Claire Foy and Matt Smith in "The Crown" (Netflix/Robert Viglasky)

Pay her, she's the queen: The gender pay gap on "The Crown" is a disgrace

The show literally revolves around Claire Foy and she was paid less than Matt Smith, who played her husband


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Erin Keane
March 13, 2018 10:25PM (UTC)

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but women are angry. We are fed up; we have declared #TimesUp on the grabbing and the assaults and the demeaning comments and the gendered expectations in our workplaces. We are tired of being told we are worth less than our male co-workers, both explicitly and implicitly, and when we fail to rectify that through sheer will alone we are tired of being told we must not have wanted it badly enough. And when you’re already angry and fed up with pushing this boulder up a mountain every day with no summit in sight, one small bit of news can feel like enough to make you want to turn around and hurl the rock as hard as you can down the mountain, devastation in your wake be damned.

According to Variety, the producers of "The Crown," speaking on a panel in Jerusalem earlier this week, admitted that Claire Foy, star of two seasons of the Netflix historic drama and winner of a Golden Globe for her spot-on and humanizing portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, was paid less than her co-star Matt Smith, who plays Prince Philip.

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Foy plays the title role — the Queen is both a person and the office, which hits at the heart of her character’s conflicts — and yet Smith, because he came into negotiations with a higher profile as a former “Doctor Who” star, pulled in the higher salary.

Asked whether Foy was paid the same as Smith, the producers acknowledged that he did make more due to his “Doctor Who” fame, but that they would rectify that for the future.  “Going forward, no one gets paid more than the Queen,” said Mackie.

Oh, good — except Foy and Smith won’t be around to enjoy their equal financial footing in the workplace. The series is jumping ahead in time for season three, replacing the principal cast members with older versions of the royals. Never mind that Netflix wouldn’t have a successful show to time-hop ahead in without Foy’s cutting precision and her brilliant command of her character, which manages to evoke Elizabeth’s stiff persona without ever veering into cheap parody, and while adding layers of subtle emotional texture and intellectual dimension. Smith did fine work as Prince Philip, but the show isn’t called “The Consort Crown,” nor should it have been. Smith’s role was always secondary to Foy’s, and even in his most brilliant scenes, she remains at the center — the very heart — of the production.

Haven't we been here already? How loudly do we have to ring the shame bell at producers before they stop underpaying their female talent?

The pushback I am seeing — even among men who agree that the gender pay gap is bad — is that of course Smith could command a higher salary. That's just how it works! He did four years as the Doctor on "Doctor Who," after all, between David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, which is a big deal to a certain slice of TV fandom. Foy's been no slouch herself — before "The Crown" she played Anne Boleyn on the highly-acclaimed, and Golden Globe-winning, limited series adaptation of Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," for one — but yes, if you want to pit two names against each other in the salary negotiation game, Smith came in with a bigger stick. Never mind that Foy herself had no shot at that coveted Doctor spot until now — Jodie Whittaker is the first female Doctor in "Who" history, and she had to fight to get paid the same as her male predecessors. Yes, they were going to pay a female Doctor less. Is anyone surprised?

Women also don't advocate for themselves, or their agents don't, is one lame excuse I am tired of hearing. When Jennifer Lawrence penned her blistering takedown of the gender pay gap in Hollywood two and a half years ago, she wrote about learning that her male co-stars made more than her through data revealed in the Sony hack, not through any kind of transparency in the workplace. A major corporation has to be digitally infiltrated and have all of its sensitive information stolen and exposed to the world — that's what it can take for women to even know they are being paid less in the first place.

When Lawrence wrote about confronting her gender pay gap, she blamed herself. “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled,’" she wrote. Can you imagine a world in which women who insist on their own worth don't have to overcome unspoken, often invisible sexist assumptions first? I'll wait.

Foy's not the first woman who's seen a show take off on the strength of her performance and underpay her for it. In a revelatory THR profile in January, "Grey's Anatomy" star Ellen Pompeo explained in detail how hard she had to work to get paid what she is worth to the show that also bears her character's name:

For me, Patrick [Dempsey] leaving the show [in 2015] was a defining moment, deal-wise. They could always use him as leverage against me — "We don't need you; we have Patrick" — which they did for years. I don't know if they also did that to him, because he and I never discussed our deals. There were many times where I reached out about joining together to negotiate, but he was never interested in that. At one point, I asked for $5,000 more than him just on principle, because the show is Grey's Anatomy and I'm Meredith Grey. They wouldn't give it to me. And I could have walked away, so why didn't I? It's my show; I'm the number one. I'm sure I felt what a lot of these other actresses feel: Why should I walk away from a great part because of a guy? You feel conflicted but then you figure, "I'm not going to let a guy drive me out of my own house."

Pompeo is the highest-paid actress on TV now, but she had to fight for it, despite the fact that the show that actually does revolve around her is a long-running success. What would happen if producers set their salary baselines at what they were willing to pay the women at the top of the cast? Did Matt Smith's "Doctor Who" fame make "The Crown" a success? No. What's even more insulting is that "The Crown," like "Grey's Anatomy," is a show that female fans have championed. Shouldn't the women who make these shows come alive for us get the biggest reward? It's too late for Foy on "The Crown," which is a shame, though it sounds like the women coming after her will be treated fairly. Here's hoping Foy's next workplace won't need to be shamed into compliance, too.

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Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's executive editor of culture.

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