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Don’t dress up as Barbie: Actors’ union under fire over Halloween costume policy

As the strike drags on, many stars have lashed out at SAG-AFTRA’s guidelines that recommended members wear outfits inspired by ‘generalized characters and figures’

Barbie
Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in a scene from the movie 'Barbie.'Alamy Stock Photo

Supermarkets in the United States have been selling pumpkins for months in preparation for Halloween, which is practically a national holiday in the country. Americans spend big for the day, last year forking out $12.2 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Only during Christmas is more money spent. On October 31 — and the lead up to Halloween — seven out of 10 Americans will dress up. And, according to Google, this year’s top costumes are Barbie, Spider-Man and Wednesday Addams. But for the actors union SAG-AFTRA, these costumes don’t make the cut. In guidelines to its 160,000 members — who have been on strike for more than 100 days — the union recommended against dressing up as movie characters for Halloween costumes.

The union suggests members “choose costumes inspired by generalized characters and figures,” like, say, a “ghost, zombie, spider, etc.,” or “characters from non-struck content, like an animated TV show.” It also calls on them to avoid characters developed by the same studios they have been fighting since July: Disney, Warner, Netflix, Universal, HBO and other platforms. In other words, no superheroes or fairy tale princesses. “Let’s use our collective power to send a loud and clear message to our struck employers that we will not promote their content without a fair contract!” the SAG-AFTRA said in an online post — called “Make Halloween a SCREAM with these SAG-AFTRA Strike-Friendly Tips & Tricks” — that is no longer available.

The costume policy has been met with fierce backlash, with actors criticizing the sense of the move. “I look forward to screaming ‘scab’ at my 8 year old all night. She’s not in the union, but she needs to learn,” posted actor Ryan Reynolds on X (formerly Twitter).

This Is Us star Mandy Moore, who has been very active since the beginning of the strike, took an even tougher stance. “Is this a joke? Come on SAG-AFTRA. This is what’s important? We’re asking you to negotiate in good faith on our behalf. So many folks across every aspect of this industry have been sacrificing mightily for months. Get back to the table and get a fair deal so everyone can get back to work. Please and thank you,” she said in an Instagram Stories, to her 5.5 million followers.

The costume rule was also slammed by actress Melissa Gilbert (Little House on the Prairie), who was president of SAG-AFTRA for two terms, between 2001 and 2005.

“THIS is what you guys come up with? Literally no one cares what anyone wears for Halloween. I mean, do you really think this kind of infantile stuff is going to end the strike? We look like a joke. Please tell me you’re going to make this rule go away… and go negotiate!” she wrote in a post on Instagram, which tagged SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. “For the love of God, people are suffering mightily and this is what you have to say… c’mon guys…”

Melissa Gilbert and Mandy Moore during the actors union protests. Gilbert in New York, New York, on August 3, 2023. Moore in front of the Disney studios in Burbank, California, on July 14.
Melissa Gilbert and Mandy Moore during the actors union protests. Gilbert in New York, New York, on August 3, 2023. Moore in front of the Disney studios in Burbank, California, on July 14.Getty Images

For now, SAG-AFTRA has stood by the rule, only conceding that “it does not apply to anyone’s kids,” in an interview with Variety. “SAG-AFTRA issued Halloween guidance in response to questions from content creators and members about how to support the strike during this festive season. This was meant to help them avoid promoting struck work, and it is the latest in a series of guidelines we have issued,” said the union. The guidelines include not posting photos of costumes inspired by struck work, so as to not give studios publicity.

The backlash comes as the union prepares to sit down on Tuesday with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents Hollywood’s main studios, to continue negotiations. The strike began in mid-July, but it took more than 80 days for the two parties to meet for talks. After that first meeting, on October 2, the talks abruptly ended 10 days later. At Tuesday’s meeting, the union will sit down with “several executives,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

In the midst of the strike, actor George Clooney tried to broker a solution. On October 11, the AMPTP announced that they were suspending talks after the union asked studios for concessions that amounted to $800 million a year. SAG-AFTRA proposed that streaming platforms pay 57 cents per subscriber per year to a joint fund that would dole out the money to actors who appear on the platforms, according to the popularity of each movie or show. The studios, however, rejected this proposal.

In response, Clooney — who donated at least a million dollars to help his fellow actors in August — led a proposal, supported by Meryl Streep, Jennifer Aniston, Robert De Niro, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Ben Affleck and Emma Stone, among others, to raise their union fees and contribute part of the money to that fund. SAG-AFTRA member dues are proportional. Actors pay a fixed $231.96 and 1.575% of their income each year, with the cap set at $1 million. Clooney proposed eliminating the cap and for actors to pay 1.575% of their total income. He estimated that this measure would raise $150 million for the union in three years.

But although SAG-AFTRA appreciated the proposal — calling it a “gesture of goodwill and support” — it was knocked down on the grounds that it wouldn’t be legal.

“We are a federally regulated labor union and the only contributions that can go into our pension and health funds must be from the employer,” said Drescher.

In the meantime, all eyes are on Tuesday’s negotiations. If there is progress, the actors may even be able to dust off their favorite superhero costume in time for Halloween on October 31.

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