“You look like a movie star.” A compliments go, it’s an inane one, but also pretty darn specific. Because movie stars – they’re white, skinny and usually blonde. And it’s not just me saying that; the data is there to back me up. This week, Forbes released its list of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood in 2017 and every woman in the top 10 is white.
Emma Stone ranks first, thanks to the huge success of 2016’s La La Land. Jennifers Lawrence and Aniston come second and third, Melissa McCarthy is at number four, and Mila Kunis, Emma Watson, Charlize Theron, Cate Blanchett, Julia Roberts and Amy Adams round out the rest of the list.
The list starkly illustrates how conservative Hollywood is when it comes to the representation of women: those best-paid actresses all fit a similar mould, bar Melissa McCarthy, a performer who is viewed as a successful anomaly rather than a sign that audiences don’t care about the dress size of their leading lady.
Writing in The New York Times this week, Brooks Barnes makes a bleakly comprehensive argument that “weight is perhaps the most stubborn of the entertainment industry’s many biases”. In a piece headlined “In a Body-Positive Moment, Why Does Hollywood Remain Out of Step?”, he points out that while many plus-size actresses have enjoyed breakout success and awards-season hype – Gabourey Sidibe in Precious; Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray – few, besides Melissa McCarthy (who, it should be said is also a writer, and therefore has more autonomy in the industry), have been able to transfer that initial recognition into lucrative careers in the long-term.
Most disheartening though is the lack of women of colour on the Forbes list. Those 10 white women are a damning illustration of the lack of diversity in Hollywood. And it’s a depressing step backwards: last year, Indian star Deepika Padukone and Chinese actress Fan Bingbing made the top 10 – although it should be noted that was largely due to their international, not Hollywood, work – but this year there were no women of colour at all. Natalie Robehmed, associate editor at Forbes, says that “the lack of diversity on the list comes down to roles”.
It all reminds me of British actress Gemma Chan’s assertion that you are more likely to see an alien in a Hollywood blockbuster than an Asian
“Only 28.3 per cent of all speaking roles across formats go to characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, according to a 2016 study. That means there are simply fewer characters – and fewer high-paying roles – written for women of colour,” she says. “When studios, directors and screenwriters begin creating more main characters for women of colour in the types of big budget movies that pay huge upfront fees and backend profits, we'll see more actors of colour on the list.”
It all reminds me of British actress Gemma Chan’s assertion that you are more likely to see an alien in a Hollywood blockbuster than an Asian woman, and there is a sense that these figures aren’t hugely surprising. But even if it’s not unexpected, the list must surely be considered outrageous. Because how can we be happy in 2017 knowing that the film industry is so wildly, recklessly unrepresentative of women from minority backgrounds?
And it is especially bad for women: Hollywood has a race problem – that much was clear long before the #OscarsSoWhite controversy – but while men like Jackie Chan, Dwayne Johnson and Will Smith regularly top best-paid actor lists, appearing in blockbuster franchises and commercial behemoths, women of colour don’t get those breaks.
And even if they do, they are paid less. Just like in the real world, Hollywood has a significant (and increasingly well documented) gender pay gap. And just like in the real world, that gap is worse for women of colour than it is for white women.
“Black women have the hardest gig in show business,” Chris Rock told The New Yorker in 2015. “You hear Jennifer Lawrence complaining about getting paid less because she’s a woman – if she was black, she’d really have something to complain about.”
Often it feels like it’s hard to care about issues like the pay gap in Hollywood: of course, it’s abominable that men continue to be better remunerated than women, but you can only feel so outraged that a wildly rich woman like Jennifer Lawrence is less well off than a wildly rich man like Tom Cruise. This lack of diversity is more urgent, however. Now, more than ever, representation matters.