Not a week goes by in Hollywood without a prominent actress grumbling that the dream factory is sexist. It pays us less than men, discards us at 40, and restricts us to roles as sexy ditzes. We have heard Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meryl Streep, Robin Wright, Kristen Stewart, Jessica Chastain, Patricia Arquette, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lawrence and many others. The latest is Geena Davis — not just anyone. With Susan Sarandon, she formed the hellish duo in Ridley Scott’s road movie “Thelma and Louise” (1991), a feminist cult film. On Oct. 26, on the U.S. website The Daily Beast, Davis wrote: “You believe that things are changing in Hollywood? I am well placed to say no.” She is well placed for having launched a research center on the place of women in Hollywood in 2006. Her thing is numbers. And they are alarming.
Basically, male roles are dominant — three for every female role — and this has not changed since 1946. Moreover, the female character is often only “eye candy,” wrote Davis. Another troubling given: When a crowd is convened on the screen, even for an animated film, only 17 percent of the crowd is female. It seems that Hollywood’s decision-makers were dumbfounded when Davis showed them her numbers. These latter have rather a deaf ear and a blind eye. The United States is, in fact, a country where the issue of gender is central and the sociology of Hollywood dissected — much more so than in France. Also, the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the main organizations defending civil liberties, in May called on the government to fight sexism in Hollywood, using its own figures, including this one: Of the 100 most-watched films of 2014, only two were made by women. Hollywood believes that “[a woman] can’t do this movie, it’s action,” an ACLU executive revealed to Time magazine on May 12.
The most publicized point continues to be money, fueled by two events. The hacking of Sony Pictures Studios in November 2014 allowed us to learn that Jennifer Lawrence, heroine of “The Hunger Games” and Oscar-winner for “Silver Linings Playbook “(2013), was paid less than her male colleagues, Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper, for “American Hustle” (2014) — for equal screen time. The second event is a California law passed on Oct. 6 to strengthen salary equality between men and women. Many actresses fought for the law, which takes effect on Jan. 1, 2016.
Jennifer Lawrence’s attitude change is significant. When she discovered a year ago that she was earning less than those “lucky people with dicks,” she thought that she had above all “failed as a negotiator.” But in October, she showed herself much more offensively in an open letter — which made noise — published in the online magazine Lenny by her female colleague Lena Dunham. It is true that she had also just learned from Forbes magazine that although she was the highest paid actress in the world in 2014, at $52 million, her male counterpart, Robert Downey, Jr., had himself garnered $80 million.
‘Female Che Guevara’
Lawrence does not have a reputation of being timid. But other actresses have paved the way for her since the beginning of the year: first, Patricia Arquette, who in February during the Oscar ceremony — where she won for her role in “Boyhood” as a mother who struggles alone to raise her children — reckoned that it was “our time to have wage equality;” or filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, who stated in Time on May 12, “Gender discrimination stigmatizes our entire industry.” In late July, it was Robin Wright of the television series “House of Cards” who, in an interview with the London Evening Standard, called for the appearance of a “female Che Guevara.”
The tongues of the untouchable stars are freed. For the others, it is more dangerous. Rose McGowan reported on her Twitter account that for a casting, she was asked to appear in “black (or dark) form fitting tank that shows off cleavage (push-up bras encouraged). And form-fitting leggings or jeans.” A few days after she made this note public, her agent fired her. Not one star responded. In Gala magazine on Sept. 18, Diane Kruger declared that “the actor is always cast first. And he has the right to approve, or not, his partner. It’s disgusting.”
Let’s open another front. It is often asked of actresses on screen to fall in love with an actor who could be their father, without it being a decisive element in the script. On June 1, the website Vulture published graphics showing how Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone often fall under the charms of mature men. This is nothing new. In 1942, in “Casablanca,” Ingrid Bergman, 27 years old, wed Humphrey Bogart, 43.** But the consequences were understood by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who revealed in May that a producer told her that at 37, she is too old to play the mistress of a 55-year-old man.
It was not always this way. Americans Clara and Julia Kuperberg are working on a documentary showing that it was women who created Hollywood in the 1910s — with big jobs and big salaries. “In the 1930s, in the middle of the recession, men realized that there was money to be made in Hollywood, and took the place of women,” they recount in an article published on July 22 on the website Cheek Magazine, with a title resembling that of a superhero film: “Le sexisme à Hollywood peut-il être exterminé?” [“Can Sexism in Hollywood be Exterminated?”] There’s a long way to go.
*Translator’s note: The date of this post was Oct. 27, not Oct. 26. The author of this article has misquoted the date. The original quote is verified here.
**Editor’s note: This misstates the events in the film. Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart portray lovers, but they don’t marry.