By Karen Valby
Updated September 14, 2013 at 03:18 PM EDT
  • Movie

Aniston is a stripper in We’re the Millers. Paltrow pretends to be one in Thanks for Sharing. Are actresses losing more than their clothes?

The comedy We’re the Millers made $100 million this summer, buoyed in large part by the promise of Jennifer Aniston’s glistening abs and a hardworking set of shell pink lingerie. The talented comedian plays a stripper nobody much respects early on. Jason Sudeikis’ character (who’s pretending to be her husband) writes her off thusly: “My wife, she’s just a cheap stripper.” And when bemoaning her dirtbag boyfriend, even Aniston’s character herself seems resigned to her second-class status: “That’s what you get for dating a guy who dates strippers.”

Some male critics gave Aniston a hard time as well. “For young actresses to disrobe in exchange for attention is tradition,” Kyle Smith wrote in the New York Post‘s review. “For 44-year-olds, it’s desperation.” Mick LaSalle was a little more forgiving in the San Francisco Chronicle: “It’s not that she doesn’t look good — actually, she looks great — but there’s an age at which silly and flamboyant display makes emotional and aesthetic sense, and whatever that age is, it’s really, really young.”

First of all: gross. Secondly, I’m not sure Miley Cyrus, who basically played a stripper at the VMAs, was worried about making emotional and aesthetic sense. Yes, I feel for a 20-year-old who wants to take charge of her identity and sexuality after breaking out of the stifling Disney box, but grinding on a foam finger is neither new nor truly rebellious.

The real foolishness in all this, though, is the critics’ suggestion that the person who should feel shame is not the We’re the Millers screenwriter but the woman hired to perform what’s on the page. Let me be clear: If a woman in your script is a stripper, then the problem is you — specifically, your laziness and your limp imagination. You want to give your female character an edge, make her vulnerable and hungry for redemption? You haven’t nailed it by deciding to make her a stripper. All you’ve done is prove that you (or your producer) are likely a venal horndog who wants a T&A moment for the trailer. In any case, the stripper parts keep getting written, so actresses have to keep thinking of reasons that this stripper is different and deserves to be played. Here’s an incomplete list of actresses, some of them great, who’ve played the role on film: Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Natalie Portman, Lindsay Lohan, Demi Moore, Marisa Tomei, Salma Hayek, Kristen Stewart, Rose McGowan, and Halle Berry.

We’re so used to seeing our actresses with their legs wrapped around a pole that we now talk about these same women as if they are always in some aggressive state of offering their bodies to us. Aniston will go on vacation and the caption under the paparazzo photo will read: “Jen flaunts her abs in a bikini.” Or an actress will get pregnant and the media will have a field day saying she’s “showing off” or “parading” her bump — as if anything a woman does with her body, including growing a life, is for our viewing pleasure.

You want to play a stripper? Go for it. But know that we live in a culture that both exploits a woman’s sexuality and denies her own control of it — and that the risk of being professionally and personally reduced may not be worth it. In the trailer for the new movie Thanks for Sharing, Gwyneth Paltrow undulates against a wall in a lacy black bra and garter belt. (Surprise! She’s incredibly fit.) She doesn’t play a stripper, but she gives her sex-addict boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) quite the lap dance. In the movie Ruffalo can’t walk down the street without feeling overwhelmed by all the shiny billboards of near-naked women leering and pouting at him. I know just how he feels.

We're the Millers

  • Movie
  • R
  • 109 minutes
  • Rawson Marshall Thurber