DOLLARS AND CENTS
Jennifer Lawrence’s Equal Pay Crusade: Does More Money Really Equal More Respect?
The Hunger Games star deserves the same pay as her male peers—but is a failure to negotiate higher compensation really a failure to advocate for your worth as a human being?
The public outcry when The Daily Beast broke the story that Lawrence earned less than her male peers on the set of American Hustle has been a source of renewed interest in Hollywood’s paying practices, and seemingly made it possible for Lawrence to negotiate a much more lucrative deal for her work in the upcoming sci-fi film Passengers. Speaking on the matter, Lawrence’s piece is thoughtful and frank, and offers an insightful look at the way the actress thinks when the cameras are off and no one is looking for their next viral clip.
“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. I got mad at myself,” writes Lawrence. “I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need. (I told you it wasn’t relatable, don’t hate me).”
Lawrence apologizes for bringing up money when she is making so much, and it’s this ambivalence that is the most interesting part of her article. What Lawrence’s piece illustrates is the way corporate structures use money as a symbol for other values.
When you have money, the acquisition of more money is never about money itself. Money is only important as a marker of power and respect.
Academics like to toss around fancy words for this phenomena—neoliberal capitalism is the term du jour—but the principle is simple. What you earn in dollars and cents determines not just the value of your bank account but the value of your character. A failure to demand further compensation becomes a failure to advocate for your worth as a human being and becomes an excuse for people to abuse your work.
This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Hollywood—it’s a principle that you can find in just about any American corporate structure. But the common nature of this phenomenon doesn’t make it any less unsettling.
If the money you make is your value, does that mean that your value is dependent on how much money you can generate? What happens when inevitably, as in any field, your ability to earn is impaired—does that mean that the respect you command should decrease with your salary? If these seem like rhetorical questions, that’s because we’ve collectively absorbed the ideology of capitalism so completely that the ability to perceive other options has faded into the realm of fantasy.
We tend to absorb the culture we live in, and so our lack of vision regarding the nature of value and money becomes ideologically infectious. The issue of equal pay became central to the feminist movement as women sought to enter the corporate business structure but, as in Lawrence’s case, where do you locate oppression when you’re dealing with the movement of millions of dollars?
Hollywood and the music industry are artistic anomalies in that it is rare for art to produce enough profit to generate wealth. Lawrence’s image has produced billions of dollars from The Hunger Games alone. By the rules of our culture, that profit makes her a very valuable person indeed, and Lawrence is due fair compensation for her work. But is the answer to income inequality to pay stars more? Does Robert Downey Jr. need $100 million for one more Avengers movie? If studios were allocating money to make, distribute, and advertise more films from more artists—and not just the superhero kind—would the problem of what to do with the surplus remain so contentious?
I don’t think most successful filmmakers or performers entered their profession looking for wealth, but when the merits of your opinion depend on a studio’s perception of your relationship to money, then the accumulation of money becomes one means of preserving your artistic voice.
“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,” writes Lawrence. “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable! Fuck that. I don’t think I ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard. It’s just heard.”
Props to Lawrence for doing what she had to get the respect she deserves, but wouldn’t it be nice if for once the road to respect wasn’t paved with negotiations? If all we’re doing is replacing likability with negotiability, are we gaining ground at all?