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Female stars are finding their voices on gender inequality

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Randy Shropshire/Getty Images; Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t care if you like her. In the Oct. 13 issue of Lenny, the newsletter created by Girls showrunners Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, the 25-year-old Oscar winner addressed the fact that she had been paid less than her male costars for American Hustle, admitting that she hadn’t wanted to seem “spoiled” by negotiating harder for more money. She’s come to realize, she wrote, that men rarely worry about those things, adding, “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to express my opinion.”

The challenges of being a woman in Hollywood are well established: There’s the pay gap, the obsession with beauty, the stigma of stating any strong opinion that doesn’t underscore how grateful one is just to work in this business, especially after the age of 30. Many women keep silent for fear of being labeled difficult. Now, it might be said, women are having a we’re-mad-as- hell-and-we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore moment — except, of course, that would undermine the very coolheaded, rational way they’ve been critiquing the industry.

Earlier this month, in a scathing (and very funny) SNL monologue, Amy Schumer declared it’s “an exciting time for women in Hollywood,” but only if you’re thin enough to not have actual cheeks. Producer Effie Brown became a hero on HBO’s Project Greenlight for both confronting the show’s executive producer Matt Damon about the lack of diversity behind the camera, and for standing up for herself on a phone call with filmmaker Peter Farrelly, who later accused her of seeking out “drama.” (Brown calmly explained that she would not be painted as the “Angry Black Woman.”)

During a press conference for her movie Suffragette (Oct. 23), Meryl Streep reportedly slammed Rotten Tomatoes for the “infuriating” fact that the site showcases the work of 760 male critics but only 168 female critics, and insisted that this type of sexism affects the industry as a whole. “If the Tomatometer is slided so completely to one set of tastes,” she said, “that drives box office in the U.S.”

During Variety‘s Power of Women lunch in L.A. earlier this month, Gwyneth Paltrow praised Ashley Judd for coming out as the victim of sexual harassment by a male studio mogul. “There no longer seems to be the same fear of retribution, or coming off in a way that makes us unsavory or unhirable,” she said. “We are empowering each other.”

Unfortunately, fear of retribution is still a very real thing for most women. That’s why the founders of S— People Say to Women Directors (& Other Women in Film) launched the Tumblr account earlier this year as an anonymous archive of harassment and discrimination. The stories posted there serve as an important reminder that women aren’t just overpowered, they’re outnumbered: Only 4.1 percent of the 1,300 top-grossing films released between 2002 and 2014 were helmed by female directors, according to a recent analysis conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

This month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began looking into charges of sexism in Hollywood’s directorial hiring practices. Already the agency’s investigation is inspiring blunt talk from prominent filmmakers. “Hollywood’s a place where many of us call ourselves liberal, call ourselves progressive, yet we work in a place that is unequal,” says director Ava DuVernay (Selma). “When you look at the stats of women filmmakers of color, it’s grotesque. I call upon my sisters who are not of color to keep in mind that when we talk about women filmmakers, there is a group inside [that group] that is having an even harder time. Do not do the same thing that men do to us and think only of [yourselves].”

Not all the public reaction to Lawrence and her peers has been positive. There has been a certain “Who does she think she is?” vibe among critics who point out that ordinary working women, especially women of color, struggle with these issues more acutely. These stars make millions of dollars, the argument goes — why are they complaining? That’s a fair question. The constraint women feel to be agreeable (and adorable) resonates far beyond studio backlots. A recent study in the journal Law and Human Behavior found that when women express anger during group deliberations, it undermines their authority, while for men, the opposite is true. Lawrence, in her essay, recalls giving an assertive opinion to a male colleague who responded as if she were yelling at him. For Dunham, there’s no clearer sign that things need to change. “If Jennifer Lawrence feels this pressure, imagine what it’s like for women who don’t necessarily have that power and profile,” Dunham says. “That’s the next step of this conversation: How do we deal with a world where women can’t safely advocate [for] themselves?”