Last week, the kind folks at Fox News ran an EXPLOSIVE story on Geoffrey Owens, an actor whose credits include The Cosby Show and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Did Owens sexually assault someone? Get charged with a DWI? Tweet something racist? WORSE: Owens was “spotted bagging groceries” at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey.
Owens was originally put on blast by the Daily Mail, a British rag that traffics in useless celebrity gossip, but it was when Fox News picked up the story that it got real traction. “The actor, who was on [The Cosby Show] from 1985 to 1992, was spotted by a local shopper at the Clifton, N.J. store, standing behind one of the checkout counters and wearing a Trader Joe’s staff shirt with a name tag that read, ‘Geoffrey,’” Fox News’s story blared, as if wearing a name tag were an offense akin to murder.
The story was insulting on two levels: one, by suggesting that Owens had somehow fallen so deep into a hole that he had to degrade himself by bagging groceries, and two, by suggesting that bagging groceries was something degrading in the first place. I have friends who’ve worked at Trader Joe’s, and they made more money there than I do now. Acting is freelance work, freelance work tends to be sporadic, and considering the number of ~celebrities~ who’ve bankrupted themselves when their acting gigs slowed down, there’s really nothing scandalous here, a fact a number of other actors noted online:
A thing to remember, as the New Yorker pointed out on Monday, is that acting is labor. Sure, some actors make millions off just one film, but even successful actors like Owens—who according to his IMDB page makes regular appearances on television and in film—can benefit from a side gig. Meghan Markle worked as a calligrapher while starting out as an actor. Gwyneth Paltrow couldn’t have possibly launched GOOP just for fun.
Interestingly, the New Yorker piece links the Owens story to another recent actor-shaming moment: last week’s gubernatorial debate between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon. Cuomo accused Nixon of being a “corporate donor” and a “corporation,” since as an actor she’d set up an LLC for herself. People who understand money often tell freelancers to do this kind of thing for tax purposes, and while it may sound scandalous, mostly it simplifies filing. Per the New Yorker:
Surely Nixon lives a comfortable life, but the focus on her personal wealth—and not Cuomo’s—implies some privilege over and above the work that she’s done as an actor. By undervaluing the labor of creative professions, we put artists in a double bind: their artistic work isn’t seen as work, but it’s also assumed to be so lucrative that any non-acting job they might pursue is suspect. Geoffrey Owens and Cynthia Nixon both became famous after starring on beloved sitcoms, which means that their work had value for millions of people. And yet we can’t help making presumptions about their bank accounts, as if acting is less a career than a ticket to dreamland. Perhaps it’s time to stop differentiating what kind of work we think is “real”—whether it’s acting, bagging groceries, writing (hi!), governing a state, or tilling the fields—and start valuing hard work in whatever form it comes.
Meanwhile, one of Cuomo’s former aides was convicted recently on several bribery charges, and he’s taken thousands of dollars from the real estate lobby while development and gentrification runs rampant in his state, but I digress. All of this is to say, capitalism is the true enemy. Trader Joe’s pays at least $13-an-hour and offers dental insurance. Please hire me. Happy Labor Day!