A new study on the differential earning power of male and female movie stars beings with a quote from Jennifer Jason Leigh:
It’s the nature of the business. People equate success with youth (source).
She’s half right. Irene Pater and her co-authors looked at the pay of 265 actors and actresses who appeared in Hollywood films from 1968 to 2008. They found that the average earnings of actors rises until the age of 51 and remains stable after that. The average earnings of actresses, in contrast, peaks at 34 and decreases “rapidly thereafter.”
Sarah Jessica Parker, then, was more on the mark:
There is still a discrepancy in earning power between men and women in Hollywood. And it becomes doubly unfair when you think of our earning potential in terms of years. Actresses are like football players. They have a small window of prime earning ability (source).
So, is this sexism or just “market forces”? That is, is female acting work devalued compared to men’s because people in positions of power don’t value women? Or is it because casting women over 34 decreases box office returns, whereas casting older men does not? Pater and her colleagues suggest that it’s sexism. One study, they explain,
…actually examined the combined effect of gender and age on box office performance [and] revealed that casting a female lead older than 32 years of age does not influence a movie’s box office performance, whereas casting a male lead older than 42 decreases box office revenues by almost 17% (source).
So the presence of male actors in their forties and over decreases box office revenue, but they still get paid more than women of the same age. In contrast, casting women in their mid-thirties and over doesn’t bring down profits, but she’s still less valuable in the eyes of producers. Sexism sounds like a plausible explanation to me.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Japaniard — February 5, 2014
I can't see the original paper due to a paywall, but is there any reason they picked such random numbers in the final quote?
For example, if actors between 32 and 42 was the age range that had the greatest positive impact on a movie's box office performance (which is certainly plausible, but without access to their data can't be verified) then it could be possible that casting a 32+ year old for your lead has no effect on box office performance whether that lead is male or female.
Of course this is merely a problem with the source material, and doesn't affect the accuracy of Lisa's conclusion that "the presence of male actors in their forties and over decreases box office revenue, but they still get paid more than women of the same age". Nonetheless, I still found it distracting.
Can someone with access to the article explain why they chose those arbitrary age ranges?
Andrew — February 5, 2014
One key to understanding the study is that one of its base requirements for selecting actors for the study was that they had "at least one leading
role in a movie between 1968 and 2008" produced "in the United States." Leading, unfortunately, is hazily defined, and some of the most prolific, prominent, and highly-paid actresses of the last decades were excluded. Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Frances McDormand, Maggie Smith, and Olympia Dukakis, all over 50, have all been featured in leading roles in Hollywood productions during this period - incidentally, all five have won Oscars - but were mysteriously omitted from the study.
Meanwhile, the basketball players Kareen Abdul-Jabaar and Dennis Rodman were included. These men are not movie stars in any sense of the word, and their distorted paychecks for film appearances result solely from celebrity acquired in another medium and brand merchandising.
This is not to disprove any of the study's conclusions; indeed, any scan of the weekly box office charts reveals plenty of leading work for older men in big-budget projects but very little for older women outside of smaller, specialty releases. It's disappointing that they had to use a dodgy data-set to distort the point.
To make matters worse, their data for "pay" only include the reported "salary" of the selected actors' most recent film, rather than their bodies of work in aggregate. Not only does this allow for a lot of outliers to creep into the scale (production budgets vary by grotesque magnitudes in Hollywood), but it also accounts only for "upfront" pay, which is quite often either a small percentage of a prominent actor's eventual takings for a film or a nominal amount accepted in anticipation of a percentage of revenues.
In a way, we can look at this study - which by its own admission takes its data purely from IMDB and magazines - as a lie that inadvertently tells a certain truth. Yes, the films with the highest budgets (and therefore the highest upfront pay) are likelier to feature older male leads than older female leads. Men on the whole are getting more screen time than women, especially in the older age brackets. And yes, virtually every older female movie star that has ever been interviewed on the subject has lamented the dearth of appealing roles far more than the pay disparity (they generally tend to be rich already anyway, and would rather put their talents to use in a good role than take a bigger paycheck playing a superhero's grandma).
Given that movie stars are grotesquely overpaid anyway, I'd be less concerned with the paychecks of the ones who are actually getting work, and more bummed out about all the great performances we're deprived of from the fine elder actresses who can't get work - and who are, therefore, completely absent from this data set.
Sam — February 5, 2014
Don't you mean Peter suggests the former, that "female work is devalued men's because people in positions of power don't value women"?
Listas (I): Sexismo y roles de género | ℵ-1 — October 28, 2015
[…] Female movie stars […]
Are Women Aged 30 Still Attractive & Do Men Find Women at 30 Hot? — January 25, 2017
[…] It seems that the data out there is pretty personalised and not very consistent. There was another study own that actresses hit their peak at age 34. “There is still a discrepancy in earning power between men and women in Hollywood. And it becomes doubly unfair when you think of our earning potential in terms of years. Actresses are like football players. They have a small window of prime earning ability,” according to The Society Pages. […]
Cantik Itu Luka: Kecantikan Perempuan yang Terhomogenisasi – Fajar Martha — February 13, 2018
[…] Wade, Lisa. “Female Movie Stars Peak at Age 34, but Men See Success Till the End”. Thesocietypages.org. 5 Februari 2014. 11 Desember 2017. <https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2014/02/05/female-movie-stars-peak-at-age-34-but-men-see-succe…>. […]