On Sunday, Susan Sarandon became the latest actress to share her personal experiences with wage discrimination. Vanity Fair reports that, while speaking at a Cannes Women in Motion conference, Sarandon “revealed” that she had been inspired by Jennifer Lawrence’s essay for Lenny on the same subject. “There was an instance where I did a film with two big [male actors] and we were supposed to be favored nations,” Sarandon said at the conference. “Then halfway into it I found out they were getting paid more than I was.”
“My agent was told that I wasn’t worth [what her male co-stars were being paid], because they were big, older stars. And then when the time came to do press, they wanted me to do more than what they did. So that was a problem.”
And then Sarandon did what’s become the obligatory two-step dance of wage gap discussions post-Lawrence’s essay. First, she blames herself:
“That was my fault,” Sarandon conceded of the negotiation. “That was my agent’s fault, for not putting her foot down and saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait.’ Jennifer Lawrence’s [essay] was interesting because she said, ‘I didn’t fight hard enough’ and that’s the bottom line. If that’s what you want then you’re going to have to fight for it.”
Then, she acknowledges that pay gap discussions between the ultra-rich are obnoxious, yet are still deeply important. Emphasis mine:
“I mean, when you are comparing mega stars to these refugees in Syria, how they’re trying to live and what they need, it’s absurd when half the world is starving and the other half is having a problem with how many millions of dollars [they’re getting],” Sarandon admitted. “It doesn’t mean you should be ashamed of earning that much money, but you’re equating that amount of money with how much respect you get. That’s why it’s important. Not because of the money. It’s about respect.”
The story that actresses are telling about their wage gap experiences in Hollywood is solidifying. It starts with the acknowledgment of a status quo in which men are paid more, while women bear equal if not more weight for the production and promotion of the project.
Then, a select few actresses speak out against that status quo in the abstract, but do not point fingers at the specific individuals who have been devaluing their work. (Lawrence’s essay applauded the success of her costars Jeremy Renner, Bradley Cooper, and Christian Bale in negotiating greater salaries than she did, but she did not mention any of the people who they were negotiating with. Vanity Fair deduced that Sarandon was talking about 1998's Twilight, which was written and directed by Richard Benton and produced by the notoriously overbearing and racially insensitive Scott Rudin, but she did not name the movie in her talk.) Instead of locating the problem with the people who hold creative or financial power above them, they instead pay witness to the cult of American personal responsibility, letting their bottom lines rest on empty mantras like “not wanting it enough” or “not fighting hard enough for it.” This is the same story that Lawrence, Emma Watson, Patricia Arquette and a number of other actresses have told.
Sarandon’s off-the-cuff remarks exemplify one of the most misguided aspects of pop feminism: namely, the promotion of rich and powerful women as the face of the wage gap, under the belief that the obstacles faced by Susan Sarandon and Sheryl Sandberg must somehow, structurally, be comparable to what a woman working at contract minimum wage is facing—if the two situations are not abstractly the same.
This is a liberal embrace of trickle-down theory, an idea that has plagued our country for more than a century, and is still very present, wearing a progressive celebrity face. In other words, the rich shouldn’t be complaining, because much of the world has it much worse, but they also should be complaining because closing the wage gap for powerful women in Hollywood will somehow create broader gender equality.
It helps to do what Sarandon did, and emphasize a universal (and non-quantifiable) value—like respect, which is, in her framing, is both identical to and completely separate from money. “You’re equating that amount of money with how much respect you get,” said Sarandon. “That’s why it’s important. Not because of the money. It’s about respect.” This is a strange division. Respect here is an abstract value that both does and does not have monetary value; it’s something that Sarandon is simultaneously concerned and not concerned with at all.
And so the turn to “respect,” the thing that’s supposed to scale from millionaire to middle-class, is a way of dodging the problem. If money is a sign of respect, as Sarandon says, then it should be about the money; it should be necessary to talk about the very concrete ways that “respect” does manifest in dollar amounts, and the way that neither respect or healthy dollar amounts can be relied upon to trickle down.
But then that would mean acknowledging that the wage gap’s most devastating effects hit among women who aren’t represented in Sarandon’s equation, which includes wealthy actresses on the one hand and Syrian refugees on the other. This fictional binary neatly sidesteps the poor, the working poor and the middle-class, the demographic place where women, on average, make 78 percent of their male counterparts’ dollar and that dollar amount is often unlivable—the place where, for women of color, the wage gap looks more like a chasm.
And yet, since Lawrence published her essay, actresses have increasingly become the face of the wage gap under the auspices of the idea that valuing the most valuable is inherently important. In February, Time wrote:
[...] There’s a reason why anyone who cares about the wage gap quickly adopted Lawrence as a symbol. If one of the biggest celebrities of the moment, of either sex, can’t pull down as much as her male costars for the same job, what does it say about how we value any woman’s work?
The question about valuing Lawrence’s work was quasi-rhetorical, but the answer is obvious: nothing. Lawrence’s value says absolutely nothing about how we value any woman’s work. It speaks only to how we value Jennifer Lawrence. Placing more value on rich women whom society already values does nothing for poor and middle-class women, and specifically for women of color. Economic equality does not start at the top and work its way down. If anything, it should work bottom up. Placing value first on America’s most economically disenfranchised women will subsequently make us all more valuable.
But we are settling instead for a trickle-down story, effectively telling the women most impacted by the wage gap to wait your turn; we’ll get around to you once we fix the Hollywood wage gap.
The attention garnered by Lawrence and Sarandon is to be expected. Celebrity narratives have a powerful lure; they get clicks, on websites like this one, and provide plenty of social media fodder, too. That a celebrity can bring attention to persistent discrimination and grassroots movements is undeniable (see, for example, Mark Ruffalo and fracking; Elizabeth Taylor and AIDS awareness; Marlon Brando and the American Indian Movement). And Lawrence—or her brand, at least—is easier to identify with than, say, an anonymous single mother living paycheck to paycheck.
They are especially easy to identify with when they participate in the conversation in this particularly conservative way—a way that acknowledges and bends to the fact that money is still considered an inappropriate subject for women, and anticipates the fact that their words will be policed for appeal rather than substance.
Take, for example, both Lawrence and Sarandon’s insistence that being paid less was their fault. “I didn’t fight hard enough,” Lawrence wrote in her Lenny essay. It’s a Lean In-inspired insistence: multi-billion dollar companies and cultural systems that devalue women are let off the hook; women are responsible for the economic discrimination enacted upon them. As Linda Burnham wrote about the Lean In movement, “it’s a 1 percent feminism” that is “all about the glass ceiling, never about the floor” (It’s worth noting that even Sandberg, after the death of her husband, has walked back some of her original Lean In philosophy.)
Part of the reason why we can’t rely on actresses to carry this conversation is that they are the very faces of a fickle economic system where likability and sympathy reign supreme. Their value fluctuates according to the views of the public. And the “fight harder” narrative, in turn, serves the celebrity brand. Sarandon and Lawrence can negotiate with producers and directors from unique positions of utter non-interchangeability that are unique within the labor system. Producers and directors want Sarandon and Lawrence specifically in their films; they want their brand, their look, their constructed individuality. Take the recent news that Robin Wright demanded equal pay to House of Cards co-star Kevin Spacey: “It was the perfect paradigm. There are very few films or TV shows where the male, the patriarch, and the matriarch are equal. And they are in House of Cards,” Wright said. She acknowledges, too, that producers on the Netflix series agreed to an equal paycheck after she threatened to go public with the story. That the mixture of interest in Wright and her television show, combined with the newsworthy trend of celebrity pay gap stories, are an individual’s leverage.
Celebrities aren’t average women applying for average jobs; their wages are not being depressed and driven down like the rest of the nation’s. “Fighting harder,” and other narratives of personable responsibility are easier to construct—and easier to believe as the gospel truth—when performing yourself is part of your value. But it adds another layer of feel-good deception to the idea that, if women just bucked up and asserted themselves, then gender-based economic disparity would disappear.
Today’s public culture makes it seem that “opening up” or “revealing” are in themselves mystical actions that will magically dispel inequality. Actresses speak up and position themselves as feminists; they are in turn rewarded for sharing a personal and “empowering narrative.” But, like Sandberg, they keep their distance from radical intervention, from identifying and criticizing the systems and ideologies that create the wage gap. They have their proverbial cake and eat it too.
And I’m not suggesting that Sarandon, Lawrence or other actresses should stop talking about wage inequality. What I am suggesting is that we stop fetishizing the Hollywood wage gap narrative as a kind of everywoman story, in which some badass queens slay the patriarchy and then we can do it too. There are real circumstances that Internet-speak can’t convey. Real women who live and make hard economic decisions in that gap. The popular feminist embrace of trickle-down economics is hardly feminism; it is an inherently conservative solution, cloyingly disguised by the empty language of empowerment, likability, and respect.
Photos via Getty.