Jennifer Lawrence Pens Open Letter to Hollywood About Pay Inequality, and It's Fantastic

Pay inequality in Hollywood — and elsewhere — is a huge problem, and Jennifer Lawrence is tired of being a nice negotiator.
Publish date:
October 15, 2015
gender equality, Hollywood, pay gap, Jennifer Lawrence

Fallout from the Sony hackings continues to trundle along, and this week brought about a particularly spectacular commentary from Jennifer Lawrence, who took Hollywood to task on the substantial pay inequality revealed in the emails. Specifically, she took on the painfully obvious pay gap for American Hustle. According to the Washington Post, it broke down pretty solidly along gendered lines, despite the fact that many of the female actors were box office dynamite.

The e-mail detailed the 'points' — or percentages of back-end profits — that each of the film’s main actors was to receive, and noted that Lawrence wasn’t the only actress getting shortchanged. The male actors — Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper — were each getting 9 points. Amy Adams, the lead actress, was getting just 7 points...Lawrence, meanwhile, had originally been receiving only 5 points, which was later raised to 7 points.

Many Hollywood actresses were furious about the pay revelations and other disgusting things (like highly gendered language about stars, suggesting that women are "spoiled brats"). This week, Lawrence wrote a crisp letter discussing her experiences in Hollywood, and it spoke to the growing conversation about how women are punished for negotiating — Lean In aside — and how there's a demand to "be nice" when talking about money.

In the letter, she discusses fears about being perceived as "difficult" or "spoiled," the bugbears that still dog women in Hollywood today. Women have to be nice, tame, and quiet, she points out, in order to land contracts and be perceived as pleasant to work with — and Lawrence astutely pins a great deal of that on socialization. She also spoke to the gendered divisions in terms of how commentary and feedback are received in a paragraph discussing her attempt at bringing up an issue: "All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive."

Two things really struck me about the letter. One was a comment from Lawrence, and one was the way male stars responded to the piece.

"When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony," Lawrence wrote. "I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early." Her commentary reflects classic internalized sexism, and in a way, the notion that you're "failing" at negotiation is also an outgrowth of the lean in culture. "Real women," that is to say those who want to maintain their mainstream feminist cred, are now being expected to push harder, and they don't necessarily have the social supports to do that unless they're in positions of considerable power.

While I completely agree that pushing the point and refusing to let people engage in the casual sexism of compensating women much less than men — sometimes when they are better qualified, as when an actress with multiple Oscars is still offered less than an actor with none, sometimes not even a nomination — it's not as simple as "push harder."

We were reminded of that when Viola Davis — the first black woman to win a Primetime Emmy in drama — spoke about the lack of diversity in Hollywood during her poignant acceptance speech. Pretty narratives about fighting harder don't mean anything when the roles aren't there, or when women are in a social group that will get them accused of being "uppity" or "spoiled" for demanding their due.

I loathe the lean in movement with a flaming passion, and one reason why is that it's primarily designed for women in a position of dominance. Lawrence should absolutely be paid on par with her male stars (and sometimes more, depending on how the numbers fall out), and we should absolutely have this conversation, but let's not kid ourselves and claim all women in Hollywood are treated equally, because they aren't. Are they all victims of sexism? Yes, but some deal with other pernicious issues, like racism and classism — see the contempt for the Kardashians, for example, and how it ties in with attitudes about educational status and economic class.

Lawrence has received a groundswell of support across Hollywood, which is a good thing, with both men and women acknowledging that there's a pay gap and demanding that Hollywood start to take meaningful steps to address it. One thing I haven't seen, however, is men putting their literal money where their mouth is: They handwring about the unfairness of compensation in Hollywood, but when they compare earnings with women, they don't come up with a logical conclusion that would be a marked form of protest.

Why not donate that disparity to the charitable organizations run by these actresses, or to women's causes? Lawrence herself notes that she didn't fight that hard because she's not exactly hurting for money, although there would be something powerfully symbolic in a male costar handing over a check for the difference (she could, after all, opt to donate it). Her male costars aren't exactly hurting for money either, and it would be an incredible act of solidarity.

Men should be pushing themselves to think critically and ask not just how they can speak, but how they can act. For the men of Hollywood to turn their back on the studio system — to balance out pay in cases where they haven't been compensated fairly, and to demand fair pay before signing contracts — would be an incredible development for Hollywood. We're already learning that female leads like Jennifer Lawrence are incredibly powerful box office draws, and men should be backing them up before the deal is inked, not in statements made on a promotional tour after the fact.

Lawrence's letter, and the response from Hollywood, also make me wonder about her agent's role in contract negotiations. Agents are focused on getting their clients as much money as possible to reap that percentage, and Lawrence's agent should have pushed harder for pay inequality and encouraged her to do the same. Lawrence may blame herself due to internalised sexism, but some of the blame also lies on the people intimately familiar with the industry who should have been pushing harder for her.

All of these issues speak to the larger problem her letter is bringing up for us socially: The infamous cone of silence that surrounds money. We're not supposed to talk about money, discussing money is impolite (especially for women), negotiating is not okay, and demanding transparency is unacceptable.

The law regarding salary discussions is complex. Officially, employees within a company are allowed to disclose and share information about their compensation — as when Googler Eric Baker compiled a spreadsheet to allow coworkers to compare their wages. Google was not happy about it, but she wasn't technically violating the law. The National Labor Relations Act specifically protects this right as part of the right to organize.

But when it comes to getting information about other employers, the situation is more complicated. Some organizations actually require staff members to sign nondisclosure agreements regarding their pay, which makes it functionally impossible to negotiate. Sites like Glassdoor can provide hints about what people are making, depending on how much people are willing to share, and the information can be outdated. People moving jobs or accepting positions may have no idea how much to request and how much to negotiate for, and that's deliberate. Women in particular can be punished for asking too many questions about salary, because it's not ladylike.

Very few industries, let alone individual companies, encourage transparency that would allow workers to compare their salary with others in a company and consider factors like seniority, experience, training, and awards or high performance reviews. Imagine what the world would look like if everyone was required to disclose earnings, like politicians publicly file their taxes.

I know how much Barack Obama earned last year ($477,383, filed jointly with Michelle Obama), which isn't at all relevant to my own salary negotiation practices, but I can't tell you how much a freelance commentator earns for an op-ed in the Times -- and many people for whom this would be pertinent information are still afraid to ask.

Photo: Red Carpet Report (Flickr, CC)