From Jennifer Lawrence to Gwyneth Paltrow, Do Celebrity Feminists Help or Hurt the Cause?

In today’s edition of Lena Dunham’s newsletter, Lenny, Jennifer Lawrence sounds off on the pay gap in Hollywood, noting how shocked she was when the Sony hacks revealed that she was making a smaller paycheck than her co-stars. This led J-Law to consider the way behavior, expectations, and gendered socialization might contribute to the Hollywood pay gap. She made some pretty smart points:

I don’t think I’ve 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. Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper all fought and succeeded in negotiating powerful deals for themselves. If anything, I’m sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical, while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share. Again, this might have NOTHING to do with my vagina, but I wasn’t completely wrong when another leaked Sony email revealed a producer referring to a fellow lead actress in a negotiation as a “spoiled brat.” For some reason, I just can’t picture someone saying that about a man.

J-Law’s come-to-Jesus moment on the pay gap (which is racking up praise across the Internet as we speak) arrives on the heels of Gwyneth Paltrow talking about the rise of female power  in Hollywood at a dinner last week. “When I was a young women in Hollywood, if you were a woman focused on building your career, you were labeled ambitious, and that was a bad word,” she said, adding that things were finally changing, and “we are empowering each other.” At the very same dinner, Salma Hayek said she could “smell the airs of change” in Hollywood for the first time in her career. And all this arrives after Patricia Arquette’s muddled Oscar speech about the pay gap nationwide.

Unfortunately, the very fact that Arquette attempted to connect the issue to the character she played in Boyhood, a single mom, means that her deeply flawed, borderline-offensive remarks were still the most outward-focused feminist response of the bunch to the pay issue in Hollywood. Some feminist actresses are smart enough to talk about writing and directing, too, but no one ever seems to address the pay gap among lower-rung workers in their own industry — not to mention people like fast food workers, nurses, and teachers who would benefit most directly from pay equity.

Some danger lurks in the “wage gap” issue being co-opted from a life-or-death matter to a cause célèbre of celebs who already make millions. When these powerful women and actresses use ideas and lingo that were invented by on-the-ground activists, they bear a certain responsibility to transmit the entire message they’re appropriating. In recent years, even the most mainstream women’s organizations have made a huge effort to point out that the wage gap increases dramatically for black and Latina women, and that those extra dollars mean a lot more to the family that is struggling to buy diapers, put food on the table, or pay for daycare or night school than to people in high-powered professions. From the suddenly “empowered” women of Hollywood, we hear very little of these extra dimensions. When you recall moments like last week’s Meryl Streep’s “Suffragette” T-shirt fiasco, it seems Hollywood feminists would do well to think beyond their sphere more often.

So a natural impulse, when we hear about superstars getting their consciousnesses raised by the lack of a few extra millions, might well be to simply cringe. If “white feminism” — or as I sometimes call it, “me-first feminism” — is a limited ideology that uses the language of gender equality to achieve gains for an already-privileged group of women, then this is its stunning  new face. Watching all these high-profile feminist awakenings can feel a little bit like a Saturday Night Live sketch: “Wait, feminism means I can make more money? I had no idea!” It’s feminism made so palatable that clothing brands tweet it out!

And yet two factors always pull me back from wholesale dismissal of these trends. The first is that we don’t expect anything of stars’ male counterparts. We don’t like it when Matt Damon is sexist and racist, but other than that, we’re not asking our resident hunks to opine on the plight of auto plant workers, adjuncts, or single dads. They speak for themselves, negotiate for themselves, and do fine. So is it fair to demand that every actress who doesn’t like Hollywood sexism be a beneficent, all-knowing, intersectional theory-spouting goddess? Are they movement leaders or are they just very privileged women who have some opinions about things that seem unfair to them in their industry — a matter which even the federal government has begun to take seriously?

But more importantly, sometimes what they say has value. When Jennifer Lawrence talks about her fear of being “likable” holding her back from negotiating, that’s probably relevant to many women reading the hundreds of aggregated stories about her piece today. When Hayek and others talk about older women being made invisible, that may be relevant beyond the film industry. Some fans may read this and have a “Stars! They’re just like us” moment that genuinely helps them make sense of their own working environments and the discrimination they face.

I’m not ready to anoint Lawrence a feminist voice to be heralded, and I maintain that a broader lens on the pay gap would help make her argument stronger, more inclusive, and more penetrating. But I also won’t complain if Hollywood can help us normalize the idea that a man and a woman working the very same job should get the very same paycheck, from the factory floor to the movie marquee.