Bradley Cooper vs. the Wage Gap
"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." - Jennifer Lawrence
Actor Bradley Cooper has recently achieved press for his decision to publicly disclose his earnings from future films to create awareness about the continued problem of wage inequality between men and women. During the 2015 Sony email hack it was revealed that Cooper’s American Hustle costar (and keeper of our collective hearts) Jennifer Lawrence was paid significantly less than most of her male counterparts for the same amount of work, which is hard to quantify in the entertainment industry. All this despite that the fact that, by some accounts, she put in more work than her theoretically-more-bankable male co-stars. In response to this, Jennifer Lawrence wrote a poignant Op-Ed to the Lenny (Lena Dunham’s website) to speak out against the continued problem of wage disparity between the sexes. While her essay generated a decent amount of awareness around the issue, Bradley Cooper’s disclosure of his wages in response to Lawrence's article is really what has been shaking things up.
When I heard this, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes about the whole situation. In my opinion, the pay gap is one of the more embarrassing forms of gender discrimination that exists today. It’s the most glaring example of how society devalues women in the sense that their work is literally undervalued. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was supposed to be the end-all solution to wage disparity, and, while it’s done a good job of protecting women from overt overtures against wage inequality, in the 50 years since its inception the legislation had done little-to-nothing toward bridging the wage gap.
It’s especially embarrassing because of its ubiquity and the apathetic responses from folks in power to fix the problem. And although many people in power are quick to recognize that inequality is bad, when it comes time to fix this issue there is a whole-hog abdication of responsibility from those involved and those implicated.
While it’s a foregone conclusion to most reasonable people that everyone should receive equal pay for equal work, the most pressing issue is getting people to agree on what equality looks like. My vision of equality means that people of all sexes, gender identities, skin color and background who perform the same task should receive the same wages.
Supposedly, the Equal Pay Act is meant to address this, but it has a number of huge loopholes that allow for unconscious bias and socialization to get in the way of actual equality. For example, “...[e]xcept where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex...” Take that and add to it the fact that the trickiest part of upholding this law comes from a societal taboo against disclosing your wage to other coworkers. There are probably tons of cases, that would otherwise be protected under the Equal Pay Act, that don’t get attention simply because no one really knows what anyone else makes.
As much as I’m loathe to hand out cookies to rich white guys, I have to hand it to Mr. Cooper. While he is definitely getting a lot of good press for his stance on the issue, the implications of his actions are far-reaching and may not end up boding well for him in future wage negotiations. Hollywood has a long memory, and as a male he has more to gain by allowing the system to continue business as usual. Assuming Hollywood decides to keep its current profit margins, the money they would need to offer women to achieve parity would have to come from somewhere. By disclosing how much he makes, he gives an appropriate starting point on negotiations for female actresses but potentially at his own expense. Hopefully other male actors will rally to his cause and continue the important conversation surrounding wage inequality going. That being said, conversation alone isn't going fix the problem.
As in all systems of oppression, there is very little incentive to dismantle any system that affords one privilege (outside of upholding a sense of personal honor). Evidence of this can be seen in Bradley Cooper’s other American Hustle co-star Jeremy Renner’s response to his announcement: “On the issue of gender equality I have always supported women deserving equal pay. Period. ... A person should be rewarded only by their merit or service to their given field. Gender, race, creed or sexual orientation should have absolutely no influence in pay, positively or negatively.”
Renner is quick to speak about how he’s a huge supporter of equal rights for women. He is obviously familiar with what the “correct answer” is, but when asked if he would be putting his money where his mouth is and upholding a similar policy to Bradley Cooper’s, his response was revealing. “That’s not my job," Renner said. "I don’t know contracts and money and all that sort of stuff.”
Wrong answer, Renner. Wage disparity is a system of oppression that as a society we all perpetuate. Those who benefit (men) have more responsibility for making sure things are more equitable, not less.
Jeremy Renner’s response is indicative of the apathy we as a society feel toward wage equality. It’s a great idea in principle, but when it comes to brass tacks everyone wants to turn a blind eye. The absolution of responsibility because it’s “not their job” is a total cop out. It’s the same argument that would have someone observe an injustice take place and choose to ignore it rather than to champion the mission.
In no other industry is this discrepancy so wide and so obfuscated than in the entertainment industry. At least in other kinds of industries there is normalized census data indicating appropriate wage. Actors (along with pretty much everyone else in the film industry) have negotiated wages, making it difficult to enforce the Equal Pay Act. The Screen Actors Guild enforces minimum rates for card carrying members. Actors and their agents are free to negotiate higher rates and are limited only by what producers are willing to pay. Big-name stars have very complex contracts that include percentages of either the gross box office receipts or the net profits. They also get a share of DVD and merchandising sales in connection with their films.
Despite this, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this issue is coming out of the entertainment industry. This is a field where people’s value is directly, and almost exclusively, tied to how much money actors can generate for studios. This bankability is mostly tied to subjective aspects of their appearance rather than to their acting ability. It makes it easy to perpetuate gender bias on the grounds that an actor demonstrates their worth based on their negotiation ability, i.e., a person’s value is based on what they are able to convince people it is. This is how we can believe in our hearts that people should be paid the same wage for the same amount of work and with our wallet and through our spending habits support a system that allows men and women to be valued differently.
Building the Bridge
There is a growing amount of literature on what is known as “Leaning In.” For proponents of this strategy, women themselves are seen as the primary stumbling block for wage inequality. Folks who support “Leaning In” have developed a number of strategies that women can use to get their wages increased. Being more aggressive in negotiations and generally taking on a more masculine role in the office is considered a solution to this problem. While this will help some people who’s bosses are already doing good work, it does very little to help women in situations where their whole careers may be jeopardized by challenging their superiors.
“It’s hard for me to speak about my experience as a working woman because I can safely say my problems aren’t exactly relatable. 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. 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).”
The issue with this line of thinking is that it faults the victim of oppression for being oppressed. This does nothing to dismantle the pattern of oppression. In fact, it ends up supporting it. When women are paid unfairly the solution shouldn’t be to “act like a man.” It should be finding ways to dismantle the system that puts more value on masculine contributions.
Another approach, and the one that has the potential to create lasting and meaningful systemic change, is through regulation, specifically at the hands of lawmakers. Most recently the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2015 sought to strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by providing stricter rules and guidelines and much needed monitoring to the whole process. This proposed bill was shot down in the Senate on the grounds that such regulation would be too much of a slippery slope and would put too much power in the hands of the government.
When some of the female lawmakers who struck the bill down were asked why they appeared unsupportive of equal pay for women, they were quick to clarify that they did support equal pay, but were at odds with the way the current legislation was going about it. The crux of this line of thinking is that while legislation would potentially yield quicker and more meaningful results because of the different elements at play, (voting along party lines, making constituents happy, keeping government small) all enemies of progressive agendas, enforcement and implementation of this deeply important policy work is actually going to be a long, painful slog. The truth is that unless there is strong and meaningful pressure from below, the mostly male Congress will have no incentive to push the agenda for equal pay along in a meaningful way.
Which brings us back to Bradley Cooper. As distasteful as it is to me that progress has to come on the heels of a famous paragon of the patriarchy, people with Mr. Cooper's specific blend of privilege and influence are really the only ones that can turn the tide. So long as the conversation is relevant, apathy cannot continue to grow unchecked.
Feature image: thedailybeast.com