Hollywood and the gender-based wage gap

Arquette and Pascal 2

When most people think of Hollywood, they think of pampered, overpaid stars. So it’s strange then, that Hollywood has suddenly been at the forefront of the gender-based wage gap debate. Most recently at this year’s Academy Awards, Patricia Arquette made an impassioned plea for wage equality during her acceptance speech for best supporting actress.

The speech was praised by many and even got enthusiastic applause from Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez.

However, Arquette was criticized by LGBT and racism activists when she later said offstage: “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now.”

Andrea Grimes sums up why this comment was problematic in an article for RH Reality Check: “Arquette thoroughly erases gay women and women of color and all intersecting iterations of those identities by creating these independent identity groups as if they do not overlap…” But people were already taking about wage equality in Hollywood before Arquette’s controversial plea for equal pay.

One embarrassing detail (among many!) to emerge from the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack this past November, was the fact that Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were guaranteed a smaller portion of back-end profits than their male co-stars for the film “American Hustle.”

This discrepancy in pay struck many as blatantly sexist. The pay gap didn’t seem to be based on who had more screen time. If that was the case, Amy Adams would have been paid more, not less than her costars, Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper, because she had a bigger role in the film. The discrepancy also didn’t seem to be based on star power. At the time “American Hustle” was filmed, Jennifer Lawrence had already made “The Hunger Games” and was arguably one of the biggest stars attached to the project.

It would also be hard for anyone to argue that the male stars of the film were paid more because they had a more prestigious reputation. When filming began, Lawrence had just won an Academy Award for “Silver Linings Playbook” and in the past had also been nominated for an Academy Award for “Winter’s Bone.”  Amy Adams also brought the prestige factor. In an article for The Washington Post, Sally Kohn keenly pointed out that at the time they were negotiating back-end payments, Amy Adams had already been nominated for four Academy Awards, which was more nominations than two of the three male stars of the film had combined.

Tina Brown asked the former top film executive at Sony Pictures, Amy Pascal, about all of this recently during an interview at the “Women in the World” conference in San Francisco. Pascal’s response was rather blunt. This is what she said:

“OK, so here’s the problem: I run a business. People want to work for less money, I’ll pay them less money. I don’t call them up and go, ‘Can I give you some more?’ ‘Cause that’s not what you do when you run a business. The truth is, that what women have to do is not work for less money. They have to walk away. People shouldn’t be so grateful for jobs. I shouldn’t be grateful. None of you should be grateful. They shouldn’t be grateful. People should know what their worth and say no.”

Here’s the video if you want to see it for yourself. Pascal’s comment starts around the 3:30 mark.

Needless to say, Pascal’s advice to women pissed a lot of people off. She may have intended for her response to inspire women to take on Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “Lean In,” but to many it came off as if she was blaming the victim. “So apparently, the pay gap, like everything else, remains women’s fault,” Nate Jones wryly noted on Vulture. Another problem with Pascal’s advice is that it only makes sense when women are fully aware that they are being paid less than male coworkers and this is often not the case. Tina Brown even began her question stating this, but it either didn’t register with Pascal or she deliberately chose to ignore it.

But in the end, it would be a mistake to focus solely on what’s wrong with Arquette’s comments or Pascal’s response. Women urgently need allies in the battle for equal pay; it’s just unfortunate that Arquette’s “fight for us now” comment implies that “us” equals straight, European, cisgender women. Pascal is also right, women should know their worth and not tolerate being underpaid, but her suggestion that women should be prepared to “walk away” makes it seem like it’s an even playing field and ignores the very heart of the problem; female workers, as a whole, are often undervalued. It also ignores the plight of poorer women who don’t have a financial safety cushion that would allow them to walk away from a job.

At the same time, critics (and I include myself) who accuse Arquette of whitewashing feminism and Pascal of victim-blaming, shouldn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees: economic discrimination is the real enemy and the fact that we’re still talking about equal pay for equal work in 2015, is the part of the narrative that should be the most offensive.

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