent in this, but that doesn’t change the harm to the nation that has been done. If you think Conservatives and Liberals are frustrated by this, you should find a genuine Communist somewhere and interview them about their reaction to the fact that revolution of the proletariat has taken the form of voting a solipsist plutocrat into power, and continuing to support him.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Again, James, this seems to say more about you than it does about them or their work.

    Well, sure. That’s really the point of both Schulman’s column and the OP. We think of some hard-workers as “labor” and others as something else, mostly depending on how glamorous and lucrative the jobs are at the high end.

    The distinction between labor and ownership is a very bright line — do you get a salary that is independent of revenue, or do you get a share of revenue or profits?

    Okay. But we don’t think of LeBron James in the same way we do the folks who sell ice cold Budweiser at the arena.

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  17. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    Okay. But we don’t think of LeBron James in the same way we do the folks who sell ice cold Budweiser at the arena.

    The problem is not how you think of LeBron; it’s that you transfer how you think of LeBron to the entire category “professional athlete”, rather than thinking of (say) David Chester, who is much more typical of the profession.

    LeBron is a unique talent, like a Pavarotti or a Picasso, and is paid accordingly. (Well, almost accordingly — his salary is actually artificially low, thanks to the courts’ historical unwillingness to apply antitrust law to sports leagues’ salary caps and such.) “Labor” typically refers to a working class whose skills are much more fungible — of whom there are many in all of the entertainment industries, including professional sports.

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