A keyword search on IMDb for “strip club” gets you 1009 results. I checked, because I saw Deadpool this afternoon and got to thinking about how many movies I’d seen with scenes set in strip clubs despite the complete lack of importance of strip clubs to the plot. For example, in the 1987 comedy Dragnet, Pep Streebeck (Tom Hanks) insists that the strip club they’re in has the best coffee in town.
Of course, they’re mostly PG strip clubs. Deadpool was interesting in that the sense that you actually saw nipples. Most Hollywood strip clubs seem to be the only places in the world where men will pay to see women dance in bikinis. Before the rules got really strict about the meaning of Family Friendly, my local Renaissance faire had women walking around in less clothing than I’ve seen in a few movie strip clubs.
Now, look. If you want to strip, that’s up to you. Actually, it turns out one of my best friends from grade school does some amateur burlesque. She’s just turned 39, too, so more power to her. But with few exceptions, the women who appear in strip clubs in movies aren’t characters. They’re props. Even in Deadpool, we’re watching a character who is said to have worked as a prostitute before she met Our Antihero, and what’s she doing in the strip club? She’s a waitress. Scantily clad, but a waitress.
I don’t have any problem with strippers or prostitutes as characters if they’re going to be characters. I actually kind of liked that Wade didn’t have a problem with the line of work Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) was in, given that he hurts people for money. But my, that aspect of her character was dropped awfully fast. It probably wouldn’t take much time for me to count every movie I’ve ever seen where a prostitute was a character with an actual name who appeared in more than one scene, come to that. I’m not saying all movies need to have prostitutes as characters, but relative to the number of ones who use them as props?
I’m not sure how the MPAA would react to a major character in a film who did real sex work where it wasn’t treated like a tragedy. I’m not sure how much of anyone else would react, either. I haven’t seen either Magic Mike movie, so I don’t know how stripping is portrayed there. I haven’t seen Showgirls, either. So I guess there’s only so much I can say about the stripping end of things, because those are your big stripping movies. But the big prostitute movies I can think of are Pretty Woman, where the whole point is that she isn’t going to stay a prostitute, and Leaving Las Vegas, where no one is living a life you’d like. In Deadpool, it’s taken for granted that the character had a horrible childhood, because why else would she be doing sex work; in Monster, she becomes a serial killer and also had a horrible childhood.
We’ve talked some about the attitude toward women in the ’70s; that was an era with a lot more prostitutes on film. In one or two cases, they were even the main characters of the story, or anyway a main character. Jodie Foster’s Oscar-nominated turn as Iris in Taxi Driver and her fellow nominee Julie Christie as the eponymous Mrs. Miller, for example. However, I think that was a reaction to women taking control of their own sexuality in some ways; women in films of that nature who are open about their interest in sex are prostitutes.
Maybe that isn’t fair. It is interesting, though, that I don’t think there’s any decade with quite so many prostitutes on film. It’s the decade with the worst treatment of women, I think, and a fair number of prostitutes. Not as many strip clubs, though; perhaps it had not yet occurred to filmmakers that you could put bikinis on the women and have a strip club with no stripping.