Monday, February 18

Second Take: Jessica Chastain is a model for positive change in Hollywood

(Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

(Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Solidarity is only meaningful if it’s backed up with action.

Over the past few months, countless celebrities have stood in solidarity to bring awareness to a variety of issues within Hollywood, ranging from sexual harassment and assault to lack of representation and equal pay. Most recently, celebrities walked the Golden Globe Awards’ red carpet wearing black as a sign of protest, donning Time’s Up pins on dresses and lapels.

But to lend meaning to the celebrity promises delivered in interviews and on red carpets, advocacy has to be more than just a fashionable accessory. While some stars certainly fall short, people like Jessica Chastain exemplify the kind of action that is needed to help create lasting and tangible change in Hollywood.

At a recent Sundance Film Festival panel titled “Women Breaking Barriers,” Octavia Spencer shared a story of Chastain’s solidarity. Universal Studios recently announced it had acquired the rights to an untitled pitch from Chastain’s production company, a holiday comedy starring Chastain and Spencer. When Chastain first approached Spencer about the film, Chastain emphasized the importance of pay equity. Spencer agreed, but pointed out women of color often make less than white women.

Chastain was silent as Spencer told her this, listening as Spencer explained the process and numbers. Chastain supported Spencer and together, they advocated for a favored nations deal.

The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists website defines a favored nations deal as “an industry term which means you are getting equal contractual treatment to others on the project – billing, accommodations, and any other contractual provision.” Spencer then announced that because the two stood together, they were getting paid five times the amount of money they had requested. During the panel, as she struggled to hold back tears, Spencer said, “I love that woman because she’s walking the walk and she’s actually talking the talk.”

The story is heartening, particularly because Chastain seemed to acknowledge Spencer’s position of vulnerability as a woman of color and used her own privilege to ensure equality for her co-star. Chastain also “walked the walk” in a setting that lacked visibility. It was Spencer who told the story, and Chastain has yet to even comment on the negotiations.

Chastain is a relevant figure in terms of the evolving standard for celebrities in Hollywood. She’s been a vocal proponent for female representation, as well as a notable supporter of the Time’s Up coalition. While presenting the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical to Saoirse Ronan, Chastain dryly referenced pay disparity, saying, “The winner of this category will also receive the 23 percent of her salary that went missing in the wage gap.”

Perhaps even more striking than Chastain’s track record as an activist was her response in the face of controversy at the end of last year. The actress faced backlash for participating in a photo shoot about the future of women in Hollywood that failed to include any women of color. Instead of avoiding questions or making excuses, Chastain took the incident in her stride, acknowledging the photo shoot was unacceptable and using it as an opportunity to ask people to tweet about films that put women of color in the spotlight.

Chastain clearly understands the power she wields as a white woman in Hollywood and has used it to both increase the visibility of films featuring women of color and to help support Spencer through the negotiations. Understanding the role white women play and the privileges that separate them from women of color is crucial, particularly because it’s a more nuanced version of feminism many people are not able and willing to comprehend.

It would have been very easy for a successful white actress like Chastain to simply show up for the photo ops and say the right things on the red carpet, while still reaping the benefits of being a so-called activist. Lena Dunham, who made problematic comments regarding allegations against a writer-producer of her show, has been accused of using the movement to her advantage, showing up for a public Time’s Up event covered by the press and being photographed without participating in the private work leading up to it.

But Spencer’s story makes it clear that Chastain’s words are reflective of a desire to truly enact change and to take distinct steps to get there, not just to be photographed and reported on in a favorable light.

As Jada Pinkett Smith said when discussing Chastain’s actions at a recent panel about diversity and perspective in Hollywood, “It’s nice to go out and march; we can do that. It’s nice to wear black to the Golden Globes. It’s nice to do that, but what are we doing behind closed doors?”

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