New Video Starring Sarah Silverman by the NWLC Takes on the Pay Gap By Mocking Trans People

What was the NWLC thinking with this one?!
Publish date:
October 10, 2014
racism, sex workers, wage gap, transphobia, Workplace, Equal Pay, Whorephobia

You've probably seen The Equal Payback Project by now, since it's basically blowing up the Internet. Designed to highlight gross inequalities in wages, the tongue-in-cheek project proposes raising the roughly three trillion dollars needed to compensate women for the amount they lose out on as a result of the pay gap.

Developed by the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), the project would seem like a winner: Yes, let's highlight the gross inequalities in pay women experience and talk about how to address them. Since the target goal of the project will not, of course, be reached, the funds are really going to the NWLC, which promises to use them in its continued advocacy work on wage gap issues, but we as viewers understand that. The point here isn't an actual funding campaign, but a fundraiser.

There's a problem, though. The video developed to promote the project and get people engaged, starring comedian Sarah Silverman, is a hot mess of transphobia, racism, and whorephobia. Needless to say, it is painfully unfunny.

Really, NWLC? This was the best you could do?

In the video, Silverman confidently strides through a medical office, informing the video that she's planning on getting "turned into a dude" so she can be paid what she deserves at last. In addition to being deeply offensive to the trans community on its face, the video also glides right over the significant racial inequalities within the wage gap, and the throwaway "joke" about a sex worker goes over like a lead balloon.

Oddly, the feminist community seems to be all over this video and how great it is, with a number of sites talking about how funny the video is and how it will highlight wage gap issues. I strongly disagree on both counts: The video is not funny, because mocking minorities isn't funny; this is not about punching up, but contributing to the continued marginalization of these groups. It's also not highlighting wage gap issues at all well, because it's glossing over the depths of the wage gap. Most people know there's a pay gap. What they may not be familiar with is the complexities of who's affected by it.

The trans community

Obviously, this video is transphobic. It makes a joke out of transition, suggesting that gender confirmation surgery is a snap and reiterating the myth that trans men only transition to access male privilege -- a notion that's very popular with radfems. Aside from the fact that transition is an incredibly difficult and complex process, though, here's a fact: "Turning into a dude" doesn't magically mean you get equal pay, let alone other privileges. In fact, transition can be extremely dangerous for some transgender men.

Trans men make, on average, 1.5% more after transition than they did before. Which is definitely a wage bump. But think about that in perspective: Making 1.5% more when you're already underpaid doesn't mean you'll achieve equal pay. If you're making, say, 78 cents for every dollar (as is the case with white women and white men -- about which more in a moment), increasing that by 1.5% still doesn't mean you're making a buck. It means you're making a little over 79 cents to the dollar.

Furthermore, the video totally ignores the substantial employment discrimination faced by members of the trans community, 90% of whom have reported some form of workplace discrimination. That includes being wrongfully terminated for being transgender (approximately 26% of trans people report this, primarily trans women), being harassed at work, being passed over for promotions, and having work sabotaged or interfered with. In addition, transgender people face discrimination during hiring.

Unlike cis women, transgender people enjoy no formal protections in the workplace in the vast majority of U.S. states and under federal law. In fact, while U.S. courts have been hesitantly been applying the sex discrimination clause under Title VII of the Equal Rights Act to various trans employment discrimination cases, it wasn't until last month that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took on its first transgender employment discrimination-related case.

"Turning into a dude" doesn't create equal wages, nor does it protect you from discrimination in the workplace. In fact, it exposes you to more discrimination. And the situation is even worse for transgender women, who face transmisogyny on top of trans discrimination. Trans women earn, on average, 32% less after transition than they did before, and they face significantly more dangers than trans men both during and after transition because of social attitudes like transmisogyny.

Transgender rights in the workplace are a critical issue, and this video would have been a great chance to bring it up and talk about it. Many people aren't aware of how grim the statistics are for the trans community, and how few protections are available to transgender people at work.

People of color

This video features some women of color as literal background color, and a tiny asterisked note that the "77 cents per dollar" is an average across all women, but it doesn't engage specifically with the extremes of the wage gap for women of color. Latinas make an average of 53 cents to every white man's dollar, and 89 cents compared to their Latino counterparts. Black women make 64 cents to the cis white male buck, and 89 cents when contrasted with Black men. American Indian women make 60 cents to every dollar a white man does.

That's some serious business. When you're talking about closing the wage gap, it's critical to discuss the role played by both race and racism. People of color experience substantial employment discrimination despite being considered a protected class by the EEOC, including wrongful termination, harassment at work, and a variety of other issues, including substantial hiring discrimination. In a study where researchers sent out identical resumes with "Black" names and "white" names, there was clear, race-based differential in responses, and it favored white people. Any promotional video raising awareness about the racial wage gap needs to take these issues head-on.

Sadly, many conversations about the wage gap echo that 77 cent statistic, and don't take the next important step: Clarifying it, and illustrating in real terms what it means for women of color. (And, by extension, to bring this back to the theme of the video, what it means for transgender people of color.)

This would have been a great chance to bring the wage gap faced by people of color front and center, instead of leaving it in the background. The racial wage gap is not set dressing, but a significant problem across all industries.

Sex workers

This "joke" passed by so fast, you might have missed it in the larger context of the video, but it should be highlighted, because it played into the whorephobia that saturates U.S. society. As Silverman sashays down the hall naming women in a number of professions, she stops in front of a woman in a revealing hot pink outfit, with a lascivious lead-in about "the oldest profession," which is then revealed to be tailoring.

Putting sex workers at the brunt of a joke is dangerous, and it reflects general attitudes about sex work and the failure to engage with sex workers that permeates feminism and the advocacy work done by women's organizations. Sex work is dangerous not because of some inherent risk, but because we make it dangerous: The resistance to creating a safe, supportive environment for sex work drives sex workers -- especially transgender women of color, it's worth noting -- to the margins.

Sex workers are routinely exploited and confront issues like wage theft on a daily basis. In a classic example of how society views sex work, when a client rapes a sex worker, it's not rape: It's "theft of services." Making light of the sex work community isn't feminist, and it doesn't belong in a video highlighting women's rights issues. Ignoring the wage and pay issues faced by sex workers in a video specifically about the pay gap is particularly atrocious.

Thankfully, as more and more people are seeing the video, they're criticizing it for making light of many serious issues in the wage gap conversation. That led Marcia G. Greenberger, Co-President of the NWLC, to issue a fauxpology today.

"[We know] transitioning from female to male would clearly not guarantee higher pay in reality. We know transgender people receive no pay premium; in fact, they almost universally report harassment and mistreatment on the job," she said. "The Equal Payback Project uses Silverman’s brand of absurd humor to draw attention to this ludicrous situation -- it was not our intent to make light of the serious issues transgender people face."

This wording raises the question of why the NWLC approved the video in the first place, and presumably participated in its creation as well. If you know that transition doesn't confer any benefits, and that trans people face significant social barriers, why produce a video making that into a joke? This wasn't "absurd humor." It was transphobic, and it elided significant issues in a number of minority communities.

The video and subsequent response from the NWLC highlights why so many people are passionate about intersectionality. The wage gap is an issue that affects "all women," indisputably. However, it harms some women more than others, and refusing to acknowledge the intersections with race, disability, profession, faith, and other areas of discrimination leaves those women out in the cold.

Equal pay should involve fairness for all, and the NWLC missed the mark big time on this one.