The Secret Sexism underlying the Jennifer Lawrence Wage Gap Argument {Preface}

Ten years from now, I bet we will look back on the Sony Hack and remember it as a train wreck we couldn’t look away from.  I also bet ten years from now that we will still be talking about the fact that Jennifer Lawrence (Jlaw) got paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle.  The Jennifer-Lawrence-Wage-Gap-Argument has become somewhat of a sensation in the news over the past couple years, and you would think that that we would have arrived at a greater consensus on the problem at this point.  Honestly, why would there be any confusion over it being wrong that a woman was paid less on a movie set than the men when she worked just as hard?

Unfortunately, this confusion and lack of consensus is actually quite reasonable as the Jlaw-wage-gap-argument (AKA, JWGA) is very easy to debunk.  However, the manner in which the problem is reported and the outrage culture upon which said reporting draws on has created an emotionally-reactive conversation on gender inequality that actually makes it very difficult to discuss rationally.  I think a possible mentality for this is “better to have us talking about female rights than not at all,” but many of the press outlets responsible for spinning the JWGA do so without regard for the harm they end up causing to women (especially to young girls) despite the “cause” they claim they are fighting for. It is absolutely critical to notice this in order to start having productive conversations on equality for women in Hollywood and outside of it because, right now, we are going sideways at best.

This is not an argument that the wage gap or sexism in Hollywood doesn’t exist—both definitely do—and I’ll expand on how I see it and ways I think we can try to change it in a subsequent post.  This is also not a defense of men in Hollywood or any perpetuation of the ridiculous idea that they can be unfairly oppressed by women, female feminists, or the wage gap hysteria—as a rule, oppressive parties can’t be victims of minority groups, and therefore I have no desire to talk like we should all just be nicer to the male actors of American Hustle. What this argument does aim to do is call out the secret sexism and misogyny that are silently perpetuated through the JWGA, largely by the press, and the problems it has created for women.  The first step of this (and what this particular post is about) is to highlight the flaws in the JWGA.

Credit Where Credit’s Due  

Even as a female feminist, I can’t get on board with the JWGA.  Gaging from the press, it seems like there are two ways people think an actor’s salary should be determined—how much work/time they put into the project or how big of a “star” they are.  There must be over a hundred news articles (even dating back to 2013) at this point that shows Jlaw on set for no more than 2.5 weeks, roughly 1/3rd of what the other four actors spent on set and, if you take a stopwatch to the film, it’s also clear that she by far had the least screen time of all the actors.  If anyone wants to make the case that she must have had more screen time but it was just cut from the film, I believe the biggest thing you’ll find in the deleted scenes on the American Hustle DVD/Blu-Ray is the other half of Jeremy Renner’s performance, which would put his actual screen time closer to that of Amy Adams.  Lawrence even put in some of the least effort in promoting and marketing the film, a task that Adams, Renner, and Cooper appeared to participate in most.  If we are talking a “timecard” scenario, the work simply wasn’t there to constitute a substantial “wage gap” argument—Lawrence did not “work just as hard” or “have as much screen time” as any of the other actors in the movie.  Somehow it’s still easier to believe that she did though, which is a phenomenon I will take a stab at later.

The other argument—the “star” index—falls apart even faster considering said star system (wherein the actor’s name draws the crowd, thus saving the studio time and money in marketing the film) virtually no longer exists.  Even Lawrence has box office flops.  Funnily enough, her biggest one happened four months after the Sony hack news broke, in the midst of a wave of press preaching how unfair her take was because her star power was foolproof.  Womp.  If you really want to make the star power argument though, you have to examine 2012-Jlaw, upon which the main American Hustle negotiations would’ve been based on (not 2014-Jlaw, when she reached full-on Ann-Margaret status).  The first Hunger Games was admittedly a surprise smash that year, but it wouldn’t have been entirely incomprehensible that Lawrence’s star power was still tentative—if there was anything studios could take from the comparable YA Twilight series, the star power of the headlining actors did not generalize outside of the series despite each carrying huge fan bases within the franchise.  Both franchises shared the same audience and even shared some of the same producers.  This was reflected in film reporters’ reactions to Lawrence’s casting in Silver Linings Playbook (i.e., more eyebrow raises than shes-destined-for-stardom), and was probably even a little merited when her House at the End of the Street opened in second place on the low-end of what similar horror genre films gross not even six months after the Hunger Games premiered. While skepticism was significantly less come spring 2013, the news that Lawrence signed her American Hustle contract broke at the start of February 2013, before she walked across the Oscar stage and possibly before Silver Linings Playbook even hit wide release.

The fact that Sony let Lawrence snag a few more back-end percentage points before the movie came out definitely reflects the increased confidence on the studio’s part as the year progressed, but it also merits a question as to whether they were lacking full confidence or if they actually did take into consideration that she played a supporting role.  I don’t doubt that Catching Fire’s opening success played a big part in the increase (shame it didn’t come out sooner than three weeks before Hustle came out), but the fact that Lawrence’s name couldn’t guaranteedistributor interest in the Oscar-buzzy Serena at the same window that Fire premiered probably didn’t help (not even from Weinstein, the film-saving-editing-guru, who saw her to her Silver Linings-success).  Honestly, it makes me wonder if the Twilight-stardom-paradigm was (is?) still a little on the table.  I’ll admit, as a fan of the actress, it seems almost impossible to fathom that there ever could’ve been reason to doubt the power she holds now, but it’s true that confidence in even Jlaw’s critical acclaim wasn’t considered an industry-wide slam dunkuntil she repeated success again with American Hustle at the start of 2014.  Even explaining the financial success of Silver Linings Playbook is tricky  because of the Twilight paradigm, in combination with the fact that Cooper was actually the top billed actor of the movie.  Lawrence may have lapped Cooper by the end of 2012, but his draw was definitely more established and definitively on the rise in the years leading up to the movie’s production and initial release.  Basically, it’s hard for me to tell if Lawrence was the real draw to Silver Linings Playbook or if she was the surprise, or even if it was really her chemistry with Cooper that made them both kind of a packaged deal (See: MTV Awards, eye roll).  This is not to imply that Lawrence was one of the smaller stars of American Hustle (far from it), just that she hadn’t reached her peak before the movie came out like much of the outrage press proclaims.

Like I’ve said, I don’t like measuring by the star system as it’s too faulty to make definitive claims.  However, if you have to, Box Office Mojo (BOM) shows that Bale and Renner (particularly for Hansel & Gretel, of all things) were the most consistently successful at the box office in the years leading up to their Hustle negotiations, followed by Lawrence.  According to the news outlets that IMDb tracks, all three were pulling more headlines than Adams and Cooper in 2011 and 2012 too.  Determining Cooper’s real star power was (and remains to be) a bit of a problem, but Adams clearly drew both the fewest headlines and fewest box office of all five actors going into Hustle by a very large margin.  By this line of reasoning, then (i.e., star power = box office tallies, headline ability, and confidence that actors in question would draw an audience regardless of critical reception) Adams should’ve been paid the least of everyone, and a case could probably be made that Cooper deserved less than other men and the same or less than Lawrence as well.  If you are a true believer of the Hollywood WGA, that scenario probably doesn’t make you entirely happy either, because it would justify the crazy low salary that Adams got despite being the hardest working actress on set (surely, the end goal isn’t to just make things better for our fave, Jennifer Lawrence…right?).

So, the traditional star power perspective nullifies the argument that Adams should’ve been paid as much as the men for her work in American Hustle, although a case could be made that Lawrence did deserve more than Cooper.  If we measure salary by work (like the real world), the outrage of Jlaw is completely misplaced, and the opposite case could be made that Adams deserved more.  Personally, I reject the “star” argument—all five of these actors are household names, and yet none have had 100% consistent box office slam dunks; it’s not 1990 anymore, which really begs a new conversation for how studios decide actor pay in the first place (I’ll get to this in a later piece).  Sony’s reaction to the pay gap in the he-said-she-said hacked email reflects this confusion, as it was clear that even the studio was on the fence as to what to do concerning Jlaw (and only Jlaw) when they were allegedly confronted on her back end % by her lawyers.  While Amy Pascal wrote “there is truth there” for potentially bumping Lawrence’s salary to that of the full-time actors in response, even I can understand why there wasn’t the full confidence to shell out an extra million or two for her 2.5 weeks’ worth of work, especially since the Sony emails also showed that Lawrence already let them know she would not be doing any film promotion for them (a duty of the multi-million banking star).  Personally, I think most of this reasoning is irrelevant, as stardom seems to be based more on the level of franchise involvement these days, but that’s a different conversation all together.  Either way, there are numerous reasons to justify why Jlaw received less pay than three other actors on set, her ovaries not being one of them.

Overall, to take the JWGA at face value likely triggers immediate defensiveness and outrage, because it sounds unjust.  However, the information to challenge it isn’t locked away in some secret forum—it’s all published on heavily trafficked websites, like Box Office Mojo, The Numbers, Cinemascore, IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and tons of pot-meet-kettle highbrow press outlets that contradict themselves frequently on the wage gap argument (Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Vanity Fair, and The Wrap just being a few).  There’s actually tons more of it that I left out simply for length purposes.  The fact that Jlaw’s timecard and star power can be so easily challenged makes the propagation of the JWGA pretty alarming, at least from a scholarly POV.

I’ve added a separate post for why the JWGA still seems so easy to believe.

The Consequences of the JWGA

Frankly, the Jlaw “star power” outrage doesn’t hold up in the real world, or at least not mine.  To me, it’s like having a second-year graduate student show up for one third of our research meetings, work on only a portion of the literature review that the other group members contributed to substantially, and then have the entire department fall apart over outrage that she didn’t get made first author because the papers said student wrote after the project was submitted for publication got into journals with higher impact factors. It’s a nerdy comparison, I know, and it might not make sense to many outside of academia, so just trust me when I say this would never happen, and if it did, it would be incredibly unfair to the other students.

Like I mentioned at the start of this piece, I think there are good intentions underlying the JWGA despite its flaws, like “it’s better to talk about it than not at all, and we all already talk about Jlaw the most, so let’s just roll with it.”  However, this argument does no favors to women: (1) not only does it hand a weak argument for a very real problem to sexist news outlets, it’s made a joke of feminist journalism; (2) It gives news outlets a way to appear like they are supporting a feminist “agenda” while they continue to objectify and sexualize women and/or promote gender-bias in their photos and advertisements, thus perpetuating rape culture and further devaluing women; (3) It often makes one of the world’s most successful business women look like a victim, which is a sexist and disempowering counter argument to an anti-sexist story; this is made worse when this mentality is generalized to all women, especially young women who are still in early stages of their identity development;  (4) It has created an emotional reactivity that misconstrues the very legitimate core theme of Lawrence’s now-famous essay on gender norms that both men and women set, which allows some women to attribute change as something men need to do and not society as a whole; (5) It has created (and condoned) a new way for women to shame other women, or at the very least divide them, as many blogs promote an “us versus them” mentality both between and within sexes; (6) It indulges outrage culture, particularly white, privileged outrage culture, which allows the press to continue to subtly reinforce the image of white people as victims and not oppressors; (7) It has promoted an uninformed argument for the wage gap, which certainly exists but has well-researched caveats; and (8) It simplifies the problem of gender inequality  by offering a more descriptivesolution than prescriptive solution, and misplaces outrage onto actions that don’t promote change—just clicks.  It has done a plethora of other things that I have to allocate to a different post because the consequences are both grave and complex.

The reason all these things are such a big deal is because of that “change” concept.  We want things to be different, yes?  We want to end sexism, misogyny, and any pay gap that exists where it shouldn’t?  We want change, and we want it now, right?  Change is a great goal, but none of the things I just listed promote it.  Rather, they promote an emotional reaction, a catharsis; beyond this, they really only reinforce the norm of men > women.  Perhaps the greatest “solution” I’ve seen offered from news sources by promoting the story in this way is that the JWGA promotes a “great dialogue” for the wage gap.  I would love to know what these news sources think that dialogue looks and sounds like, and if it accommodates any of the criticisms I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Clearly the  crux of the JWGA doesn’t make the case that we should make more movies starring women (especially women of color or with disability status), or that women shouldn’t be perceived as sex objects on screen, or say how the audience can use their voice to demand actresses be valued more, or that we should collectively come up with a prescriptive method to reinvent the “star” system to make pay gaps smaller or non-existent.  It doesn’t even make a clear case as to what deal Amy Adams and Megan Ellison should’ve gotten for Hustle—seriously, I’m stunned to find that out of all the pay gap complaints, a consensus hasn’t been reached even amongst women as to whether Adams’ amount of work or box office draw should’ve been the stronger factor in determining how many millions she came home with.  Even just looking at how often Adams’ picture comes up when you google “Hollywood Wage Gap” (or, more importantly, how many women of color come up) is a convincing argument to re-evaluate exactly what we are so outraged about.  These topics might be flirted with in JWGA pieces, but they never serve as the thesis.

The case that the JWGA definitely does make is that Jlaw, specifically,should be paid the most regardless of being a secondary character or not, because if she’s not, how can any of us poor females hope for pay equality?  This argument is disempowering, illogical, condescending, unrealistic (at least not in my world, wherein the “publish or perish” mantra applies equally to those of all genitalia) and negatively impactful to women.  I’m far from the only person to have called out similar themes in the problems that press has promoted, but if there’s anything I can emphasize in my counterargument–its my POV as a feminist, social justice advocate.  I want change and equality, but we need to have the right conversation about it.  The following pieces to this argument include a further description of these consequences and potential solutions to the problem.


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