Why is the Jennifer Lawrence Wage Gap Argument so Easy to Believe?

I can see people rejecting any challenge to the JWGA regardless of the facts that are brought up, and it makes sense to me too.  There’s a lot of social psychology involved with the perception of these events and press is hugely responsible for selling certain narratives* that comprise the JWGA.  I feel like, circa 2016, this argument has become something like: Jennifer Lawrence deserved to be paid the most of everyone on American Hustle, or at least as much or more than Jeremy Renner, because she was the biggest star of the film who worked just as much as everyone; Amy Adams deserved to be paid more too; Cooper and Bale may or may not have deserved what they got.  In terms of the narratives, here’s why I hypothesize:

By the time the Sony hack occurred, Lawrence had absolutely become the biggest star working today by many-a-press standards.  The success of American Hustle largely seemed to help her solidify this, but said press painted it more like Hustle was perpetuating it.  Her role in American Hustle was also by far the loudest and most salient, both artistically and promotion-wise.  While her stardom may have cooled a little now, it’s nowhere near enough to even begin to question the value of her name attached to a project, even if Joy couldn’t muster half of what American Hustle did despite both films receiving the same B+ cinemascore (suggesting audiences tended to like both movies the same amount, but much fewer actually went to see the one Lawrence led by herself).  It also certainly helped that the press hardly dwelled on the box office underperformance of her only two non-franchise films since American Hustle.  Cooper has largely been tied into Lawrence’s success narrative, especially after signing on for three more films with her post-Playbook.  He also remains one of the most skilled celebrity figures at playing the press.  Seriously, Cooper’s gotten away with racism, xenophobia, and sexism in films that he both produced and starred in, and yet he’s not even a blip on the rage meter in a world where people are livid over the fact that the word “too” exists.  It’s an astounding charm ability that I think has made many a press overlook his multiple hard flops** this past year.  Frankly, I get the motivation behind the press “spin” too—people want to keep seeing one of their sexiest men alive in a positive light, especially when Lawrence has given him the stamp of approval (See: Halo Effect).

Bale’s career has continued the trajectory of the new star system to a T—not able to replicate his Batman B.O. success, but able to find some as part of an A-List ensemble (The Big Short).  I like Bale a lot, so I’m just going to pretend that Exodus never happened.  The fact that Bale carried American Hustle on top of one hell of a body transformation and will likely be associated with the crazy-successful Batman trilogy for the rest of his career are the two key things that I feel rightfully render him exempt from most of the JWGA.  Adams, the undeniable lead actress of American Hustle, has most notably secured a supporting role in the DC universe since Hustle.  While it has certainly improved her BOM numbers, it’s impossible to argue that the audience only showed up to see Batman vs. Superman because she was Lois Lane.  Big Eyes wasn’t a slam dunk B.O. hit either, but critics still love her (and they rightfully should).  Overall, I feel Amy is a stronger household name than box office darling, which makes for a compelling WGA-narrative without forcing people to think about the last movie they paid to see her in.

I’m guessing that the reason Renner is brought up the most has a lot to do with how much of his performance was cut from the film, thus giving the appearance that he worked less on set than he actually did.  The Oscars snub didn’t help his narrative either, and I’m betting that screen time factored into it. Unfortunately, no one except the film’s Blu-Ray owners who actually watch the extras would notice this, nor would mainstream press care if they did.  I like Renner as a dramatic actor, but he’s by far the worst of the five at fame, which often makes him a frustrating star.  Despite this, he seems to have a very loyal fan base that generalizes beyond his franchises that will even petition and boycott a movie studio for not marketing and distributing films widely, which is I think probably the biggest reasons why he and Adams are the only two of the five that have yet to have a hard flop since Hustle.  Overall, I can see why Renner’s still in high demand, but also why many don’t think so or don’t want to think so.  Really, you can’t point out the flaws in any of these actors’ stardoms without pointing the similar flaws or shortcomings in the others.

I mentioned other social psychology factors that influence perception.  The aforementioned Halo Effect might be one of them, especially for Jlaw (until she made the tragic mistake of being human at the Golden Globes this year), but there’s really a number of things that influence how we see and form opinions of others.  I’m going to guess that diehard fans of all five actors were likely so invested in them by the time the Sony hack happened that scaling down an emotional reaction to the news was hardly possible.  People also tend to roll with the simplest explanation of things, and in a job where clicks rule and productivity is key, I don’t know of many blog writers (other than anti-feminists keen on spinning arguments that sexism is a myth) who would be invested enough to research and caution adherence to the JWGA when it is so easy to believe.

Another thing that could be at play with the fact that Jlaw emerged as a victim before Adams might have to do with the lead singer effect (what I call this particular cognitive error that I can’t remember the actual name of).  This follows the train of thought that the success (or failure) of the band is most often first attributed to the lead singer because they, in a way, are perceived as representative of everyone and/or are the most noticeable (ex. to me, Maroon 5 is Adam Levine’s band).  American Hustle got a crap ton of Oscar nominations and Jlaw was undoubtedly the most salient and critically acclaimed cast member—if there was a lead singer of the film, I’d argue it was her more than anyone (even Metacritic chose her individual poser to represent the American Hustle critics page, placing her image right next to the 90% rating).  This perception likely only stoked the flames at the idea that she wasn’t paid the most, and may be why so many people who challenge the idea that Jlaw was not a victim of WGA is met with such hostility from both fans and press alike.  I feel holding onto the JWGA in spite of contradictory facts is a result of some blend of belief perseverance and cognitive dissonance, assuming that the original belief is that Jlaw was a victim of the patriarchy as her star power was and always will be infallible and greater than everyone else’s.  These are just guesses, really so much psych research could play here.  The take home point is that you’re not stupid or illogical for believing the JWGA.  We tend to believe what we’re told as a rule, especially when it’s trending.  It takes cognitive effort to contradict it.


*Narrative is a word I use to describe the story that press creates about people.  For example, Oscar “narratives” are created by press in Oscar season to paint potential success stories for nominated actors or actresses—they elicit emotional reactions (ex. they’re a good person so I want them to win, they’re overdue, etc.), which makes you invested, which results in more clicks for them.   Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper have very strong career narratives.

**I define a “hard flop” as a film that makes substantially less money than it cost to make and market.  These kinds of films usually have a large budget, a wide distribution, lots of promotion, and a headlining star that’s definitely banking millions for their involvement.  You can’t blame a lack of access, minimal press or advertising, or a lack of a “star” as the reason the movie fails.


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