Clickbait title… #drink… But I couldn’t think of anything snappier that got the point across.
Yes, Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch are paid less to star in The Big Bang Theory than the rest of the cast, and that’s about to change, it seems, thanks to a fairly honourable decision by the rest to take pay cuts to finance this.
Yay for gender equality!
Or not… as people insist on saying, because being paid less has nothing to do with them being women.
Except it does. Really, it does. Just not in the way you think. No one in a studio has sat and said “they’re women, they don’t deserve better pay”. Precious few people think that, thankfully, so if that’s your impression when you hear some feminazi whine like a harpy about the wage gap, you’re just wrong. The actual reason is a bit more nuanced and complex than that.
To my regular readers – all 0.78 of you – the reason I’m about to go into won’t actually be shocking. In fact, it should be fairly trivial and obvious. Everyone else, though, this may take a bit of thought and processing.
First, I should say that I… like The Big Bang Theory, I suppose. I watch it, find it funny, and that’s it. It don’t roll around the floor like the studio audience does and it hasn’t changed my life and I don’t eagerly await each new episode as if it’s the ejaculate of Christ himself, nor do I froth at the mouth every time it’s mentioned, feeling the need to take to the internet to proclaim my dismay that it’s still a thing. That’s allowed, you know. All I’m trying to say is that, unlike most other people who are bone-crunchingly critical of it, I actually bother to watch it.
Let’s go through the non-gender reasons for why two actors would be paid less than the rest of the cast in any particular TV show, and break them down for this show in particular.
- They’re not in the main cast. This is no longer true, Bialik and Rauch have been full-time main cast and not supporting/recurring for some time.
- They’re main cast, but not as important to the story. Also no-longer true. Since they finally painlessly euthanized the aged and decrepit will-they-won’t-they between Penny and Leonard, Amy and Bernadette are pretty much the only characters given any real plot or development any more. Good for them.
- They’re main cast, and important, but not as good. Oh, please. You’ve watched this, right? No, of course you haven’t.
- They’re main cast, important, and good at it, but haven’t been in it as long. Yep, there we go.
And that’s where the train of logic and reason ends for a large bunch of people. All is fair, they claim, because these two haven’t been in the show as long. And you know what? That is very much valid as a reason. It wouldn’t be practical, nor expected, that they’d be paid on par with Jim Parsons after a few weeks on the show.
However, it is a bit of a stretch to use this as the only reason, since Bialik and Rauch have been in the show longer than they haven’t. In fact, I think they’ve been main cast in the show for longer than they haven’t been in it and were only recurring. And it would be an extreme stretch to justify the absolute magnitude of the pay disparity between them considering their position in the cast and that the entire show now pivots around them as much as it does with the others.
Now we need to go into why they haven’t been in it as long as the other five actors. For this, we need to fly back to 2007 when I was a pesky project student, the worst we had to worry about was Sarah Palin, and The Big Bang Theory first started.
The show began as a pretty troperific sitcom about standard nerds-who-can’t-get-dates and the hot blonde that moved in next door. I don’t want to go into how tired that trope was even by 2007, but my main point is that out of five central characters, only one was female. The entire cast was systematically one-sided to favour male leads from the start. This is important to realise, although right now I can hear the cogs working in your brain screaming out “beta cuck mangina feminazi snowflake”.
In the grand scheme of things (we’re on double-digits of seasons now), this state of affairs didn’t last very long. Two women were added way back in season 3 and gradually made into main characters. Although the show’s had/has a remarkable habit of tossing interesting women aside quite quickly, these two stuck around and helped balance out the utter sausage-fest that was the first 2-3 years.
Their introduction wasn’t perfect, by any means. They were presented as two competent (by TBBT’s lax health & safety standards) and passionate scientists, and have often been allowed to be funny in their own right – but they still fell into the usual sitcom trope of the nagging, disapproving wife/girlfriend. They’re in with the science, but look down on the nerd-culture aspects of TBBT because girls simply aren’t allowed to be into cosplay, comics, superheroes or Star Trek Wars. (note: my ‘Standard Nerds’ friends list on Facebook is predominantly female) They were also underused when it came to making any kind of commentary on women and science in society; there was a brief flirtation with asking whether women in science could also be considered sexy , in addition to intellectual, but this important commentary came a couple of years too late to the party and was brushed aside quickly by the writers who clearly were out of their depth in addressing social context. (If you think that’s a weird thing for me to want to see, note that the sexuality of the male characters informs much of the founding premise of the show), Despite these flaws, on balance, Amy Farrah Fowler and Bernadette Rostenkowski are probably a net-positive contribution to the world of televised fiction for both women and science.
Yet there was absolutely no place for them at all for the first few years of the show. If the casting call went out, it would have been four reasonably developed male leads with backgrounds, ambitions and personalities and one girl that must be hot. If ten people auditioned with an equal 50:50 gender split, then one man would have been disappointed, but four women would have been.
This is what we mean when we talk about various -isms being systematic. The system was built up to disadvantage them in the first place. There’s actually no route that Bialik and Rauch could have taken for them to satisfy the criteria of being on the show for as long as the other cast. Even if they hopped into a time machine to get their past selves to audition for the first season, their gender would have systematically and significantly lowered the probability of them landing a leading role. Which is the point.
More broadly, since there is more to life than one sitcom, there are fewer leading, well-paid roles available for women. When they open up in later seasons of a show, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to stick around and build themselves up to the same level as the initial cast.
Since the opportunities are fewer, and the availability to progress is lower, this manifests as a major disparity in pay between men and women. Yes, women do take on roles that are lower paid, but that explains the existence of a tangible wage gap in the same way that “because it’s in orbit” explains why the Earth goes around the sun – it’s a tautology that fails a test any four year-old could administer by saying “….why?“.
Of course, immediately people are going to lash out and scream “but there are other shows with leading women!!” and probably mention Two Broke Girls (I don’t watch it, so have no opinion on it, I assume from the title that there’s at least two female leads) or something. Yet actual studies show this holds to be true systematically – with fewer roles made available to women who aren’t 20-something and hot, fewer in leading positions and fewer with opportunities to earn as much as male leads. This situation is gradually improving, at least. There are more roles coming out and more opportunities now than there were even a decade ago. Although people are still steadfast against accepting this incredibly basic statistical argument coupled to a simple logical syllogism; if all was equal, we wouldn’t see a broad discrepancy, we see a broad discrepancy, so all can’t be equal.
Have shows, movies and games with female leads been less successful? Yeah, pretty much. Is it because they’re objectively worse forms of art? Why is that? Is it because only novice writers get to make them? Is it because they’re given low budgets because studios and publishers consider them a risk? Is it because they lack the publicity and marketing budgets to ensure their success? Is it because society will outright reject them because of conditioning? Or is it because women are literally worse at everything so either belong in the kitchen or deserve unequal representation in fiction?
Those are questions that are worth asking, and worth discussing. And, to be honest, I don’t particularly mind if you do think that “yes, women are shit and unfunny so don’t deserve to be well-paid to appear in a comedy” – because that’s at least a reason, and not a flat-out denial like “it has nothing to do with gender”.
Addendum: as, generally, a skepticism/rationalism blog – I think, what is my subject, again? – undoubtedly someone is going to bring up Bialik’s vaccine stance or her attachment-parenting thing. Great. But that’s not for here. Go find another blog that is hosting that discussion right now if you need to say it.