Should we really listen to Jennifer Lawrence over the gender pay gap?

Published

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Rachel Walker
Writer

In 2014, the pay gap between men and women stood at 19.1% in modern Britain; in the USA, the gap rose to 21%. According to the Global Gender Gap Index issued by the World Economic Forum, not one country has full equality between the genders and, at the current rate of growth, it will take 81 years for the gap to close. These are undeniably shocking statistics and are indicative of an endemic problem in today’s society – an issue that resonates with literally half of the world’s population, and one that urgently needs to be addressed.

Maybe that’s why Jennifer Lawrence’s recent essay on her own experience of the pay gap is the first result upon Googling the actress’s name. Published on Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s newsletter, ‘Lenny’, the essay outlines Lawrence’s response to the 2014 Sony hack which revealed that pay for the stars of Oscar-nominated film American Hustle appeared to be based on nothing more than gender. Jennifer Lawrence and her co-star Amy Adams both received 7% of the film’s profits, while her male counterparts were earning 9% each. It’s difficult to imagine how such blatant sexism even exists today and is a clear, persuasive argument for wage transparency in the workplace, even in such a high-profile environment as Hollywood. Lawrence describes her feelings of anger at the discovery and her sense that she had failed, that by worrying about being likeable and accommodating and not pushing for extra pay (unlike her male co-stars, who are commended for being ‘fierce’ and ‘tactical’), she was unconsciously subscribing to gender norms. She suggests that women are conditioned to behave in a way that doesn’t offend men, and that men find it easier to express their opinions in professional situations.

It makes a lot of sense: the statistics clearly demonstrate that women inexplicably earn less than men, and in the light of Hollywood’s less-than-progressive attitude towards diversity (the fact that Kathryn Bigelow is still the only woman to have won a Best Director Oscar is ample evidence of that), it’s not surprising that the film industry is still tacitly perpetuating the myth that women’s work is worth less than men’s. And to anyone who’s ever noted that a female politician’s bossiness, feistiness and tendency to nag is equal to a male politician’s dynamism, perseverance and success, then it’s hardly shocking that society largely expects women to be nice, kind and content with any pay that comes their way. After all, it’s men who are the real achievers, isn’t it?

Her essay has proved provocative, with endless celebrities chiming in with their opinions.  Jessica Chastain, Bradley Cooper, Josh Hutcherson and even Hillary Clinton have weighed in: the Internet is simply teeming with praise, condemnation and pride. People have pointed out that Lawrence was in fewer scenes than her male co-stars so she deserves less pay anyway (fair enough, but that doesn’t really explain Amy Adams’ lesser earnings), that she is, in fact, the best paid actress in Hollywood, and, most popularly, that her attitude simply isn’t realistic and won’t resonate with the typical working woman who doesn’t have millions to fall back on.

After reading about the story in different news sources, I have to admit that my reaction was mixed: yes, she deserves just as much money as her male counterparts, but is missing out on a few million dollars really enough of a grievance to share it with the world? But Lawrence goes out of her way to specify that her problems aren’t relatable and while her lower wage won’t affect her materially or cause any major difference to her life, unlike many of the women who do experience a wage gap, it is still an example of sexist institutions that need to be discarded. And it must be said that while everyone has been criticising Lawrence for her bratty whining (another misogynist label usually attached to women for trying to right injustice), no-one seems to have mentioned the men in question, who fought for the money that Lawrence herself is slated for wishing that she had. Double standards in action. It’s easy to criticise her under the banner of a poor little rich girl mentality but, after all, she has the right to voice her own experiences and her encounters with sexism are just as valid as anyone else’s. At no point does she pretend to share the same problems as working class women – and if she did try and address more serious issues, it would undoubtedly strike a false note because her own experience simply cannot compare.

Truthfully, the most surprising thing about the entire essay is how much people actually care.  After seeing a ceaseless stream of articles repeating Lawrence’s words and punchy headlines like ‘Jennifer Lawrence Slams Gender Wage Gap in Candid Essay’ (People), ‘Jennifer Lawrence Is Done Holding Back on the Hollywood Wage Gap’ (Vanity Fair) and ‘Jennifer Lawrence Hits A Nerve with Essay’ (NPR), I was expecting a long, scathing indictment of the gender pay gap or a raw, frank treatment of her own experiences of sexism. Then I read the piece myself, and I discovered it was neither: undeserving of all the admiration and censure it has elicited, I can’t help feeling (rather cynically) that the entire matter has been blown out of proportion and that it has only received so much press and attention because of who Jennifer Lawrence is. It doesn’t seem much different from countless other pieces about sexism that are shared everyday on social media, and that is precisely what it is: one woman’s experience of sexism, an experience that is admittedly far removed from the average woman’s life, but one that is important for that reason, and for that reason only.