“We’re Not Rich! We’re Not Fancy!”: Working Actors as Precariously Employed Public Figures

Curator's Note

On July 12, 2023, two days before the SAG-AFTRA strike began, The New Yorker published an article on Orange Is the New Black, revealing the underpayment of the Netflix series’ ensemble cast. Interviewees such as actress Kimiko Glenn, who played inmate Soso, continued the conversation on social media. On Instagram, where Glenn currently has 912k followers, her re-post of a now-viral TikTok from 2020 where she discovers that her residual payment for 45 episodes of OITNB came to $27.30, garnered 878,650 plays and 366 comments.

In contrast to streaming services that keep consumers and creatives in the dark about content viewership and performance, social media platforms, like Instagram, quantify people’s reach via follower counts, views, and comments. For working actors, increased visibility on social media can thus work to overinflate public perceptions of their financial success and status in the industry. As the key platform for actors to share professional photos from award shows and other lavish industry events, Instagram intensifies the illusion that working actors are stars.

The SAG-AFTRA strike, however, puts working actors in the spotlight in a different way that allows them to demystify their professions. Instead of promoting their projects or themselves, actors like Kimiko Glenn took to social media in the days following the strike authorization vote to voice their frustrations about gendered expectations, working conditions, and compensation models in the streaming era.

In her Instagram posts, Glenn pleads, “I just wanna act,” explaining that she experiences the additional expectations placed on female actors to perform outside of film and TV sets by projecting beauty, glamour, and success as exceedingly stressful, especially while privately struggling to make ends meet. Noting that “most actors have a hard time,” Glenn subverts promotional practices by actively undoing her ‘star’ image and highlights how, despite their considerably lower pay grade, working actors are still required to engage in gendered and often unpaid forms of star labor.

In order to more productively examine the positionality of working actors who are not top-billed stars yet nonetheless have to achieve and maintain visibility in the public eye, I suggest that we study this group of actors akin to influencers and content creators. Taking inspiration from scholars like Zoë Glatt and Brooke Erin Duffy, we can parse how working actors’ precarious working conditions are at once obscured and confounded by gendered expectations of visibility and engagement on social media and other public venues.

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