Jennifer Lawrence with her "Hunger Games" co-stars Josh Hutcherson (left) and Liam Hemsworth.
Photo by Gage Skidmore.
There was something disconcerting to me about Jennifer Lawrence’s recent essay on apparent sexism in Hollywood pay scales, and it had nothing to do with the extent to which discrimination does or does not exist in the film industry.
Lawrence was among a group of actresses whose private photographs were stolen and leaked to the Internet last year. At the time, I felt highly protective of her. I wouldn’t look at her stolen pictures, even to confirm they were still online when I wrote about her victimization, nor was I willing to ask an employee to do so in the normal course of verifying the post’s factual content. As I said then, further spreading or viewing the images in the name of “journalism” was misguided at best. The images were stolen property, plain and simple.
But Lawrence may have missed the irony in basing her recent commentary on emails that were purloined from Sony’s film studio by minions of that great defender of women’s rights, Kim Jong Un.
Lawrence’s remarks originally appeared in Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter email newsletter and were subsequently reshared through Lawrence’s Facebook page. She wrote that “When the Sony hack happened and [she] found out how much less” she was being compensated than her male co-stars, she was initially angry with herself for failing to negotiate more effectively, but subsequently began to question whether the disparity had an element of gender bias as well.
Considering Lawrence’s fame, it is not surprising that her comments triggered a large reaction. Bradley Cooper, one of the co-stars she named, has expressed support for her stance, as has “Harry Potter” actor Emma Watson and a variety of other Hollywood performers. Fans, too, have widely distributed the story through social media, with over 25,000 shares on Facebook alone. A little under a year after Sony was originally hacked, Lawrence has undoubtedly drawn a great deal of additional attention to at least one part of the stolen information.
Is there a big difference between the theft of private personal photos and sensitive business correspondence? Maybe to the subject of the photos in question, but not so much to me.
As I write this post, I am in the midst of negotiating office leases with several landlords who consider their deals with other tenants to be proprietary information. Suppose a sheaf of misappropriated documents showed up in my email inbox today, detailing exactly what deals the landlords had cut with my prospective neighbors. Should I look at this email and use the information in my negotiations? Or should I notify the landlords that their security had been breached and delete the errant email, unopened?
I am sure I would do the latter. If I didn’t, I would fully deserve to be infected with malware in the likely event that the hacker was actually more interested in my system than my landlord’s.
Moving past the point of whether Lawrence should have made such public use of the stolen Sony emails, is she correct in assuming that her compensation reflects mere gender discrimination and her own negotiating naivete? Though she did not name the movie outright, she mentioned Cooper, Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner, her co-stars in Sony’s film (via Columbia Pictures) “American Hustle.” Was her place on the compensation scale for “American Hustle” ultimately unfair, whether through her lack of business savvy, gendered double standards or some combination of the two?
I am no Hollywood insider, so I cannot answer this question authoritatively. But I will observe that all three of the male co-stars she named received higher billing than Lawrence and played characters who were more central to the film’s plot than hers. Bale played the film’s lead role, as was reflected in his Academy Award nomination, just as Lawrence’s nomination for the Oscar in the Supporting Actress category reflected the scale of her part. Cooper also served as a co-executive producer for the film.
If one of my daughters had found herself in Lawrence’s position and asked me whether I thought the film’s pay scale reflected sexism, I would in turn have asked whether the credits already implied that her fellow actors received more money. I don’t think Lawrence needed North Korea’s dictator to tell her that they did.
The reality of compensation for labor is much more complex than it is often portrayed, whether on screen or in the rhetoric of social movements. Lawrence is a terrific actor. I want to see as much of her work as I can, including the final “Hunger Games” film, due out next month. In that franchise, Lawrence does indeed carry each movie, and I certainly would expect her to be the actor receiving the largest paycheck. (For what it’s worth, the films are distributed through Lions Gate Entertainment, not Sony.) As Lawrence gains acting credits and work experience, not to mention financial independence, she will be in a position to hold out for the deal she thinks she deserves more often than not.
That said, I would not expect female actors, in general, to make as much as male actors until several changes occur. First, as in the “Hunger Games” films, the female actors need to play the biggest roles in films in which they appear. Second, in order for that to happen, these roles will have to be written for women. Realistically, this will probably require more women writing, directing and producing films, positions in which they are still notoriously underrepresented. Third, these films will have to have as much perceived potential for profit as films centering on male leads. Increasingly, films’ profit potential is determined not just at the U.S. box office, but also in cinemas overseas and by the amounts secondary distributors, like Netflix or cable TV channels, are prepared to pay for them.
It is not at all clear that Lawrence is actually a victim of anything in this situation, though she might be. It might also be worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, including the appropriate use of stolen intellectual property, before we come to any conclusions. Lawrence has inarguably played the role of “victim” before. It is much less clear that she has sufficient cause now to reprise the part.