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Every few months or so, the headlines of Hollywood-centric magazines are shaken by new revelations of unequal pay between a female actress and her co-star. Scandals such as Claire Foy of “The Crown” being paid less than her male counterpart, Matt Smith, almost lose some of their potency simply because of the familiarity of the narrative. However, the gender pay gap in the film industry is still an issue that is perhaps hard to sympathize with, given the multi-million dollar contracts that the women who speak up about it often earn.
The gender pay gap matters for reasons beyond what it means for the individual. It also matters beyond issues of representation: Sometimes the reason that women are paid less is because they play characters that are of secondary importance, precisely because predominantly male screenwriters wrote them that way. Another reason it matters is that the way we talk about Hollywood scandals mirrors the flawed structure of the arguments we make about gender inequality in the workplace on a daily basis.
Cases like Michelle Williams’, who was paid $1000 compared to her co-star Mark Walhberg, who got $1.5 million for the same film, undoubtedly demonstrate sexism in Hollywood extending beyond a mere calculation of what and who is profitable and into blatant discrimination. However, there are also cases where women are not being paid equally because their importance and potential are intrinsically considered inferior. Separate from the lack of female lead roles and the fact that too few films pass the Bechdel test, there is a tendency to regard the “hot sidekick” as replaceable—because she is. There is little investment in the potential star power and charisma of actresses that makes them profitable in the long run. After their youth starts to wane even a little bit, actresses are considered past their expiration date with a less successful and lucrative career path ahead of them.
A similar phenomenon happens outside of the film industry. There are numerous obstacles to women’s advancement up the professional ladder, and this immobility is one of the primary causes of the gender pay gap, but one of them in particular parallels those in the film industry. While their professional success depends on more than their physical appeal, women are not given the same opportunities for advancement if companies believe that the prospect of having children and taking some time off means the end of the women’s career at that place. The threat that disincentivizes investment in women’s careers is in this case not a younger actress’ “babyface” but a literal child. Obviously, this hurts the position of all women—those who cannot benefit from paid maternity leave, but also those who suffer from the expectation that they will need to, even if they themselves do not intend to have children. However, just as Keira Knightley has merits beyond what she could demonstrate in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” women who are systematically passed on from the audition for their “Pride and Prejudice” can never realize their potential.
Another frequent argument surrounding the pay gap is that actresses, for some mysterious reason, perpetually fail to negotiate higher wages for themselves. This is exactly the same argument many make about why women outside the film industry do not “win” higher salaries for themselves. The underlying mechanisms for poor negotiation outcomes have certainly been hinted at, as by Jennifer Lawrence, who has spoken about the fear of being perceived as difficult. These reasons, and potential retaliations for creating such an image of oneself, certainly extend even more severely to cases where women are in a position of much less power than Lawrence.
However, on closer inspection, the case of women’s pay in Hollywood actually discredits the primary version of the argument, rather than just providing (plenty of) anecdotal evidence. Namely, many of these actresses hire professionals who do the work of negotiating for them. Certainly they are involved in the process, but they are represented by someone whose job is to get the best outcome for their client. If they fail too, in the (too rare) cases where actresses are arguably appearing in roles equally important as their male counterparts’, it cannot be because they are systematically not good enough at their job, but because the game is rigged against them. This has serious repercussions for all those who cannot think to hire someone to negotiate for them.
Unfortunately, even the arguments some make for how the industry has and should improve are far from perfect. Many point to cases such as Patty Jenkins’ as indicators of change. Patty Jenkins getting paid more than $7 million, however, more closely mimics the success of Sheryl Sandberg than it does announce a radical change in the position of women in the film industry. Very definitively, Sandberg becoming COO of Facebook did not solve the issue of gender inequality in the workplace.
Hollywood can be thought to operate on precedent and once the risk of failure (and it is most definitely a risk-averse industry) is reduced, more movies such as “Wonder Woman” will be produced. However, just as there is only one position of CEO and only one Facebook, there’s a limit to the extent of change that is going to be produced among those employed on films that are not major blockbusters with $149 million budgets.
—Staff writer Petra Laura Oreskovic can be reached at email@example.com.
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