Why Do Actresses Always Play Strippers?

Alba in 'Sin City.'This weekend, Jessica Alba boosted Twitter traffic when she posted a photo of her newly blonde hairstyle in preparation for her role as stripper Nancy Callahan in Sin City 2. Why do people care about Jessica Alba's hair color? They don't, they care about her stripping. Her dancing scene in the first film is still one of the first things YouTube spits out when you enter her name, so proof that more will come is the ultimate strip 'tease.'

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She's one of long list of A-list actresses, including Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Wilde, Salma Hayek and Vanessa Hudgens, playing the role of exotic dancer in 2012.

Unlike most real strippers, Alba doesn't need the money. Neither does Aniston, whose 'comedic' stripping character in the upcoming We're the Millers, has gotten national coverage before filming has even wrapped.

But stripping is to an actress what playing a super-hero is to an actor: it's a game-changer. In exchange for a well-hyped pole dance, a Hollywood actress can come away with one of three things:

#1: A breakthrough. Flashdance and Showgirls respectively turned Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley into household names. Other actresses like Hudgens and Kristen Stewart have used the profession  to prove they've come of age. And Lindsay Lohan tried (but failed) to turn her pole-dancing role in, I Know Who Killed Me, into a kind of comeback breakthrough.

#2: An Oscar nomination. The Wrestler's Marisa Tomei and Closer's Natalie Portman were both considered 'brave' for dancing in bras. "Inherently flawed characters, who possess what some might see as mental, moral or physical imperfections, make for more courageous acting performances," an 2009 Wall Street Journal article on showbiz stripping suggested. The amount of web searches for "Natalie Portman stripping" would suggest otherwise.

#3: The money. Is stripping for a movie much different than doing it in real life? Complex portrayals of women don't get movies green lit, nudity does. The promise of a well-known actress taking her clothes off on the world's largest stage will generate the kind of press most film companies can't afford, and ultimately attract a wider audience. The trade-off is a hefty paycheck. Demi Moore earned $12.5 million for Striptease, a script scrawled by a circus monkey with his new box of crayons. It may not have earned her any awards but, the salary broke the record for actresses at that time.

Hudgens in Sixteen years later, strippers with a heart of gold also need a gimmick. See Olivia Wilde's dairy-sculpting stripper in the upcoming Butter, or Julianne Hough's rock groupie stripper in Rock of Ages. In the case of Hudgen's upcoming movie, Frozen Ground, shirking her own Disney past is enough of a gimmick.  (The trailer was removed from YouTube due to gratuitous semi-nude writhing.) Other things required to play a movie stripper nowadays:  a red wig (Salma Hayek in Americano), a leather bodysuit (Alba), smokey eyes (Kristen Stewart in Welcome to the Rileys) and sometimes, a body double (Aniston).

Strippers are comedic foils, futuristic fantasies, two-dimensional tragedies, but never real women.

For all their research into the art of stripping (Stewart went to a strip club, Hough took pole dancing lessons, Marissa Tomei went to New Jersey) Americans still think of stripping as a fun, flirty workout or a bachelor party stop. Tomei in In fact, it's one of most physically dangerous and unregulated industries on the books. Physical and sexual assault is routine and workers' don't generally the same protections and benefits as other full-time staffers. Unlike Alba, who brings her kids on set, a strip club is no place for a kid. And unlike in the movies, most dancers don't fall in love with their patrons.

"I could only think about how bad these guys smell and try to hold my breath," one dancer relayed in a ethnographic report entitled, "Strip Clubs according to Strippers: Exposing Workplace Sexual Violence."

When asked what they're thinking while giving a lap dance, one dancer offered: "I don't want him to touch me, but I am afraid he will say something violent if I tell him 'no'."

We've heard a lot of about how hard it is to play a stripper—Tomei called her role "emotionally taxing"—but working conditions for stripping actresses are a lot better than stripping non-actresses. Both however, are taking off their clothes because people want to see them naked, not because they want to see them act.

If actresses believe there's something more to their striptease when they're in front of the camera dancing, they're not doing their research.


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