Two weeks ago, Sarah Silverman released a Youtube video discussing the gender wage gap. It received mixed reviews from social justice advocates. The video, “Sarah Silverman Closes the Gap,” depicts Silverman going to a hospital and getting sex reassignment surgery to “become a dude” to make more money. The video was praised for bringing attention to the issue of unequal pay, but was criticized by many for misrepresenting the experience of transgender people.
Silverman’s video was made to promote the Equal Payback Project, a project which strives to bring awareness to the gender wage gap by raising money with the goal of “paying women back the money they lose just for having a vagina,” according to the project’s website.
Most research agrees that women, on average, make less than men. This is due to a combination of workplace and employment discrimination, and the societal pressure of women to take lower paying jobs, which better fulfill their “traditional” gender role.
“I agreed with the idea that there is a terrible wage gap and something needs to be done about it,” said Professor of Law and Society Jillian Weiss after watching Silverman’s video. Weiss is also on the Board of Directors for Lambda Legal, an organization that fights for the civil rights of LGBT people as well as an attorney who has worked on many cases regarding job discrimination.
While Silverman’s video may have had the right idea, it had a major problem in its execution. In building the concept for her video, Silverman failed to acknowledge the issue of transgender discrimination, and the stigma that exists against people who require the very medical procedure Silverman is making a joke out of.
After the video’s release, prominent transgender activist Janet Mock tweeted, “Sex reassignment doesn’t help one advance in workplace. Ask one of the most underemployed populations: trans people.”
According to a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, nearly half of transgender people say they’ve been fired, not hired or not given a promotion because of their gender identity or expression.
“I thought it was humorous, but I could also see why people had concerns about it,” said Weiss.
She says that although the video may have mocked the experience of transgender individuals, it does make a good point about sex discrimination in employment and the workplace. She points out that the income of transgender women goes down after they transition, while the income of transgender men goes up.
“People perceive men as serious and worthy of consideration and women as frivolous and not knowing what they’re talking about,” added Weiss.
Silverman and the NCLW both released apologies for not acknowledging the discrimination faced by transgender people, and the Equal Payback Project website now includes facts about transgender discrimination on its main page. Silverman and the project she promotes, however, still have many flaws.
In addition to ignoring the intersectional struggle of transgender men and women when it comes to wage discrimination, Silverman and NCLW ignore the impact that race has on the economic struggle of minority groups. The Equal Payback Project points out that women of color make even less than white women, but it does not offer to “pay back” women of color for the race discrimination that they face.
Silverman’s video may be a baby step in the right direction when it comes to drawing attention to an issue that affects millions of people in the United States, but it fails to do justice for the millions it leaves out with its lack of intersectional awareness.