#52: The X-Files Sexism Debate

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #52, on the subject of The X-Files Sexism Debate.

A few days ago I published mark Joseph “young” web log post #49:  Duchovny, Anderson, Sexism, and the Free Market.  It created quite a stir on an IMDB thread where I had announced it, and it seemed that I should provide some kind of response–but the sheer volume of the posts there (which has undoubtedly grown since I wrote this) made it difficult to provide a comprehensive and orderly reply there, so I am writing another post here to address it.

Early in my writing career I learned two important truths that all aspiring writers need to grasp.

First, you are much more likely to hear from those who disagree with you or do not like what you are writing than from those who agree.  As long as you are “preaching to the choir” the choir will nod quietly and let you speak uninterrupted.  Get a few objectors in your audience, and you will hear the objections.  This is good, really.  Those negative responses are valuable.  Some of them are valuable because they give you insight into opposing views; others are valuable because they clearly misunderstood what you were saying, and so may indicate that you need to communicate your points better.  It may be that both of these benefits acrue to me from the comments posted, and for this I am grateful.  Thank you.

Second, there will always be people who will criticize what you wrote without having read it.  They will base their opinion on a title, or a comment from another reader, or their expectations of what you are likely to have said based on such information as they have obtained about you.  My advice is to ignore these people.  Gradually others will realize what their opinions are worth, and arguing with them will not help your position in the least–they do not know and do not care what you are saying, only what they have already concluded regarding what they think you meant.


The objections began with someone self-identified as alphabase17, who seemed to think that by asserting that the action of the producers was not sexist I was denying the existence of sexism in the world.  Perhaps I was unclear.  My point was actually that the sexism that was reflected in the situation was actually “in the world”, not in the producers.  Assuming arguendo that the facts are as they have been presented (more on that in a moment), the reason male actors are offered more than female actors is not because Hollywood producers are prejudiced, but because viewers are.  Both men and women want more to see male leads in their films and television shows, and so Hollywood produces more shows with male leads.  Over the decades as shows with female leads became more popular, more such shows were produced–but it is ratings that drive television, and the decision concerning what to pay an actor is ultimately a bottom-line decision:  will having this actor sell enough soap to pay that salary and still turn a profit?

Our poster alphabase17 asserts that we know the facts, but when those facts are stated they are the same incomplete facts I included in my article:  We know that at one point Anderson was offered half the salary that Duchovny was being paid.  We do not know what Duchovny was initially offered, and we do know that after negotiations were complete Anderson was being paid the same amount as Duchovny.  The way these negotiations work, of course, is that the producers approach the actor’s agent and say we’d like to have your client in our show and are offering X amount; the agent then says X is not enough, we want Z; the producers then say Z is too much, what about we settle at Y?  Eventually they agree on a number that is usually more than the original offer and less than the original response.  Our problem is that for Duchovny, we don’t know “X”, “Y”, or “Z”; for Anderson, we don’t know “X”, “Y”, or “Z” but we do know that her “X” is half of Duchovny’s “Y”, and her “Y” is the same as his.

Let’s be hypothetical, and extrapolate some thinking.  The numbers I’m using are intentionally unrealistic, for illustrative purposes.

    We’d like to launch a new X-Files.  We want Duchovny.  We can do the series without him, but we’d have to rethink it–whether to make it a reboot with a younger actor playing Mulder (like the 2009 Star Trek), or a next generation with a new lead agent taking Mulder’s job (like Star Trek:  The Next Generation), but we’ll take a hit–the show will be more popular if we have Duchovny as Mulder.  Let’s offer him a thousand an episode and see what his agent says.

    So the agent says no, make it ten thousand, and they dicker, and agree on five thousand.  Now they move to the next step.  If they didn’t have Duchovny, they probably wouldn’t want Anderson at all–if they’re replacing Mulder with a younger version, they’ll want a younger Scully, and if they’re moving to the next generation they won’t want Scully at all.

    Now that we have Duchovny for Mulder, we’ll want Anderson for Scully.  We can’t easily have a new actress play Scully, but we could replace Mulder’s partner with a new, younger, agent.  We’d rather have Anderson, but we have options.  Let’s offer Anderson twenty-five hundred, and see where that puts us.

    The agent thinks that’s a solid offer, but it’s his job to negotiate, so he inquires to find out what they’re paying Duchovny, and when he sees the five thousand figure he says, no, you’re going to pay Anderson as much.  They agree.

    Note that if the producers offered Anderson up front what they were paying Duchovny, her agent would reasonably have thought they were more desperate to get her than they were, and would have asked for more; then they would be in the position that Duchovny’s agent would insist that Anderson can’t be paid more than Duchovny, and the entire negotiation process would be in turmoil.  In a sense, they have to offer Anderson less than they’re paying Duchovny.  However, note in this hypothetical reconstruction, their initial offer to Anderson was greater than that to Duchovny, even though it was only half what they were paying him.  Note, too, that the producers expected to pay more than their initial offer.  Initial offers are almost always low-ball for that reason, and a low offer to Anderson meant Anderson’s agent could earn his commission by getting her more without having to demand that she be paid more than Duchovny.

No, we don’t know that this is an accurate reconstruction of the negotiations; the numbers are certainly not accurate.  However, the point that alphabase17 missed is that this is a plausible reconstruction precisely because we do not know what Duchovny was offered before he negotiated the agreed pay.  Comparing agreed pay to agreed pay, we find they are equal.  Comparing an initial offer to one against a final agreed salary of the other tells us nothing, because we do not have the initial offer to the one.  We can be pretty certain that whatever the number is for which Duchovny’s agent settled, it was more than the initial offer.

alphabase17 makes a valid point with this:

As to audience preferences, you offered no data to support the claim that “more viewers are more willing to spend more money to see male stars.”

I admit that to some degree my argument is circular, but it is not entirely so.  Television producers spend a lot of money trying to determine what viewers will watch.  There are people trying to sell them program ideas of all kinds, starring men, women, children, aliens, animals, and who knows what else.  They do audience reactions, surveys, ratings of what people actually do watch, sponsor interest, and much more, and they attempt to pick shows that will attract viewers–and if those shows fail to attract viewers competitively, they get cancelled.  The facts that more shows have male stars and that male actors get paid more than females are strong indicators that all this analysis points to viewer preference for male leads.  It has never been exclusively true–Lucille Ball was able to hold audiences in the fifties and sixties, Star Trek did a series with the wonderful Kate Mulgrew in the captain’s chair (I did not enjoy the series, but she was good), Cagney and Lacey held viewers to a police drama starring female detectives, and there have been many others–but even now more male-star series succeed than female-star series, and producers put their money where the probabilities favor success.

Maybe it’s wrong, but I think that in law it would be said that I’ve got a rebuttable presumption:  there is enough evidence that the statement is true that to contradict it would require proof.

I want to thank waslah for his contribution.  Mish4 (who specifically chose to criticize without reading the article) had said

Why I always expecting the best from a man when they always erase sexism and dismiss women’s serious complains (sic)?

waslah answered

…this comment is kind of sexist in it’s own right. It seems to suggest that all men are misogynists…and that’s a bunch of man hating, misandrist bullcrap.
(Ellipsis original)

waslah is correct, but he misses a critical point about progressivist philosophy:  for some reason, it is only discrimatory if the target is a “protected class”.  You can make prejudicial comments about straight white men without any fear of retribution, but the assumption is that any negative statement made about a woman, or a black, or a homosexual, is inherently discriminatory.  We see this even with Michelle Obama, who assumes that a short elderly white woman asking her, a tall black woman, to reach something on the top shelf in a Target department store reflects the white woman’s prejudice toward blacks, not a recognition of the advantage of height.  If I say that statistically women have less upper body strength than men (anatomically demonstrable) I’m being mysogynistic, because it doesn’t matter that it’s true, only that it can be taken as a negative statement about women (or a positive statement about men, which comes to the same thing); but if a woman says that all men are misogynists, even though that is demonstrably false (whether or not it applies to me specifically), that is not considered sexist because it is not a negative statement about women (or gays).  No, it does not make any sense, but it is the way the progressivists regard the matter.  It has something to do with the fact that our ancestors mistreated these groups, and so we, their descendants, must bear similar mistreatment.

Returning to alphabase17:

…I commented upon it [the Duchovny/Anderson pay discrepancy] on three websites and got a lot of ironic, belittling, condescending comments from men, and those champions of intellect claimed that of course the male deserves to be paid more than the female and that I know nothing about show business and that I must be a vile feminist and that people like me should be ashamed for finding sexism where there is none.

I certainly apologize if I came across that way.  There is nothing in what I said that I intended as a matter of what anyone “deserves”.  That’s a bit like saying that apples “deserve” to cost more than oranges because apples taste better, or are healthier for you, or something like that.  If apples cost more than oranges, it’s because the demand exceeds the supply.  If actors are paid more than actresses, it is because audiences want actors more than they want actresses.  I did not say that there was no sexism involved; I said that the sexism was in the audience, the culture generally, not in the bean counters trying to get as much as they can for the smallest possible expenditure.  They tried to lowball Anderson.  They probably tried to lowball Duchovny first, and they’ve undoubtedly had to negotiate with a lot of people, such as writers and directors, concerning how much everyone will be paid for this project.  Actors are not paid based on how hard they work; they’re paid based on how much audience they draw.

Pizza restaurants buy their ingredients and sell their pizzas.  As one chain likes to remind us, better ingredients make better pizza–but also more expensive pizza.  There are chains that never tell us they make good pizza, they tell us that they make it cheap.  A decision is being made by each restaurant, is it worth the extra money to buy the better cheese, the fresher spices, the more expensive tomatoes?  Will we be able to sell the pizza for enough more to cover the extra cost of making it, or will we make more money by making the cheaper pizza?  From the perspective of the television producers, actors aren’t employees paid for their work, they’re ingredients in a product, commodities bought and sold.  The question is, how cheaply can I buy this actor, and what’s the return on my investment?  Any sexism that goes into that is the sexism of, “What will the audience pay to see this man in the project, as opposed to that woman?”  It is an assessment of the attitudes of the consumers, finding those often to be sexist.

Many of the things I have said here have been said by others in the thread at IMDB; I have been working on this response for several days, and decided not to remove such points.  I will finish with a quote from nrkist2424, from what was the last post on the thread when I finished this.  It was a point I was considering making, but I had no numbers to support it.

[Gillian Anderson]’s pay outweighs the combined pay for all the returning character actors.  Are you concerned about that?

Indeed, if it really were about “equal pay for equal work”, there is a tremendous amount of disparity there.  I read a quote from an actor who said they paid him a lot of money to stand in the rain and drink coffee; the acting he did for free.  The lead actors do not work much harder than all the others on the set; they aren’t getting paid based on their work.  Their performances are being purchased according to an agreed price based on the resale value of those performances.

And in the end, Gillian Anderson was paid exactly the same thing as David Duchnovny, because the studio agreed that she was worth it when she asked.  That’s how negotiation works.

Again, I extend my thanks to all who read the previous article and provided feedback.  Your input has not gone unnoticed.

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