TWIM Editorial: Jennifer Lawrence and Gender Inequality

Every year, movie news website vulture.com publishes its list of the Top 100 Stars in Hollywood, based on their ‘value’. Now value is a vague term based on a number of factors including and not limited to –

  1. The financial success of their films, domestically (by that I mean the United States) and worldwide
  2. Credibility with critics and amount of awards won
  3. Mentions on social media and in the press
  4. Likeability (whatever the hell that’s meant to entail)

But I’m digressing: the bottom line is that list was published earlier this week and its winner, and therefore the most valuable star in the world for 2015 was, for the second year running I might add, Jennifer Lawrence – and the most surprising thing about that is it comes as no surprise.

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SMILING DOWN AT HER COMPETITORS – JENNIFER LAWRENCE IS 2015’s MOST VALUABLE STAR (vulture.com)

Jennifer Lawrence might be unlike any other female movie star. The Kentucky-born 24 year old is possibly the most versatile actress in the world – she is on the dream cast list for any strong female role right now, and probably will be for the duration of her career. By the tender age of 22, she had won an Academy Award and been nominated for another two, and by 23 had become the highest grossing action heroine in box office history. She has gone between major roles in major franchise productions to Oscar pictures from Oscar-level directors like David O. Russell effortlessly, and Lawrence is without question a critical and commercial starlet.

Wait, hold on a minute! Skip back a few lines with me quickly. No, not that one…bit closer, THERE we are. ‘The highest grossing action heroine in box office history’. I’m sorry? Now, I’m not saying for one second that Lawrence is undeserving of this title, a certified Guinness World Record as a matter of fact – but Lawrence has led only four action movies (all of the Hunger Games films), monumental as they may be. In fact, Lawrence only made her film debut in 2008. That’s frankly stunning. But once you start looking into the statistics, the reality of why this is becomes all too clear. Before Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen in the Lionsgate franchise, the highest-grossing action movie outright led by a female star was Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ($131.1m domestic), a film adaptation of a video game series that, when creating its eponymous character, obviously started with the breasts and sort of went from there.

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ELLEN RIPLEY (Sigourney Weaver) HAS BEEN PRAISED FOR CHALLENGING GENDER ROLES IN THE ALIEN FRANCHISE

In fact, at the turn of the century, the three biggest action movies that are outright led by a female were all led by the same female playing the same character. There’s a reason that Ellen Ripley, the lead character in the Alien franchise, is such an iconic female hero – its because there were next to none in big studio tentpoles for her to contend with. The only other movie from that century that even featured a female character who drove the action (and on this occasion, wasn’t even the film’s lead) was Terminator 2: Judgement Day. So from the birth of cinema until 2000, only 3, maybe 4 if we’re pushing it, female action movies became major hits (and in the case of the Alien films, that’s with inflation added in – none of the first three made over $100m in their initial cinema runs).

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KATHRYN BIGELOW WINS BEST DIRECTOR AT THE 82ND ACADEMY AWARDS – THE FIRST (AND ONLY) FEMALE VICTOR

The statistics are startling, and they seem to never end. In the history of the Academy Awards, only once has a woman won the award for Best Director, in the form of Kathryn Bigelow for 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker – and an unnamed Hollywood producer has gone on record saying her marriage to James Cameron has had a part in her getting opportunities in Hollywood. In fact, if you look at all the films released into American cinemas in the past 8 years, you’ll find that a gender that makes up half of our population and are the only reason that it keeps growing directed only 1.9% of the films. Even Elizabeth Banks, the highest grossing female actor of all time at the U.S. domestic box office, described gender inequality in Hollywood as ‘systemic’ on the press circuit for directorial debut Pitch Perfect 2.

If you want to see Hollywood’s gender inequality in action, I suggest you try something out next time you’re at the movies; it’s called The Bechdel Test, and it’s really very simple – if your film has two women in it, who have a conversation, and its about something other than a man, then you pass the test. Seems simple enough; in a hundred minutes, maybe more, surely you can feature that at least once? But Pixels (a film whose most compelling female character is a literal trophy), Terminator Genisys, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Minions, and SPECTRE all fail it, as do others, and that’s just a sample taken from films released in the last six months.

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ARE THEY THE BIGGEST STARS IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW? LAWRENCE AND CHRIS PRATT CO-STAR IN PASSENGERS

This is why Jennifer Lawrence being the purported ‘most valuable star of 2015’ is a big deal – despite Hollywood’s odds being firmly out of favour, she continues to transcend all female stars before her. Lawrence’s immense stature and power within the industry was publicly displayed when she was announced to co-star with Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy superstar Chris Pratt in Sony sci-fi tentpole Passengers, scheduled for next Christmas and to be directed by The Imitation Game‘s Morten Tyldum. Despite Pratt having led the third-highest grossing movie in history, and (yes, I’m using the vulture.com list again for this stat – you should really check it out) being the most likeable star in the world – however that was measured – Lawrence commanded a $20m fee plus back-end (a percentage of a film’s profit) while Pratt only recieved $12m.

That wage packet is huge, and somewhat vindicates Lawrence – her essay ‘Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?’ published in Lena Dunham’s feminist newsletter Lenny took a scathing look at the wage gap between men and women. Lawrence admitted in the essay that, in negotiations for American Hustle, she ‘didn’t want to seem difficult or spoiled’ as she settled for a smaller packet than her equally billed male co-stars. Lawrence’s ascension to the very top has pushed the envelope for what she and other women can do in cinema, and also what they don’t need to do – Lawrence has never filmed a sex scene in her entire career. Yes, she has been sexualised and fragmented in some of her films; after all, the costume for Mystique is her nude, covered in blue paint you can find at Homebase, with conveniently placed black paint covering the naughty bits. And despite the Hunger Games series having sparked a new wave of commercially successful female led action films, Lawrence still finds herself in a confusing, Twilight-style love triangle. But Lawrence has established herself through playing strong female roles absolutely brilliantly, with her performance as bluntly-spoken Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook winning the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress in 2012.

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I COULDN’T FIND ANY ‘PC’ IMAGES OF SHOWGIRLS, SO I WENT FOR AN IMAGE THAT IMITATES THE FEELING OF WATCHING IT

20 years ago, many women in the industry thought the only way up was to strip down. Elizabeth Berkley had major TV success playing Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell, a liberal and, most importantly, a feminist. But her attempt to crossover to film stardom was to star in Showgirls: an insane, mystifying magnum opus of sweat, skin, stripping and general debauchery that was most certainly the product of a mind utterly unhinged. And on fire. I can’t describe it for various reasons, mostly for the fact that it is indescribable. If you have seen Showgirls – and consequently cannot unsee it – then you know why Berkley and Lawrence’s approaches to stardom are complete opposites.

But of course, you may think Lawrence hasn’t made any impact – she hasn’t resolved the inherent gender inequality within the industry single-handed or anything. However, reflecting on the Hunger Games series that this weekend has concluded (until Lionsgate realise how weak their slate is without the franchise, panic, and resolve to produce a cascade of terrible prequels that they’ll call ‘revisiting the universe’), the impact of it is already manifesting itself. In 2017, Wonder Woman with Gal Gadot (and directed by a female, namely Patty Jenkins), and Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson are anticipated to be massive action blockbusters led by women. And, the fact is, Katniss Everdeen is the most-watched action heroine in history. Her bow and arrow will inspire a new generation of female actors who will think, ‘Hey, we can do that too’. If this ends up being the still-young Lawrence’s legacy then she has every reason to be delighted with herself already – but it would be yet another surprise in a career destined to be full of them if Hunger Games is her biggest contribution.

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KATNISS EVERDEEN DRAWS CROWDS AS THE MOST WATCHED ACTION HEROINE IN FILM

James Stephenson

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