Do Women Have to Strip Down to Get Acting Roles?

In Hollywood, female roles are three times more likely to involve nudity.

by VICE Staff
08 April 2016, 12:00am

Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari in American Beauty

This probably comes as a shock to no one who has ever seen a film where a topless women straddles a fully-clothed man or there is an entirely irrelevant female shower scene plonked in the middle of a thriller, but this week a study revealed that women are nearly three times more likely than men to appear either nude, or partially nude, in Hollywood cinema.

We wondered whether that was also true in the UK—or does the British thespian world of well-meaning sitcoms and classical training mean that women are less likely to be asked to strip off? We spoke to three women about their experiences.


Anna played Romilda Vane in the Harry Potter films and Ruby Button in Hollyoaks. She has since appeared in a range of TV shows and films in the UK including Cuckoo and Glue.

VICE: When you're reading scripts or going up for roles, do they tend to contain nude scenes?
Anna: I wouldn't say that it's typical of all scripts but it's definitely present; maybe 25 percent of the scripts I read will explicitly request nudity. Or not really request, demand. Something like, "MUST BE OKAY WITH NUDITY" in bold at the bottom. Or, lamely, "small but pivotal role, some nudity." I suppose they think breasts are usually the catalyst for a lot of really great narrative.

So do you think there's a disparity between male and female actors when it comes to nudity in roles?
In my experience, yes. Or it's a woman, fully naked, guy with his top off, which just isn't the same thing. At all. I also think, because there are so many more leading male roles than there are for women, men are able to stipulate whether or not they are willing to be nude in a production. There's a decision-making process, whereas for women it's just written like that and there's already an expectation.

Do you have a problem with it? Do you think the demand for female nudity is rooted in sexism and titillation, or is nudity just part of being an actor?
I think there's a fine line. I totally accept that nudity is part of being an actor. Everyone is nude at some point, it's rooted in reality, but when it's gratuitous it's just frustrating. You never see a gratuitous penis flapping about on-screen but I've seen so many boobies. And boobs are great, don't get me wrong, but are they always necessary? I think there's an imbalance and that's the problem.

Is there wiggle room? What happens if you request for nudity to be taken out? Have you ever felt you lost a part because of stipulations about nudity?
I was offered a role, two scenes in a "hot new show." One speaking scene and one explicit sex scene, where I needed to be topless, straddling an extra with just my skirt while he remained clothed, or at least more clothed than I was. It was a tiny role, but the production was great. My agent went back to them and said she'll do it, but is there any room on the nudity? No. No room on the nudity.

So you didn't take the role?
Such a small percentage of actors are working and I wasn't working at the time. I knew if I didn't say yes they would just offer it to someone else who would say yes. Actors are so desperate for work because it is such a grossly oversaturated and elitist industry. So I said yes. On set, I debated with the director and managed to get him to agree that I could wear my bra but wouldn't be allowed to wear my top. At the screening of the first episode, the director came up to me and said, "Hey, I'm really sorry we ended up cutting that scene." So this one scene, that I was so nervous about doing anyway, in a forest full of extras, with my top off, straddling a terrified extra who I had never met before, was cut. That was definitely a learning curve, and I think that experience is so typical to the industry. For women, nudity is expected of you as though it is no big deal. That you should want to take your top or bottoms off if it means you get the part. And usually, as it was in my case, the nudity is so gratuitous. It's used to shock the audience. People say they have to include it because sex sells, but maybe just write a better story, one that doesn't need a nervous 18-year-old's tits.


Emer is a television writer and actress. She played Zsa Zsa on East Enders before taking roles in a string of British sitcoms including Pramface, Badults, and Beaver Falls.

VICE: So is nudity just part and parcel of going for roles?
Emer: Of course. It's normally partial nudity and it's a part of the job—your body is your tool and all that, and some characters require it. Then there are some nude scenes that feel gratuitous. It's about discerning between the two, which can be very difficult. I did my first sex scene when I was 17 and it was a partially topless scene. It was scary but it was essential to the script, the script was brilliant, and there was no way I was getting that part if I didn't do it.

So how do you do that discerning?
The good, and odd, thing is that you can negotiate what you are willing to show in the contract—you can film my lower bum cheek but not my whole ass, or, as has happened to me before, yes I will do a sex scene in a cupboard, but I want to do it from this particular angle. It's how actors protect themselves from being put in an uncomfortable position. Literally.

Do you think there's a disparity between male and female actors when it comes to all of this?
I think there certainly used to be, but then you watch something like The Affair and see that Dominic West is just as naked and having just as much sex on-screen as Ruth Wilson. Or you watch Trainwreck and John Cena is butt-naked and playing the disposable boyfriend character. I think it's changing. But if you look at the statistics, it's certainly not equal yet. Only something like 28% of speaking roles are played by women, and 56% of actresses appear in "sexualized attire." That doesn't reflect real life.

But if you're a working actress, is there much you can do about that?
If you want to work, you have to be open to it, and I don't think that any actress who chooses to do nudity should be judged for that choice, or vice versa. I remember reading that Margot Robbie said she'd never do nudity in her career, but then Martin Scorsese persuaded her otherwise for The Wolf of Wall Street. She was brilliant in that role, and it has probably brought her a huge number of opportunities, so who can blame her for adjusting her boundaries? I think you also have to look at why you don't want to do nudity. Is it because you feel like you're being taken advantage of and you disagree with it morally, or is it because you're uncomfortable in your body? Although everyone has insecurities, you have to try and let that second reason go.


Mariah has been a stage actress since 2000. She has appeared in many Royal Shakespeare Company productions, as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet , Wendy in Wendy & Peter Pan, and as Ophelia alongside David Tennant in Hamlet. She has also had roles on radio and TV.

VICE: Does nudity come up a lot in roles for the stage?
Mariah: I may be the wrong person to ask about this because I haven't really been asked to be naked in anything ever. I'm not sure what that says. I think I'm quite lucky. When I played Ophelia at the RSC, I went down to my underwear but I felt like that was a collaboration between myself and the director and it sort of organically came out of the state we thought she was in. So I never felt there was any pressure. Even if it's quite a collaborative decision and the actress has been involved in making that choice, I think you have to treat everything surrounding that choice with real respect. It was really important to me during our technical rehearsals that I got to cover up when I wanted to. It's a really delicate thing and you've got to make sure people are comfortable.

Do you think your experience is quite unique?
I know other actresses that have had quite the opposite experience. Even TV that I watch, I often wonder why the women are naked and the men aren't. Often it's so obvious that it's pure titillation and I vehemently disagree with that. I'm a feminist and I think: why would you ask the women to do something that you're not asking the men to do? I loved House Of Cards, and I was quite shocked that even in that, which is supposed to have some intellectual rigor, the women are all naked and them men hardly ever are.

Is it just nudity that's the big discrepancy when it comes to casting between men and women?
Well when you see the casting breakdowns, especially for TV and film, often for women it is about physical attributes. There was one theater job that I didn't go for because every description of the character was how she was seen in relation to the men, whether they were attracted to her or not, and I thought: I didn't train for three years in classical theater to do this.

Is that something that would put you off going for a role?
Absolutely. I think actresses should have artistic integrity. You know when something is necessary to a great piece of art and when it's not. I've seen female nudity used on stage in a way that was utterly beautiful, in Sitting Pretty by Amy Rosenthal for example, but I think It's quite rare that it's ever a vital part of the plot or the artistic vision.

If you're a young female actor trying to get a break, isn't it hard to say no to these kinds of roles?
Yes it is hard, but unless we all stick to our guns, and move forward from gender oppression and gender inequality then things won't change. And I feel really excited that things are changing. That we're seeing female-led narratives and actresses like Olivia Colman and Sarah Lancashire and incredible scripts where you're able to play a three-dimensional character, a real woman who isn't an alpha female just because she's doing what the blokes do. It's up to men and women in the industry to be progressive to change the way things are.

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Emer Kenny
Anna Shaffer
Mariah Gale