It’s not exactly surprising that, if two women are simultaneously achieving a particular level of success in a sector of the entertainment industry, someone will start spreading a rumor that they dislike each other. The most recent victims of this tiresome cycle are Academy Award-nominated actresses Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence.
Over the weekend, Chastain spoke up to explain why the charges she’s freaked out by the younger Lawrence aren’t just false—they’re getting in the way of making Hollywood a better place for women. She wrote on Facebook:
Please don’t allow the media to perpetuate the myth that women aren’t supportive of each other. Every time an actress is celebrated for her great work, I cheer. For the more brilliant their performance, the more the audience demands stories about women. With support and encouragement, we help to inspire this industry to create opportunities for women. And as we all know: a great year for women in film, is just a great year for film.
Chastain is getting at something interesting here, perhaps unintentionally. Catfight narratives are common precisely because in many parts of the entertainment industry there is a scarcity of opportunities for women, and rather than broaden the pool, these stories encourage women to fight over what’s already available. When, say, a promising new female rapper like Nicki Minaj emerges, the story becomes less about a new talent and more about forcing a choice between Minaj and her now-threatened predecessors, as if only one of them can possibly survive in the market. And when a rival does lash out, as Lil’ Kim did as Minaj’s career took off, that only feeds the perception that there’s a limited amount of success to go around, and that the women who are allowed access to it must be held to unusually high standards.
It’s hard to imagine tradeoffs between male actors being posed so bluntly. Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner may be at similar points in their careers, and are probably competing for some of the same roles in search of a definitive chance to break out with the public. But there’s room for both of them, and I certainly haven’t heard of an anonymous whisper campaign suggesting that the two are eager to claw each other’s eyes out at the next awards show after-party.
So I’m glad Chastain is not only speaking out about her personal respect for Lawrence, but also about her disdain for the dynamic at work here. She and Lawrence, 13 years apart in age, may both play complex women, and may both have avoided getting sidetracked into romantic comedy deathtraps, but that doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t, mean that they’re in direct competition with each other. If Hollywood worked right, studios would come up with parts aplenty to meet the talents of these two women—and the demand audiences have shown to see them on the big screen.