Gwyneth Paltrow is a victim of sexism.
The Oscar winning actress is telling the world that the gender pay gap is not only real it's ruining her life because she is paid way less than her Marvel co-star Robert Downey Jr. for what she considers the "same work."
Thanks to Downey's role as Tony Stark/Iron Man in the solo films and The Avengers he's raked in over $110 million. Gwyneth Paltrow meanwhile has earned a paltrow paltry $9 million in the same period, and the highest paid female star Jennifer Lawrence earned around $72 million. Both are making way less than what Downey Jr. made.
Is it sexism?
Short answer: In Gwyneth's case, no. The long answer is much more complicated than that, but complication requires explanation. It's much easier to just blame it on some unidentifiable villain or delusion and leave it at that.
However, I do explanations here, and explanations I will dispense.
First, let's look at Gwyneth Paltrow's case.
I find it ironic that she would use her co-star Downey as her example, since there was a very long time, called the 90s, where she was the reigning queen of young Hollywood and he figuratively couldn't get arrested in Hollywood, because he was almost constantly being literally arrested.
Take look at Gwyneth's box office record and you will start to wonder why she was considered so important, because it is shockingly lacklustre. She hasn't carried a film in well over a decade, and in most of the film's she does appear in the ones that do better feature the least Gwyneth they could get away with and still feature her in the credits. Her last starring role, opposite Johnny Depp in Mortdecai, was more than just a bomb, it set the standard for failure in every regard and category. In fact, without her role as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark's love interest she'd be almost entirely off the radar as a major actress. In fact, she could be replaced as Potts, and it's unlikely the audience would notice or care.
Paltrow's many public pronouncements, often via her blog GOOP, haven't helped her appeal at the box office. They make her appear to be a woman who has spent their entire life in a bubble of elite privilege who cannot grasp basic mortal concepts like break-ups and household economics. Every time she opens her mouth, I can't help but feel embarrassed for her and her inability to feel embarrassed for herself.
Gwyneth's mindset might make her fit in real well within Hollywood, but it's not going to win over middle Americans who buy movie tickets.
Robert Downey Jr. managed probably the biggest transformation in movie history, going from being literally unemployable to one of the biggest box office stars in Hollywood thanks mostly to his work as Tony Stark/Iron Man*. Now he hasn't done much between his big franchise roles of Stark and Sherlock Holmes, doing only a couple of starring roles, and some smaller guest appearances, which means he hasn't tainted his brand with too many turkeys.
He also has his face on a good chunk of the top selling Marvel merchandise which is pure gravy when it comes to the cash flow. When the Pepper Potts lunchbox outsells the Iron Man one, then Gwyneth might have a case for equal pay on that front.
Which brings us to Jennifer Lawrence, who is the female equivalent of Robert Downey Jr., but without the multiple drug arrests and jail time. She has two popular franchises under her belt; as the central star of The Hunger Games, and as part of the X-Men ensemble, so why doesn't she make as much as RDJ?
The answer, lies in choices.
Downey chooses to not take the pay cuts necessary to get a starring role in an smaller budget or independent movie. He's not getting any younger, and it looks like he's trying to bank as much as he can so he doesn't have to face the near total financial collapse he endured in his youth. Downey's contract, according to legend, is structured so that if his Marvel movies hit certain box office targets, he gets fat bonuses, and they've always exceeded the targets which make his bonuses bigger.
J-Law and money is a very different story. She's young, her career is literally just starting, but starting like a rocket, going from zero to supersonic with astonishing rapidity. However, Lawrence is following a careful strategy that is designed to prevent her from being a flash in the pan who disappears as fast as she appears.
That strategy involves forging partnerships with filmmakers, specifically indie darling and the John Ford to her John Wayne: David O. Russell, to forge a career outside of the franchises that shows off her skill as an actress and her charisma as a star.
It's a smart strategy, because The Hunger Games is coming to an end, and playing the shapeshifter and villainous second-banana Mystique under a coat of blue makeup and prosthetics keeps her from completely making the part hers and hers alone. She could leave that franchise and I doubt it would cause any more than a cluster of incoherence on Twitter.
Working with Russell and his ilk means she can shine on her own without special effects, and it's working. Lawrence can make an indie film commercially viable with domestic box office in the $130-150+ million range, and earn critical plaudits, Academy award nominations and at least one win so far. These films give her both respectability and a commercial track record outside of franchise pictures, which will open doors for her in the future.
Now if she was demanding the same salary as Downey Jr. gets for an Avengers or Iron Man movie, then a lot of them wouldn't be getting made. She's sacrificing some up-front money, and is literally investing what she's not being paid into her career's longevity.
However, that doesn't mean that J-Law has nothing to complain about.
She apparently has plenty to complain about. In fact, she wrote an essay about how she was paid less than her male co-stars for their roles in American Hustle. She blames her lower salary on her own unwillingness to fight for a more equitable piece of the action out of fear of being branded "difficult" or be labelled a "spoiled brat" as producer Scott Rudin did in an e-mail about salary negotiations with Angelina Jolie.
I don't want to disagree with J-Law, because I do have a bit of a crush on her, but I have to explain that Hollywood's sexism problem, especially when it comes to salaries is not so much a conspiracy of one gender against another, but individuals, creating an outcome that can be interpreted as sexist, by the choices they make and why they make them.
Salary negotiations are essentially a game of poker. Everyone is placing their bets, not knowing what the other players have, and hoping that they have the winning hand. The cards in this game are box office record, past salaries, the film's budget, the film's expected box office, how much of that box-office can be attributed to the stars, and the amount of clout the players have within the Hollywood community. Actors and producers are competitors with each other at this stage. The stars want to get the most they can get when it comes to salaries and profit shares, and the producers want to pay out the least.
That means that when an opportunity comes to save a dime, the producers will take it. They're not thinking about the gender politics of it all, they're just seeing numbers and dollar signs going from one column to another.
Now an actor are not supposed to be alone in this fight. They're supposed to have representation; agents, managers, and lawyers. Their job is to basically act the bastard and fight for every penny they can get for their clients. They are supposed to have a good estimate of what cards the other players have, and strategize accordingly.
All of these factors go into who gets paid what, and can complicate things to where it might look like the dudes are getting a cash-for-genitalia-bonus, but it might really be that someone's reps are the one's lacking in testicular fortitude.
Jennifer Lawrence might kick herself for not fighting hard enough, when she should be asking why her "people" weren't picking up the fight for her.
Does this mean that Hollywood isn't really sexist after all?
Oh hell no.
Hollywood does have a gender problem, but it's deeper and more complicated than anything that can be condensed into a little article like this one.
______________*In an odd side note when Iron Man first went into development I said on an online film forum that Downey Jr. was the only man who could play Stark, and was promptly corrected that it was an impossibility. Well, guess who turned out to right after all.