Here’s an experiment: Think about your favorite movies, the ones you consider classics, American or foreign. Think about the actors who carried those films, male and female. Now think about how many of those actors were over the age of 50. Now think about how many of those actors over the age of 50 were women.
Although American industry as a whole has struggled and continues to struggle with the gap in pay and employment between women and men, film provides a particularly stark picture of difference. The most famous colloquialism used to point this out is the Bechdel Test, which asks whether a movie features two women, at any point, speaking about a subject that is not a man. A shocking number of films fail this test, including some that you wouldn’t expect.
“Age, Gender, and Compensation: A Study of Hollywood Movie Stars,” a study published by Irene E. De Pater, Timothy A. Judge, and Brent A. Scott in the Journal of Management Inquiry, considers the question of how female and male actors’ earnings keep pace with each other as their careers progress. Part of the thinking behind the study was that an occupation like acting, in which men and women are doing the exact same thing in the exact same medium, provides an ideal opportunity to interrogate whether or not they are being compensated equally for their work.
"As long as stereotypes regarding (especially) older women prevail in society (and thus amongst moviemakers), I doubt moviemakers will increase the number of movies with older women in the lead role. Especially given the persistent stereotype that older female actors do not attract an audience and cannot carry a movie.”
The researchers looked at the earnings of 168 male and 97 female movie stars between the years of 1968 and 2008. For men, average yearly earnings increased until the age of 51, at which point they leveled off and remained steady for the remainder of their careers. For women, it’s an entirely different situation: Earnings increase until the age of 34, then rapidly decrease afterward. That’s a gap of 17 years between when the earnings of male and female movie stars peak, with the added caveat that male earnings remain even, while female earnings nose-dive abruptly. (They also found that earnings were even across gender at the beginning of a star’s career.)
THIS DATA CONFIRMS WHAT that thought experiment might have hinted at—Hollywood is an incredibly different place for men of middle age or older than it is for women in the same bracket. In the study, the researchers write, “As both male and female movie stars’ jobs consist of portraying a character as well as they can, the gender difference in earnings of older top movie stars may imply that less value is attached to the work of older female actors than to the work of older male actors.”
A quick look at the box-office charts from this year is more than enough to demonstrate how few high-profile films prominently feature women into their 40s and 50s. Indiewire’s "Women and Hollywood" page provides another dossier of evidence, which points to the other side of the camera as a significant part of the issue. (Examples: “New Research Shows a Six-Year Low for Women Directors, 98% of Films Feature More Male than Female Characters”; “Only 2 of the 25 Top-Earning Indies This Year Directed by Women.”)
With men so thoroughly dominating the creation of films, a woman’s performance of sexuality, it would seem, becomes a greater part of her brand as an actor. As that element of what she has to offer fades in the view of male creators (i.e. as she gets older), so does her value and role in the stories they are telling. An increase in female writers and directors, it seems, would likely lead to an increase in the number of roles for women that don’t hinge on sexuality, romance, or interaction with men.
I posed this idea to one of the study’s authors, Dr. De Pater. “I think it is more complex than that,” she writes in an email. “The major goal of the movie industry is to make money. Hence, the majority of moviemakers, regardless of the gender of the people on the other side of the camera, will focus on making movies they think will generate profits. As long as stereotypes regarding (especially) older women prevail in society (and thus amongst moviemakers), I doubt moviemakers will increase the number of movies with older women in the lead role. Especially given the persistent stereotype that older female actors do not attract an audience and cannot carry a movie.”
Going further, De Pater points to her and her colleagues’ suggestion in the study that, because of the way media and film influences the culture, the affect of this particular wage gap feeds back into the society at large. It also, she adds, might be having a more insidious influence on female actors directly.
“Not only those who pay the free agents their salaries may be affected by the gender-pay gap amongst Hollywood actors,” she writes. “The free agents themselves may also internalize the beliefs, values, and norms regarding their value on the labor market, and ask lower salaries for their services as a consequence.”
The gender wage-gap in film is one of those strange problems whose solution appears obvious—more and better roles for older women in film—but how to push the industry toward that solution remains a mystery. The mix of influences both on and from film in society means that reform will need to come from all aspects of the industry: creators, executives, actors, and, not least of all, the moviegoing public.