They say that sex sells, but this adds a whole new level to that old adage.
According to the website OscarHookers.com, every recipient of the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Academy Awards have, at one point in their careers, played a character whose life is directly related to the sex industry. Upon further inspection, the site's methodology is fairly unsound, but its overall message does point to a potentially troubling trend in Hollywood: the kinds of roles for actresses are severely limited.
Just look at this year's Oscar nominees in the major performance categories.
Now, that's not to say that actresses don't give phenomenal performances in these roles, but it does show that female characters are often defined by their relationships to men. When you factor in this new suggestion that (nearly) all the most acclaimed actresses have played a role as a sex worker, you have to wonder if it's possible for a woman to reach the pinnacle of Hollywood glory without being sexualized.
Let's take a look at some of the past winners to see if this is actually a problem or something that has become overblown.
1. Cate Blanchett
Oscar-winning role: Olivia Evans in Blue Jasmine (2013)
Sex worker role: Lena Brandt in The Good German (2006)
From this very first example, you can see that outdated and pejorative views of women who work in the sex industry are not the roles Oscar-winning actresses choose. This is one of the earliest examples that OscarHookers uses on their list, but, in the movie, Lena Brandt is not really a prostitute as she holds much darker secrets from her life in the concentration camp. In other words, it's not a role that only exists to be sexual.
2. Susan Sarandon
Oscar-winning role: Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking (1996)
Sex worker role: Hattie in Pretty Baby (1978)
Pretty Baby is one of the few films on the OscarHooker's list with a plot that directly relates to sex work. It caused quite the stir at the time for casting an underage Brooke Shields as a child prostitute in early 20th century New Orleans, but it is not pornographic. In fact, it aims to shine a light on one sad chapter in American history, and Susan Sarandon's character ends up embodying the fight against the time period.
3. Patricia Arquette
Oscar-winning role: Olivia Evans in Boyhood (2014)
Sex worker role: Alabama Whitman in True Romance (1992)
Patricia Arquette is the perfect example of how a role related to sex work does not mean that the character exists solely for the purposes of titillating the viewer. Olivia Evans and Alabama Whitman are easily the two most recognizable roles for the versatile Patricia Arquette, and True Romance offered a complex and lasting view of love and relationships.
4. Jodie Foster
Oscar-winning role: Clarice Sterling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Sex worker role: Iris in Taxi Driver (1976)
These are not only two of the most iconic roles for Jodie Foster, but The Silence of the Lambs and Taxi Driver are two of the most important and influential movies ever made. A young Foster plays an underage prostitute in the latter film, and she turns in one of the most impressive performances ever committed to screen by a child actor. Though Iris has had a hard life, director Martin Scorsese does not overly sexualize her, and throughout the movie, she is always much more complex than just her profession.
5. Reese Witherspoon
Oscar-winning role: June Carter Cash in Walk the Line (2005)
Sex worker role: Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (2004)
As Becky Sharp, Reese Witherspoon brought to life a character embroiled in the class conflict in 19th century England. Toward the end of the story, Becky gets a job as a card dealer, and, though it's never shown on screen, the book makes clear that this job also involves sleeping with patrons. This all serves to satirize British culture of the time, which revolved heavily around class, and Becky functions to expose the ridiculous traditions of the upper class.
There are way more examples at the site, but in the end, despite the surprising trend, I don't think this is a real problem. Putting aside the fact that the site makes major stretches to reach its goal—like adding Jennifer Lawrence to the list for playing a Biblical prostitute at the age of 9 in a church play—most of these roles are not overly sexualized or objectified.
It may be the case that there are an awful lot of sex worker roles in movies, but to imply that you can only win an Oscar if you play a prostitute is a drastic oversimplification.