North Korean hackers might have done more for the wage gap in Hollywood than anyone in entertainment history. In December of 2014, hacked e-mails revealed conversations about disparities in American Hustle stars’ pay that prompted Jennifer Lawrence to speak out and sparked an ongoing conversation about the wage gap in Hollywood. Following the the hack, Lawrence’s fellow actresses began sharing similar stories. In July of 2015 Amanda Seyfried told The Sunday Times that she was paid 10 percent of what her male co-star was paid on a big-budget film despite the fact that they were “pretty even in status.” Vulture hypothesized that the film was Les Miserables and the co-star a pre-Oscar winning/Harry Potter spinoff leading Eddie Redmayne. That Fall, Sienna Miller told Vogue that a producer for a Broadway play had tried to get her to settle for less than half the salary of a male lead (she left the production). In her memoir Diane Keaton revealed that she didn’t get a back-end (a percentage of box office grosses) for 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give despite the fact that she was an Oscar winner and the film’s star. Jack Nicholson got a back-end despite a smaller role in the film and sent Keaton part of his check to make up for the disparity. And of course Gillian Anderson recently reported that she was offered half of co-star David Duchovny’s pay for the X-Files revival after fighting for years to equal his pay on the original series.
Last week, American Hustle’s Amy Adams finally spoke about being paid less than male co-stars for the filmexplaining,
I knew I was being paid less and I still agreed to do it because the option comes down to do it or don’t do it. So you just have to decide if it’s worth it for you. It doesn’t mean I liked it.
Adams has publicly been far less critical of the disparity than Lawrence, though she clearly found herself in a bind that her male costars did not – if she wanted a part in an almost sure-to-be successful prestige film, she felt that she had to acquiesce to unequal pay.
With all of this press it’s probably not surprising that the wage gap is often misrepresented. Responding to questions about the ongoing debate in Hollywood, Kristen Stewart recently offered her own (mis)understanding of the gap to Variety, explaining:
“it sounds weird for me to sit around and be like it’s not fair…it’s like, well guys make more money because their movies make more money…it makes sense.”
Actually, it doesn’t. And it’s important to get this right because it’s hard to advocate for efforts to address wage inequality, let alone figure out what those efforts should look like, when the origins of the wage gap are being wildly misrepresented.
To illustrate how Stewart gets the wage gap problem so very wrong, let’s turn to the salary that started it all.
Before negotiations were final for American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence had been nominated for two Golden Globes and two Oscars and won one of each for Silver Lining’s Playbook, which was directed by American Hustle’s David O’Russell. This is notable because Golden Globe and Oscar wins are associated with box-office boosts for films and improve an actor’s negotiating power in future deals. She had co-starred in a successful reboot of X-Men and starred in the first of four Hunger Games films. The latter, her first franchise lead, grossed more than Bradley Cooper’s The Hangover or Christian Bale’s Batman Begins and triple what Renner’s Bourne Legacy grossed worldwide.
According to hacked Sony e-mails, in December of 2013 Sony executive Andrew Gumpert received a call from Lawrence’s attorneys arguing that it was unfair that the male actors (Cooper, Bale, and Renner) were getting 9 percent on the back-end while Lawrence was only getting 7.
Some quick Hollywood jargon 101: Actors are increasingly paid in part through back-end deals that guarantee them a certain percentage of box office grosses (a set portion of the films earnings after it breaks even). These are referred to as percentage points or just points.
At the time of the e-mails the talent deals were: Director David O’Russell: 9%; Bradley Cooper: 9%; Christian Bale: 9%; Jeremy Renner: 9%; Jennifer Lawrence: 7%; Amy Adams: 7%. As it stood, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams would get 7% of the film’s profits, and every male actor and the male director would receive 9%.
In their critique of Lawrence’s unequal pay claim Deadline reported (without naming a source) that Cooper and Bale had both given a point from their back-end to bring Lawrence up. If true, that would mean that they had each been at 10 points when Lawrence was offered 5. That’s half of the back-end earnings of fellow supporting cast-member Cooper and almost half of that of fellow supporting cast-member Renner. Neither of whom was in the midst of leading a franchise with anything near the earnings of The Hunger Games.
At least two of the Sony execs in the e-mail conversation about Lawrence’s rates had previously received e-mails from another exec sharing coverage of Lawrence “stealing the show” in American Hustle, along with predictions about “Oscar #2.” After hearing that Jennifer Lawrence’s lawyers had complained about her points Sony second-in-command Doug Belgrad wrote to Sony head of business affairs Andrew Gumpert and Sony President Amy Pascal, “it’s a joke that JLa is at 7 and Renner is at 9.”
But according to Lawrence, that’s where they stayed. And those 3 percentage points amounted to a difference of $3 million in back-end earnings between the male and female leads.
All of this suggests that explanations for this wage gap that focus on male co-stars previous higher pay, or on Lawrence’s status as a supporting rather than lead actress in the film are just plain wrong. She was part of the supporting cast but so were Cooper and Renner, both of whom had better back-end deals and neither of whom had more critical success than Lawrence or box-office success near Lawrence. Renner had co-starred in 2012’s The Avengers but was 6th billed and remains one of two Avengers whose character has not been given their own film so I’m hesitant to count the film’s success in his credits as I would count his Bourne film or Lawrence’s Hunger Games. It seems like Sony execs agree, hence admitting that the Renner/Lawrence gap was “a joke.”
A female agent at a top agency recently weighed in on the ongoing wage debate in Cosmopolitan, noting the role motherhood can play in inequalities. According to the agent, if Lawrence had happened to be a mother she might have had to trade some of her already unequal pay for perks that would allow her to maintain some semblance of work/family balance – plane tickets for children and nannies, a trailer large enough for her family. Which means that disparities in how child-rearing responsibilities are distributed can mean unequal pay even for beautiful Hollywood darlings with money for multiple nannies and housekeepers. And there was a mother on that set, the equally unequally paid Amy Adams.
Eventually Lawrence published her own account of how she came to make less than her male co-stars on American Hustle, admitting that she “failed as a negotiator” and “gave up early” in part because she wanted to be liked: “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’” According to Lawrence, when she saw the pay rates after the hack she realized that “every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’…If anything, I’m sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical, while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share.” Hacked e-mails reveal that worry to be pretty well-founded – producer Scott Rudin referred to Angelina Jolie as a “spoiled brat” in multiple exchanges with Sony Pictures exec Amy Pascal. Why? He and Jolie were competing over the same director and she wouldn’t back down. producer Scott Rudin referShe went on explain that more recently she had spoken up at work “in a clear and no-bullshit way; no aggression, just blunt” and the man she was talking to (who worked for her) was visibly affronted: “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!”
This account echoes the findings of years of research on gender and negotiation. In the workplace generally, women who are perceived to be violating gender norms experience penalties. For example, professional women tend to be viewed as competent but low on warmth and are consequently “viewed grudgingly as worthy of respect,” “not well liked” and the subject of feelings of envy and hostility. But, women who fulfill gender norms (new mothers perceived as “warm” for example) are also penalized with assumptions of incompetence. When women violate gendered expectations by appearing assertive or competitive or engaging in self-promotion in business negotiations, they experience backlash in the form of negative evaluations and treatment. Scholars of social psychology and business organization have found that particularly when negotiating on their own behalf, women “consciously adjust their level of assertiveness” in order to avoid “the realistic threat of backlash.” Unsurprisingly, women have consistently been found to be less likely to initiate negotiations than men, and more likely to actively avoid a potential negotiation.
Concerns about being liked would seem to be especially important in the entertainment industry where one has to worry not just about their reputation among executives and co-workers, but their reputation (and consequent bankability) among the public at large. It’s important to recognize that Jennifer Lawrence is worried about being stuck with a bad reputation that she is uniquely susceptible to as a woman – a brat – and that this reputation also has the potential to undermine her negotiating power. If an actress is labeled a brat – someone who is over-entitled and makes unreasonable demands – it becomes easy to write off their claims as irrational or excessive.
At this point I should note that in Hollywood and everywhere else, women of color consistently receive even lower wages than white women. Despite this disparities among women have rarely been addressed in wage gap conversation, and the experiences of women of color have gone largely unheard. In fact, women of color are so unlikely to have had a leading role in a blockbuster film, let alone to have helmed a franchise that it is impossible to compare their pay to that of male co-stars (or white women) while controlling for things like past earnings or prestige in the way that we can with Jennifer Lawrence. In a conversation with MTV News about the gap Rosario Dawson suggested that there is a double bind facing women of color in Hollywood. Often the male and female lead are paid millions, while the supporting cast (where you are most likely to find people of color) receive the Screen Actor’s Guild’s minimum pay. As Dawson explains,
“You’re privileged to work with this director and these actors, but it’s a Catch-22. You need to make money so you need to have work, and to be able to get work you have to get to a place where your name means something and you make these sacrifices — like, ‘OK, I’ll do this for nothing, but hopefully the movie will do well and it will help me out later.’”
Why is this the case? It seems to have a lot to do with troubling and factually incorrect ideas about what kinds of people audiences want to hear stories about and thus who is most bankable, who can play certain kinds of roles, and the stubborn insistence on a white default for many roles. In this sense, critiques like #OscarsSoWhite are linked to raced and gendered wage gaps because access to blockbuster or prestige roles, and White industry leaders’ judgments about which roles and films are valued and awarded, go a long way toward determining an actress or actor’s negotiating power.
Beyond the relationship between culture and negotiations, there is a lot going on to suggest that regardless of hard numbers, actresses and their work are taken less seriously and accorded less value. Discussing the wage gap in Variety Sandra Bullock explained,
It’s a bigger issue than money. I know we’re focused on the money part right now. That’s just a byproduct. I keep saying, ‘Why is it that no one is standing up and saying you can’t say that about a woman?’ We’re mocked and judged in the media and articles. Really, how men are described in articles versus women, there’s a big difference. I always make a joke: ‘Watch, we’re going to walk down the red carpet, I’m going to be asked about my dress and my hair while the man standing next to me will be asked about his performance and political issues.’
As Bullock notes, red carpets are notorious for this kind of old-school blatant gender divide and devaluation. Red carpet reporters focus almost exclusive on women’s appearance while asking men substantive questions about their work with the occasional perfunctory question about who they’re wearing. Cameras often pan up women’s bodies from toe to head. E! even pioneered a camera to capture close-up shots of manicured hands “walking” down a hand-sized red carpet diorama. It’s a bit like someone asked E! to produce a caricature of objectification. These kinds of systematic differences seem to implicitly support wage disparities by disproportionately trivializing women’s work. Women in Hollywood (and most of the rest of the country) operate in a culture in which their work is treated as less serious, arduous, or professional, in part through the repeated and public portrayal of their bodies as more important than their skills and experiences. As Bullock says, wage gaps are a “byproduct” of an industry that takes women less seriously than men.
Thinking back to Jennifer Lawrence, if it is easier to ask for big money when you’ve earned big money, that means that blockbusters and franchises are key to reaching the upper echelons of star salaries (and women starring in those films is key to wage equality). Those kinds of films tend to star men alongside a token (almost always white) woman and sometimes star white women (think Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, The Avengers series, the Transformers series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the The Dark Knight trilogy, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the original Star Wars).
Even when women do play significant roles in blockbusters they rarely get the kind of attention or promotion that their male co-stars get – promotion that one might assume would improve their status and marketability. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, the only female member of the Avengers, has been noticeably absent from much of the franchise’s merchandise. She was the only Avenger not to have her own shirt at the Disney Store. An Avengers action figure set replicating an iconic Black Widow scene in the most recent film replaced the Black Widow and her motorcycle with Captain America and Iron Man. Guardian of the Galaxy’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana) was similarly absent from merchandise, to fan’s frustration (#WheresGamora). Daisy Ridley’s Rey, an absolutely central character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens was also missing from much of the film’s early merchandise. Fans again expressed their frustration via a trending hashtag (#WheresRey). Official responses cited the need not to “spoil” Rey’s role in the movie. An inside source has alleged that “initial versions of many of the products presented to Lucasfilm featured Rey prominently” but that under orders of executives, Rey’s presence was minimized because of concern “about the presence of female characters in the Star Wars products.” Focusing on “what sells,” executives told the insider “no boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.”
But it isn’t all bad news. The #AskHerMore movement now trends on twitter every award show, offering suggestions for substantive questions and critiquing the sexism of red carpet coverage. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls group has partnered with twitter and award shows to bring substantive questions directly to the red carpet, accepting question suggestions via #SmartGirlsAsk. The women of Guardians of the Galaxy,The Avengers, and Star Wars may have been missing in merchandise but they’re very much in the films and fan outcry seems to be resulting in increased presence in merchandise. When Shonda Rhimes isn’t being described by the New York Times as an angry black woman she’s creating or producing five wildly successful network shows featuring diverse, complicated female (and male) characters. Charlize Theron just starred as a disabled, gun-toting, war-truck driving soldier and co-conspirator of rebelling rape survivors in Mad Max. Melissa McCarthy starred in an action film that grossed $253 million worldwide (though she also spoke out about the “intense sickness” of the industry’s sexism after a reviewer harshly criticized her body). Netflix’s latest superhero Jessica Jones survived sexual abuse and -spoiler alert- ended the show with what was essentially a much darker version of the Frozen conclusion (female relationships conquer all!). There is a gender-bending Ghostbusters remake in the works co-starring Leslie Jones (in an already contentious role). The success of DreamWork’s animated feature Home – with Rihanna voicing a young black girl and Jennifer Lopez voicing her mother – may have saved the studio. Oh, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Hunger Games made billions.
 For us normals this might take the form of taking time off to stay home with sick children (women are ten times more likely than men to do so) or forgoing a time-intensive project or work-trip – exactly the kinds of things that shape pay raises. Or, it might mean taking a more flexible job that pays less, or choosing to work part time in an effort to balance (unequal) work and family responsibilities.
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