This year’s Forbes figures are in, and, if you want to be very confused, in 2017 the highest-paid actor in Hollywood was Mark Wahlberg. He made $68 million! The highest paid actress for the same period was Emma Stone, who pulled in $26 million. That’s such an enormous discrepancy that, in order to find an actor in the same pay bracket as the Oscar-winning Stone, you have to drop all the way down to the No. 14 and 15 slots on the actor’s list (Ryan Gosling’s $29 million and Ryan Reynolds’ $21 million).
Despite many vocal objections from women working in Hollywood in recent years, the gap between the highest earning actors and actresses in America isn’t getting better — based on this year’s report, it seems to be getting worse. In 2015, according to Variety, the highest paid actors combined made $431 million. The top ten actresses combined made almost half that — $218 million. That year, the gap between top earners Robert Downey Jr. ($80 million) and Jennifer Lawrence ($52 million) was $28 million. The difference between Wahlberg and Stone two years later is a whopping $42 million.
While Jennifer Lawrence’s essay on wage inequality for Lena Dunham’s Lenny site did make waves (“When the Sony hack happened,” Lawrence wrote, “I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with d**ks,”) the most visible incident of an actress speaking out about Hollywood’s wage inequality was Patricia Arquette at the 2015 Oscars. Having just won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she used the podium to state unequivocally that it’s “time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” Meryl Streep was famously so pleased someone had finally said it, she leapt out of her chair.
But on the Oscars red carpet a year later, Arquette told journalists she had lost roles as a result of her acceptance speech. “Before I said it, I knew there was going to be some drama,” she said, “because it would cost people money.” That fear of pushing too hard and losing work puts women in an impossible position — even at the highest levels. 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give offers an absurd example. When Jack Nicholson received back-end pay for the movie, and Diane Keaton, who had a larger role in the film, did not, Nicholson wound up trying to right the wrong by sending Keaton part of his check. Few female stars have co-stars willing to go to such lengths.
Perhaps the most surprising element of this is that, unlike most professions in the world, Hollywood did not start out with the kind of consistently divided financial gender lines that it’s currently tolerating. It’s true that in 1937, Fred Astaire made $211,666 to Ginger Rogers’ $124,770, but consider the fact that, that same year, the top two highest earners were Gary Cooper ($370,214) with Mae West close behind ($323,333). Five years prior, in 1932, the top three earners were actresses. So it would seem that opportunities to get into the same earnings ballpark as men were more viable for actresses 80 years ago than they are today — which is pretty insane if you think about it. Scarlett Johansson may have earned the same as Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth for The Avengers, but it was an unusual enough situation to warrant press attention.
So how did we get here? It’s easy to track where the shift in Hollywood earnings began, thanks to the Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll — a unisex list. The results of the very first poll came out in 1932, and not only revealed that the top three earners were female (Marie Dressler, Janet Gaynor and Joan Crawford), but that the list was 50/50 men and women. That trend continued through the 1930s.
By 1942, however, the list was dominated by men, with just Betty Grable and Greer Larson scraping into the top ten in the No. 8 and 9 positions. Ten years later, the problem persisted. 1952’s list contains only two women — Doris Day at No. 7 and Susan Hayward at No. 9. By 1957, there wasn’t one woman left on the top ten earner’s list.
Some recovery came in the 1960s. Marlon Brando might have been the first actor to earn $1 million for a movie, for 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty, but it took Elizabeth Taylor less than nine months to catch up, with her salary on Cleopatra. The top ten money makers poll was dominated by men for the entire period, but it was women (Doris Day, Elizabeth Taylor and Julie Andrews) topping the list for all but two years that decade.
It was in the 1970s that a major shift happened. That was the decade that women were all but wiped off the highest earners’ list, and frankly, women in Hollywood have never recovered. That shift, at that particular time — the peak of second wave feminism — is an ironic premonition of where we are now.
Arguments about the gender pay gap are frequently disrupted with suggestions that women are simply choosing lower-paid jobs, working less hours (because of their still-dominant role in caregiving responsibilities) or just not pushing hard enough. What the movie industry is effectively showing us is that none of those factors actually matter. Men and women in Hollywood are doing the same jobs (though meaty roles are harder to come by for women simply because they’re not getting written / greenlit), they have the same agents, the same PR people and the same means to deal with child care as their male counterparts. The reason actresses are making less is very simple: the film industry has a very obvious, very systemic sexism problem.
In the end, Hollywood is symbolic of what women face in almost every industry and profession in the United States — and where you live in the country does make a difference. In 2015, women working in New York City made 89 cents for every male dollar, but in Wyoming that amount dropped to 64 cents. The gender pay gap also significantly increases for women of color.
This year, the female-led and directed Wonder Woman grossed $404,008,376 million domestically, making it the biggest money-maker in origin superhero movie history. Girls Trip also proved another major winner at this summer’s box office. When given the opportunity, women in movies earn just as much for the industry as the men do — and it’s about time their paychecks reflected that.