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Friends at 25: Reflecting on Jennifer Aniston and cast’s salaries in wake of gender pay gap scandal

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Friends at 25: Reflecting on Jennifer Aniston and cast’s salaries in wake of gender pay gap row

The gender pay gap has been an issue for years – but the cast of Friends’ wage packets may surprise you.

On Sunday 22 September, people all around the globe will be raising an oversized coffee cup as they toast the 25th anniversary of Friends.

As fans of the classic sitcom will be all too aware, Friends ran for 10 seasons (that’s 236 episodes) – and even now, in 2019’s golden age of television, we’re still desperate for more time with Ross (David Schwimmer), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Monica (Courteney Cox), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) and Joey (Matt le Blanc). Indeed, Friends is officially the most popular show across all streaming services, according to recent research from Ofcom.

Of course, there are those who say that the sitcom doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in 2019. Forget the old niggles about the unrealistic apartment sizes and work hours (seriously, who has time to sit around the kitchen with their neighbours on a Monday morning?): the complaints are far more serious now. Some have said that Ross is “annoying and sexist” at best, a “misogynist bully” at worst. That the show’s male characters are all “horribly homophobic” (an opinion which Le Blanc strongly refutes). That the jokes about Chandler’s cross-dressing father have left them feeling “uncomfortable”. That Rachel well and truly deserves to have a sexual harassment case filed against her. That the countless comments about ‘Fat Monica’ feel very “out of place”. That Joey is just “creepy”. That Monica’s relationship with the much-older Richard doesn’t sit well in light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement.

To counter these points, however, it’s worth remembering all the ways that Friends’ storylines pushed boundaries, challenged perspectives and blazed a trail for equality (read this article if you don’t believe us – and show it to all the naysayers while you’re at it, too). 

And, likewise, it’s worth considering the intriguing manner in which the show tackled Hollywood’s gender pay gap, too.

Friends salaries
Friends at 25: Salary negotiations were conducted with all six stars in the room.

The movie industry has been dogged by a damning gender pay gap for some time. Last year, we reported that Mark Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million for reshooting his scenes in All the Money in the World, while Michelle Williams was paid an $80 per diem (which totals at less than $1,000). And Sofia Izquierdo Sanchez, of Huddersfield University, John S Heywood, of Wisconsin University, and Maria Navarro Paniagua, of Lancaster University, recently analysed the wages of 246 male and female actors who featured in 1,343 films between 1980 and 2015.

They found that the average gap between male and female co-stars, regardless of experience, sits at around $1 million.

“The gap has been quite persistent,” Izquierdo Sanchez said. “It is almost the same in 2015 as it was in 1980. It doesn’t show any signs of improving.”

The same is true of television. In 2017, it was revealed that only a third of the BBC’s top earners were women – and that its highest-paid male star, Chris Evans, earned a whopping £2.2 million last year in comparison to the highest-paid woman, Claudia Winkleman, who made £450,000.

And, last year, Netflix producers admitted that Matt Smith was paid more than his former co-star Claire Foy in the successful TV series, The Crown.

Foy, who played the lead role as Queen Elizabeth, starred opposite Matt Smith, who portrayed her husband, Prince Philip. And, even though The Crown is one of the most expensive television series ever produced, costing about $130 million (£93 million) for the first season alone, they still found reason to justify a pay disparity between its co-stars by claiming that Smith’s Doctor Who fame meant he commanded a bigger salary.

With this in mind, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Friends – which first aired 25 years ago – would have a similarly shocking pay disparity between its male and female stars’ pay packers. However, it’s since been revealed that the cast of Friends were very much ahead of their time: in fact, the core six actors started out earning the same wages in season one.

That’s right: at the beginning of the first season, each cast member earned $22,500 (£18,000) per episode. However, as Ross and Rachel’s storyline became the show’s main focus in the second season, Aniston and Schwimmer’s wages were increased to reflect this.

Come season three, though, the six core actors – all of whom are good pals IRL – decided they deserved to be paid as equals. As such, Schwimmer and Aniston demanded that their wages be cut, and the difference shared out among their co-stares, in order to assure that they were all being paid the same.

Friends at 25: Nowadays, of course, the cast are still making money from Friends
Friends at 25: Nowadays, of course, the cast are still making money from Friends

As reported by Entertainment Weekly, negotiations were “spurred by a lucrative Friends syndication deal, which would fetch about $4 million per episode for Warner Bros., or at least $192 million on the syndication rights for the first two seasons alone”.

The New York Times added: “Stars of hit shows often threaten to boycott their series in pursuit of higher salaries. What is unusual is this cast’s effort to use its solidarity as leverage. Warner Brothers consciously built the group as an ensemble, originally allowing only full group interviews and pictures.”

And, as noted by People, this rule – that the Friends cast all be paid the same per episode, no matter what – stuck.

“From then on, the cast was paid the same per episode for the rest of the show’s eight remaining seasons, and salary negotiations were conducted with all six stars in the room. Season by season, that number went up, from $75,000 in season three, all the way up to $1 million by seasons nine and 10.”

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Friends at 25: Is the sitcom really as problematic as people say? Stylist investigates.

Nowadays, of course, the cast are still making money from Friends. Indeed, according to USA Today, Aniston, Perry, Schwimmer, Cox, Kudrow and Le Blanc each still bank $20 million annually from syndication. 

Not bad considering the show aired over two decades ago, eh? It seems as if we could all hope to learn something from the power of standing together as a team.

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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