When Reese Witherspoon and then-husband Ryan Phillippe took the stage at the 2002 Academy Awards to present the Oscar for best achievement in makeup, the banter that came before they announced the nominees was expected, but a quick exchange surprised many viewers and attendees — including Witherspoon herself, she recently revealed.
Phillippe, 27 at the time, began to read the winner aloud, and Witherspoon, who was 26 then, asked if she could do it instead. "You make more than I do," Phillippe quipped in response. "Go ahead."
Almost 20 years later, Witherspoon, who's one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood, revealed in a recent appearance on the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's podcast that while she barely remembers the brief exchange, she recalls feeling "flummoxed in the moment."
"I forgot that ever happened, but you're right, he did say that, and no, it wasn't scripted, and he didn't tell me he was going to say that before it happened on air," Witherspoon, now 44, told journalist Margaret Gardiner. "I was a little bit flummoxed in the moment. ... I don't know why he said it."
Witherspoon, who divorced Phillippe in 2008, went on to discuss the challenges that women who make more than their partners face.
"Is it hard on women? 100%," she said. "I think this is the thing, too. There's so few women that make a lot of money that sometimes they're shamed for it, and sometimes they are expected to give more and do more and be more to others. In the same position ... a male movie star would not be expected to, and that's just the double standard that exists in our society."
"I do think gender norms have changed quite a bit since that moment (at the Oscars)," Witherspoon continued. "I do think there are more women making money. I think there's more conversation around the division of domestic labor. ... But I think it all gets back to the point that we need to talk. Women need to talk about money and how they make money and not feel ashamed of it."
The mother of three also recalled a conversation that she had many years ago with her daughter, Ava Elizabeth Phillippe, 21, whom she shares with her ex-husband. Witherspoon is also mom to sons Deacon Reese Phillippe, 17, and Tennessee James Toth, 8, whose father is Witherspoon's current husband, talent agent Jim Toth.
"I remember my daughter when she was probably 8 came home from second grade and was crying and said, 'Mom, they said you're one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, and I felt so embarrassed!' And I said, 'Come over here,'" Witherspoon chuckled.
"I said, 'Don't ever feel ashamed. Don't ever feel ashamed of a woman making money. There are women all over this world who don't have an opportunity or an education or the ability to make money, and the more women who make more money will give more money away, will take care of their societies, will take care of their communities, will do more with that money, so don't ever feel bad about your mom making money and don't ever feel bad if you make money, and don't be embarrassed or ashamed if it's more than your partner.'"
Witherspoon added that it's taken time for her to internalize the message herself.
"That's a lesson I had to learn," she said. "My mother certainly wasn't in that situation, and neither was my grandmother. So as we say, I'm still navigating that as a woman. ... I just hope in my lifetime I can help more women make more money because financial wellbeing, just financial stability, is freedom."