No Shame: The Reality of Trying to Make a Living in Culture and the Arts
Fox News and the Daily Mail started yet another round of public shaming when they both published nasty pieces relating to the actor Geoffrey Owens and his side-job as a cashier at Trader Joe’s in Clifton, New Jersey. Other places picked up the story and ran similarly dramatic headlines over Owens’s supposed fall from grace and the supposed indignity of going from The Cosby Show to supermarket work. These stories all overlooked key details, such as Owens’s continuing work on stage and screen as well as his work as a Shakespeare tutor. His IMDb page has three credits for 2018 alone. But that made for a less gasp-inducing headline.
The story spurred on a fury of responses, including many from those in the industry who talked candidly about jobs they took on in-between acting gigs. Some, like Harry Potter actor Chris Rankin, continued ‘normal’ jobs after their big breaks because their financial situations demanded it. Yvette Nicole Brown tweeted about working as an office temp before landing a role on Community, while Justina Machado talked of the jobs she held down even after getting a recurring guest star bit on the highly acclaimed HBO drama Six Feet Under. Stories like these were plentiful and all spoke of the same struggles. Owens taking on some part-time work at Trader Joe’s isn’t a unique tragedy to be turned into public spectacle: It’s a mundane reality of the business.
I had been a working actor for years. Jobs stopped, as they do. I worked in retail. At a flower shop. I passed out flyers. It’s about the work. Work gives you pride and purpose. Your visibility as an actor never goes away. But the money sure does. #geoffreyowens pic.twitter.com/BBzZaBrGBx— Pamela Adlon (@pamelaadlon) September 2, 2018
I’ve been a bin man for a month, a taxi driver, a year behind the bar serving drunks on 3-3am shifts, a receptionist, telesales, leaflet delivery, food packing,flyering…If you want to live a creative life it doesn’t always pay the bills, you do whatever it takes #GeoffreyOwens https://t.co/ojkZ3vPoCH— Charlie Baker (@BakersTweet) September 2, 2018
I love this. 2018 has been my slowest year as a costume designer. I recently PA'd for another designer, doing her store returns so I could pay my bills. No shame. Hollywood is a rough place. #geoffreyowens https://t.co/2HYHiFrvMT— Alison Freer ✂️ (@AlisonVFreer) September 1, 2018
I worked in a Wetherspoons kitchen after being in Harry Potter. I needed a job, no shame in that. And you know what? I really enjoyed it! You do what you need to do and that's nothing to be ashamed of. https://t.co/1RI8sltHMe— Chris Rankin (@chrisrankin) September 1, 2018
First season of Six Feet Under I was a recurring guest star I couldn’t survive on that alone when I couldn’t get other work I hosted at a restaurant I made calls for a business I was a doctors personal assistant . No shame in my game and shame on anyone who thinks there is . https://t.co/JX045hY71U— Justina Machado (@JustinaMachado) September 1, 2018
Owens would later sit down with Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America to respond to the story.
26 years after the "Cosby Show" is off the air, actor Geoffrey Owens responds to job shaming and backlash after a photo of him working at a grocery store was posted online: https://t.co/0wZJnpowI9 pic.twitter.com/z7Xun7CyVw— Good Morning America (@GMA) September 4, 2018
Much of the same contradictory shaming that working actors and people in the arts get can also be found levelled at journalists and critics such as myself who are just trying to carve out a living in a notoriously difficult field. These problems are nothing new. A 2016 study revealed how the average annual wage for British authors was well below the breadline. According to the Guardian in 2015, ‘nearly three-quarters of artists are getting just 37% of the average UK salary from their practice. At £10,000 a year, these artists receive only 66% of the living wage.’ And this isn’t a problem exclusive to unknown names. Hilary Swank admitted in a conversation on Netflix’s Chelsea that she still couldn’t afford health insurance after winning her first Oscar (for a role that paid her $3000).
In a society where workers’ unions are consistently gutted out and undermined by government regulations, living wages are denied, and the bootstraps fetishizing of working three jobs for a hundred hours a week just to make ends meet is considered a worthy ideal, it’s clear that the system is broken for everyone. However, there is a particularly specific malice directed at those who call culture and the arts their industry of choice. This also applies to people writing about such topics full or part-time.
I can only speak of my own experience as a writer who specialises in pop culture, but there is a peculiar attitude levelled at our industry by those who either can’t or won’t understand it. Too many people seem to believe I’m a millionaire akin to Stephen King because writers are supposed to be rich and Carrie Bradshaw could buy all those shoes on one column a week. The assumption of wealth attached to my field as well as the arts is usually a handy justification for others to harass or bully us. Oh, they can take it because they’re rich. It’s okay to be nasty to that jobbing actor on Twitter because their bit part on Westworld means they must have money coming out of their ears. Yet this fantasy of monied employment also comes with judgement over the realities of the job. We’re frequently told that what we do isn’t a ‘real job’, and anyway, why are you asking to be paid for your passion? Surely that’s selling out and that means we can’t trust a word you say.
Artists aren’t just expected to starve: They’re told it’s the ultimate choice, the high price for following your dreams, and one you shouldn’t complain about because everyone with ‘real jobs’ has it that much worse.
As many others before me pointed out, Fox News’s shaming of Owens’s Trader Joe’s job felt especially galling given the network’s fetishistic obsession with the so-called blue-collar culture, something they always pit against the ‘Hollywood liberal elites’. Yet you’ll struggle to find a jobbing actor who isn’t doing some waitressing work on the side. The artists typically hold down office jobs from 9 to 5 then make their work on the off-hours. A huge majority of authors I am friends with, including some bona fide New York Times best-sellers, still work in the jobs they had before getting published. Some of the best critics and film-makers I know are bartenders or janitors or retail staff or a supermarket worker giving it their all. Artists, actors, writers, storytellers: They are blue collar workers. As noted by Justin Baldoni, best known for Jane the Virgin, the majority of actors don’t make enough to qualify for health insurance under SAG rules ($20k a year). Wouldn’t you go to Trader Joe’s too?
The crushing reality of our situation is that work simply does not pay. I love my job but shockingly I don’t get $4 per word as Carrie Bradshaw did when she wrote for Vogue. Freelancers have many side hustles. They’re experts in saving every penny and making hundreds of dishes from chopped tomatoes and frozen vegetables. They’ve got five pitches prepared for every occasion just in case an editor tweets out a call for contributors. They can write tens of thousands of words a week and still need to call a temp agency.
There is zero shame in this, but too frequently we refuse to talk about it. We have to keep up the mystique of comfort because to admit otherwise is immediately coded as defeat. The illusion must be kept up, even if the bills mount up. You can tweet about your latest bit-part on T.V. or an article being published but there’s still the stain of embarrassment that stops you from casually mentioning your eight hour shift at Wetherspoon’s. The more we overlook this reality, the more impenetrable culture and the arts becomes to the working classes and marginalized communities. It’s already tough enough to break through systemic bias without the added costs on top. Eventually, it will get to the point where the only people who can afford to act or write or paint are those living on mummy and daddy’s help. We all suffer when that happens.
The truth is that I, like most people, hate to talk about money. It makes me cringe to even considering opening up about the financial side of my life. I’m a proper adult but money conversations scare me. It’s time we change that, and not just because of Geoffrey Owens. We should confront the often terrifying realities of true economic anxiety, and not just how that term is conveniently used to disguise bigotry. For those of us in the cultural and artistic industries, more work needs to be done in breaking down those barriers of shame that make us embarrassed to admit the true cost of living. Any conversation about increasing the living wage, strengthening workers’ rights and opposing harmful labour practices must include our field. It cannot be shunted to the side as a frivolity unworthy of the title of a ‘real job’.
There is no shame in work, but work should still pay.
Header Image Source: Image of Geoffrey Owens in Lucifer courtesy of Fox.
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