The Secret Sexism of the Jlaw Wage Gap Argument and Eight Reasons to Put an End to It

My previous blog piece gave a counterargument to the notion that Jennifer Lawrence was a victim of the gender pay gap in American Hustle.  I gave eight points at the end of that piece as to how the Jlaw Wage Gap Argument (JWGA) is hurting women, and here’s a deeper explanation for each.  The ultimate goal is to hopefully start having the right conversation on gender equality (pay and otherwise), which means moving away from the JWGA as fast as possible.

The Joke is on Feminist Journalism

(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;

As a psych-academic-in-training, the first thing that gets my blood boiling is social injustice and inequality; the second is when people falsify information or data to draw inaccurate or sensationalized claims.  This will end your career in my field, and yet, it’s the norm in the JWGA (which was the take home from my previous piece).  In truth, it is so much harder to address social inequality and injustice when the loudest arguments against it are self-indulgent and easily contradictable.  These approaches to the WGA further empower oppressive parties most as it’s a plea for help that is incredibly easy to dispute with a plethora of public resources (see my previous post).  It’s completely backwards, but the JWGA benefits “the patriarchy” most, as it makes women look like they are hysterical (a gender stereotype, mind you) over nothing.

The law of “clickbait” certainly applies to the JWGA too (something even Mary Sue acknowledges that they do), which is a cheat cheap way to make a profit off of people by providing sensationalized or emotion-triggered headlines/stories that doesn’t even require sufficient fact-checking before publishing.  As someone who isn’t paid to blog, I can’t fully comprehend the pressures that websites face to stay on top.  For this reason, I understand if press (including self-proclaimed “feminist” outlets like Jezebel and Mary Sue) almost exclusively pitch clickbait to keep their lights on, but I feel the temptation to keep these clicks coming creates the aforementioned easy-to-disprove or inherently self-defeating arguments.  I hate how dramatic this sounds, but what else could an oppressive patriarchy want than to have feminist pieces routinely associated with something as cheap and inconsequential as clickbait?  It further hinders women’s ability to have their intellect/experiences taken seriously (see: hysterical) and gives the impression that the writers are more invested in what readers want to believe is true rather than what actually is true.  These factors largely comprise why so little “feminist journalism” is taken seriously now, even by staunch feminists, and largely why notoriously feminist-demonizing rags like Breitbart have ever-expanding platforms.

Perhaps most important is the fact that these JWGA articles come from companies, not philanthropies.  The media is not our BFF, they supply a product that we consume.  The seeming nobility attached to all professional thinkpieces, (ex. in the case of self-proclaimed feminist sites—“I’m fighting to have women’s voices heard despite the online adversity I face from the patriarchy!”) is admittedly cheapened a little when you realize that there’s a paycheck attached to it and you just helped provide it.  Per the JWGA, I would love to see any of these news outlets besides Mary Sue acknowledge that they know outrage culture is lucrative and that they depend on it for profit, but so far this truth has been largely unacknowledged.  Really—it’s time to drop the JWGA both as clickbait and as an uninformed argument.

BTW—did you know that both Jezebel and Mary Sue are founded and/or currently run by white men?!  *cue misogynist conspiracy theories*

Pot, Meet Kettle

(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;

A better conversation than the JWGA is how rape culture and oversexualizing women (especially Jlaw) is so normalized by press that it’s near impossible to address in real life scenarios.  I wish I could confront Vanity Fair on the problems they create for my gender when they photograph a greased-up, naked Jlaw writhing on the floor with a snake, toes curled, legs clenched, sex-scowling, and panting (below).  Not only do they communicate that such an image is good, they even try to convince readers that it’s “empowering.”  Spoiler: sexualizing a woman in a magazine is never empowering—if you want proof for this, poll people anonymously.  I’m confident that the consensus will not be a greater respect for women’s choice to cover up, to look for women’s sense of empowerment through their intelligence or work, to not look at women like the sex will come out if you just feed her a compliment about her physical appearance, etc.  Sexim and objectification of women online and in media almost always just begets more sexism and objectification.  This is even worse considering Jlaw’s narrative: She’s the Everygirl, she’s just like every normal woman, and now she’s naked and objectified—“just like you are!”  If you ask Vanity Fair about sexism in Hollywood, they will argue the JWGA ad nauseum—they’ll even acknowledge the importance of female image while they’re at it—but they won’t take her wet naked breasts off the cover of their magazine.  They, along with countless others, continue to pitch women as ass up, breasts out, lips parted, and just-nude-enough.   But don’t worry, they care a lot if Jlaw gets paid 8 million instead of 10 million, which is the real problem that us normal woman face all the time.


This problem generalizes to other magazines, albeit it looks a bit different.  A random sampling of Hollywood Reporter (HR) and Time magazine covers show that both feature men more often on their covers or, when women are given a cover, they are not independently featured as often as men are.  Both highbrow press outlets have shown wide support for the JWGA, but both also represent men more in their reporting.  To me it communicates that Katie Holmes and Octavia Spencer might be invited to HR’s prestigious roundtables, but they’re not as important as Adam Levine (?) or The Rock in serving as the face of their magazine.  It’s almost a subtle reinforcement of the notion that women belong in the ensemble versus the lead.

time 1HR

This is the kind of pot-calling-the-kettle-black stuff that the JWGA lets us ignore—press passionately claims that we should stop devaluing women while they continue to devalue women.  Sometimes I feel like they’re trying to trick us into believing that they are on our “side,” but only so they can maintain the norm. Again, the media is not our BFF.

Women Shaming Women

(3) It has created 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;

Shame and “shaming” are a huge characteristics of our collective culture, and it’s not just something that men do to women—women shame and belittle each other all the time for not reaching a consensus on what’s fair (which is A LOT of things).  This is especially evident on social media when journalistic platforms stoke the flames of outrage culture by implicitly or explicitly stating a standard of outrage that all women should comply to (thus excluding or judging women who don’t fully agree).  It has escalated to a point where a woman can be called a turncoat or trash for having a dissenting opinion on what sexism and inequality is like for her.  If there’s anything we can learn from that vernacular, it’s that our insults for each other are now sensationally cruel (remember when Heather called Veronica a Girl Scout Cookie? Lol).

The JWGA especially created opportunities for many females with journalistic platforms to shame other actresses who failed to emulate Jlaw’s seeming passion for the WGA.  This includes both passive implications and explicit accusations that some of the most talented, educated, independent, and successful women in the world, such as Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Kate Winslet, and Cate Blanchett, are cowardly, ignorant, worthy of condescension, or are even threats their gender.  In reality, they have different perspectives and experiences with pay inequality and deal with it in a less flamboyant way.  At no point in Lawrence’s essay that called out restrictive gender norms did she tell women to go after any of her peers who didn’t rally behind her, so there is no excuse as to why a multitude of women are using her actions as a way to divide, judge, belittle, antagonize, or dismiss other women.  FFS, the conversation starter was gender inequality.  If the oppressive patriarchy were a cartoon villain, he’d be twiddling his mustache in the corner right now, purring “eeexcellent.”  Seriously, if we are looking to find solidarity in our own cultural group, the JWGA needs to stop being exploited as a method women with platforms use to facilitate in-group divisiveness.

The Unicolor JWGA

 (4) 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;

This 1 minute clip from 10 Things I Hate About You is the perfect representation of internet culture to me.  Outspoken, sexist D-bags—check.  Appropriation of other cultures by white people—check.  Passionate self-labeled feminist (Kat, in the film) with intellect about certain gender inequalities while possessing a complete lack of self-awareness to her many other privileges that substantially set her ahead of most other people—check.  This latter characterization is frequently seen in the strongest JWGA advocates, and it’s reinforced by the aforementioned clickbait.  I’m far from the only person to call out some dominant “feminist” blogs for promoting privileged, “white girl feminism” clickbait over genuine advocacy for all women.  One example I have on hand is the Mary Sue Zootopia review, which was the trigger for my last social justice post on the white-bias of Zootopia.  Zootopia actually perpetuated racial inequality in filmmaking, but this caveat was completely absent in their RAVE review.  It would be one thing if this POV came from a website that does not claim to actively work towards equality and social justice (AND advocate for outrage over it), but it’s in their site’s mission statement.  I feel there’s a chance this hypocrisy is rooted in a lack of self-awareness, not conscious racial bias, but that doesn’t excuse it.  There’s no good in pitching arguments for gender equality that solely caters to the “Kat’s” worldview (e.g., the upper-middle class, educated, white girl).

Chris Rock’s confrontation of this white-bias in the JWGA and Lawrence’s privilege abuse in her essay reflects the problem perfectly and even eerily mimics the 10 Things I Hate About You clip (i.e., an established, intelligent black man calls out a young white woman who exhibits less self-awareness to her privilege on complaining about a situation that is still massively better off for her than it has been for women of color, even such women with careers three-times as long as hers).  Unsurprisingly, the general reaction from many-a-white-audience seemed to be as complacent as Kat’s was.  MTV news even called Rock’s comment “harsh” (it wasn’t) and pulled a “well, technically…” for Lawrence.  I don’t know if any news outlet got a reaction from Jlaw to Rock, but I really wish someone would—she could potentially set a great example for all white people (especially the Kat’s) on how to adopt humility when rightfully called out for not checking their white privilege.  This would also be another opportunity to confront the press for perpetuating the image of white people as the biggest victims of inequality, which is hilariously untrue.

Per this point, it’s important for me as a white woman to reach out to fellow white women who believe all women have the same experiences with inequality.  An anecdote that helped me see this came from a Tim Wise documentary: A white woman turned to a black woman and said “I know exactly what your experiences are like because we are both women,” to which the black woman replied, “That’s not true, when you look in the mirror, you see a woman.  When I look in the mirror, I see a black woman.”    For me, this was a brief but powerful glimpse into the misperception of inequality in many white people due to colorblindness and privilege (and a host of other things), which can enable white women to keep women of color down (intentionally or not).  This is crucial for everyone, including the Kat’s, to recognize–All women may have less social power than all men as a rule, but not all women have equal social power in relation to each other, and we are capable of stepping on each other as a result.  If we are advocating for change in gender inequality, we need to make sure that the argument is inclusive of all cultures and benefits more than just healthy, privileged, white women.  This includes cultures outside of race/ethnicity too.

If that last point seems short sighted, check out the races of the women who merited their own headlines on the pay gap in my previous point.  Not to mention that even pictures of white men pop up more frequently than women of color when you Google image “Hollywood Wage Gap.”

Press Manipulation of Lawrence’s Essay

(5) 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;

Lawrence’s essay was an interesting contribution to the wage gap argument, one that offered good wisdom on gender norms in business settings.  A simple way to apply this to readers is to ask men and women to reflect on how they’ve perceived female co-workers or peers, and if they’ve every used “aggressive,” “shrill,” or “bitchy” to describe them OR if they’ve ever described a female superior as a friend/equal rather than a boss.  Then, ask them how often they use the same descriptors for the men they work with, or if they tend to use more positive synonyms for the same actions, like “assertive,” “dominant,” or “driven,” and how often they refer to them as a friend versus a boss.  A gender difference in descriptors almost always emerges due to socially sanctioned norms–ex. women aren’t “supposed” to be assertive, so when they are, they’re called aggressive instead.  I feel I see this subtly manifest in academia when women with doctoral degrees are referred to as Ms. or Mrs. more often than men are referred to as Mr. (BTW the appropriate response for anyone who suffered through grad school is Dr., ALWAYS Dr.).  Of course, gender norms generalize beyond work, but at least in the case of Jlaw’s letter, she stated that she let her salary negotiation be compromised by a concern of how she would be perceived if she violated said gender norms, and it’s completely fair.  It’s a concern I share too in the hypothetical case that someone pulls a Ms. on me in two years and I’m afraid to look like I’m “being too sensitive” or “bitchy” when I make the point of correcting them. (ALWAYS Dr.)

Personally, I’m not 100% sure of the motive behind Lawrence’s decision to write the letter.  Like I mentioned in my previous post, there was ample justification for her lower salary.  I’ve decided to interpret it as a woman who decided to use her platform to speak up for others who really do get the salary shaft.  I really like seeing a famous woman care about these things too, but I dislike is how the press ran away with it.  One reaction I see the most is outlets villainizing the three “lucky people with dicks.”  Lawrence’s letter was addressed to society as a whole, and advocated for a perception change in norms from all genders.  This means that men and women are responsible for getting off their butts to make change happen, but most blogs and news outlets spent more time complaining that the male actors didn’t.  It subtly reinforces passivity and victimhood in women, which is highly disempowering—I hate these traits being prescribed to me.

Relatedly, I would love to have a conversation about feminism that didn’t talk so much about men.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with the JWGA-letter—rather than turning the focus to women and means to change, attention largely shifted to the male actors involved in American Hustle, notably Cooper and Renner.  Cooper vowed to “fight” the equal pay problem (NOT the gender norm problem), thus hilariously reinforcing the gender norm that us poor helpless women need help from men to make anything happen, and in a manner that also allowed him to avoid making a commitment to any definitive action that would actually secure better treatment of women (which he was somehowcelebrated for).  Renner delivered some truth—“actors don’t negotiate for each other”—which might’ve been fine (Adams gave the same argument) if he hadn’t chosen to come across as flippant in a conversation that merited even a soupçon of urgency; in doing so, he (intentionally or not) reinforced and/or directly played into several gender stereotypes that had become dominant themes of the JWGA (ex. powerful men don’t care about women’s problems; to many men, women’s problems are just “hysterics” that don’t merit gravity; women need men to accomplish anything that involves their own sense of agency and self-worth and any man who refuses to act as a savior are ipso facto a misogynist; if it’s not Pro-Jlaw, then it’s anti-women; etc.).  Both men received thousands of headlines for their responses and, honestly, they both suck.  We’re supposed to be having a conversation on gender equality, and the two points that press decides to circulate the most are a backhanded-sexist faux “solution” to the wrong problem or a true statement that doesn’t offer any substantial insights or insults for women beyond stereotype-reinforcements? *Cue cartoon patriarchal-villain maniacal laughter.*  Seriously, I wish press hadn’t used Jlaw’s letter to give so many opportunities to men to come to the rescue as a rule—there are so many headlines given to men in this conversation when we could’ve spent the time talking about how awesome women are.  This “three dudes with dicks”-shaming wasn’t the point of Lawrence’s essay and even contradicts its virtues, not to mention it does nothing to help me out with the gender-bias issues I face every day.  It actually reinforces the norm that men should be the given the loudest voice and center of attention, even in issues that deal with their inherent oppression of women.

I’ll add that I think there was a better way for Jlaw to deliver her argument that would possibly have been less exacerbated by press.  For the sake of constructive dialogue, I wish she hadn’t intentionally pitched her experience directly to a feminist audience by going through Lenny letters. It’s like giving an argument to a group of people who already know what you’re saying and are much more likely to respond positively or passionately to it.  This “priming” allowed many to accept the press-spun-derivatives of her letter (which were also often backhanded-sexist) at face value, which made cautionary arguments even harder to hear.  I also think the time frame that Lawrence delivered her letter wasn’t entirely appropriate either—soon before her last Hunger Games installment and Joy (another Lawrence-Cooper vehicle), which circled around a white woman’s experience with self-empowerment.  I wonder if press would’ve responded in the same way if it came out directly following the Sony hack or the window in which Serena flopped and her star power was first being questioned.  Shoulda coulda woulda.

Victimizing a Superstar

(6) 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;

Lawrence is one of the most successful women of all time, and she’s still incredibly young.  Her accomplishments are unbelievable—4 Oscar trips, two franchises (three, if you count the David O. Russells), modeling contracts, etc.  Hardly anyone in the history of the world will ever achieve something like that.  It’s remarkable and I feel a lot of pride for her.  It’s for these reasons that I can’t stand to see so many press outlets paint her as a helpless victim, and if she’s a victim, then all women are victims.  Really, Jlaw is a Unicorn, and has not once made a cry of helplessness or demanded that men come in and save her, rather claiming that she didn’t stand her ground in negotiations like actresses are told to.  Treating successful women as powerless victims is another one of the back-handed sexist arguments I mentioned.  Making such a case to turn a profit, capitalize on feminist rage, and reinforce continued confusion as to what gender equality is really all about is doubly sexist and aggressively misogynistic.  Reinforcing women-victimhood mentality even ironically reinforces the norms Lawrence was trying to combat in her essay.  It’s particularly disheartening when women write articles like these for the aforementioned in-group defensiveness too.

The more concerning message I worry it sends is that women will always be victims, regardless.  “Jlaw is just like you and was a victim of the wage gap, so it will happen to you too” is an incredibly sucky argument considering the next headline is “Jlaw to get 8 million more than her male counterpart in her next film,” because that will never happen to 99.9% of women.  It’s a happy ending for a girl “just like us” that won’t happen for anyone but her.  In many-a-press, Lawrence (and all women) are robbed of their empowerment and success just to prove this point and elicit an emotional reaction of indignation and (dare I say it…) hopelessness.  I honestly wonder if that’s the real goal of all this press–inspire outrage and hopelessness.  My next point expands on this more.

Gender Inequality in the “Real World”

(7) It has promoted an uninformed argument for the wage gap, which certainly exists but has well-researched caveats;

“If not even Jennifer Lawrence can nab equal pay, what does it say about how we value any woman’s work?”

That’s the tag line for so-many-a-blog.

In truth, there are so many conflicting opinions and articles about the wage gap that go beyond the scope of these pieces.  I will say, in the science literature, the consensus shows that women do earn less than men overall, but rarely when their qualifications and work output is matched (depending on career type).  It’s not a universal rule (Hollywood being a great example based on the outdated star system from which it operates), nor does it account for the sexism and misogyny a woman usually encounters in any work place, but it does at least help us know that wage gap inequality isn’t something every woman will absolutely experience.  Since personal experience is the only kind of intellect that matters in the blogging world, I’ll offer mine:

I’ve honestly beaten out every male applicant for all Lead Graduate Assistantships I’ve applied for in the last five years.  The highest paid person in my entire department is a woman, and she banks over $140,000 a year (this is, in science terms, Awesome Girl Power).  Furthermore, between two of my favorite professors—a husband and wife team—the female professor is paid 1k more.  Both women have children and hold the same number of office hours and classes as most other men in the department do, and their pay “bonus” likely comes from how much they publish or the kinds of research they put out.  This is a rule true of all departments at my university and tenured positions.  This is not to say that the gender pay gap doesn’t exist in academia, just that it’s not necessarily the rule, and that I have yet to experience it myself.  This is also not to say that other crappy sexist stuff doesn’t happen to women in university positions.  Personally, I’ve had multiple male bosses flirt with me on the job, been slapped with microaggressions from tenured professors, and even experienced sexual harassment from a male professor who was an audience member at a symposium that I co-led at a national conference.  These suck, but they’re things I experience on a near-daily basis, even just going to the grocery store (which leads me to underscore point #2).  My experience certainly isn’t representative of all women, but it is valid counter-evidence to the women who insist that the wage gap is as inevitable as death and taxes.

“If not even Jennifer Lawrence can nab equal pay, what does it say about how we value any woman’s work?”  My response: Please stop speaking for me.  My work is highly valued, especially given my level of training, and I’m definitely getting the professional attention I deserve for it.  I want to encourage young women who are years from entering the work force to not be discouraged from headlines or quotes like this—there are many people, men and women, who already value you tremendously for exactly who you are and the work that you will produce.  Jlaw’s paycheck is not a valid indicator of your personal worth as a human being, and it is cruel and unnecessary when news articles try to convince you that it is.

Moving from the Descriptive to the Prescriptive

 (8) It simplifies the problem of gender inequality by offering a more descriptive solution than prescriptive solution, and misplaces outrage onto actions that don’t promote change—just clicks.

At the heart of the JWGA is the fact that the press has largely provided us with a descriptive over prescriptive solution to the problem.  To wit, they’ve told us there is a problem, but largely fails to provide a realistic solution to go about fixing it.  The JWGA doesn’t really provide much guidance past this highly problematic, rage-laden, and damaging “dialogue,” which simplifies, ignores, or exacerbates many of the real world problems that women face.  It ultimately redirects anger to the “misfortunes” of a young white girl who received millions of dollars for 2.5 weeks of work and firmly sits in the top 1%.  Fixing Jlaw’s paycheck, even considering that it is a problem, does nothing to help me with the struggles I face as a woman–pay gap or otherwise.

As therapists, the number one thing that we are preoccupied with is how to facilitate change, and it applies to situations outside work with clients.  In reality, hardly any of us are ever going to be studio heads and have a say in the board room for who-gets-paid-what, but this doesn’t mean that we are powerless as audience members to advocate for change.  Some of these things include collectively redefining the “star system,” changing how hot topics and social justice issues are reported, ceasing support for press that devalues women even if it backs your fave celebrity, and “practicing what you preach” when it comes to opening night.  These points merit their own future post, but at the very least, I hope this one is enough to move beyond the JWGA onto a debate with substance.

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