At times, the dancers in Hustlers command autonomy as sexual subjects in a way that breaks free from the male gaze. Several of the stripping scenes come from a perspective that seems to match the women’s view of themselves— sexy, seductive, and powerful, especially when they’re scamming clients at the same time. But in other instances, they revert back to being sexual objects, reduced and commodified when desperation requires a sacrifice of agency, making them pliable to the demands of their male customers. The balance is hard to strike due to the nature of the story.
Setting alone creates a definite power imbalance, and it’s hard not to refer to Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film, Magic Mike, to illustrate the rift. Hustlers’ dancers have less power than Magic Mike’s, the latter a film in which the demeaning aspects of the profession are virtually absent, a disparity that’s likely reflective of male versus female stripping in reality. Male strippers are employed by other men (in MM’s case, a former stripper played by Matthew McConaughey), instilling the transaction with an inherent equity. Female strippers are also employed by men, who have not experienced and do not appreciate the strain of their dancers’ labor, but merely take a cut, often extortionately.
The dynamic of sexual autonomy and power, however, doesn’t dominate the film’s thematic landscape, but represents a permutation of it. Hustlers uses the tumultuous, ever-shifting relationship between strippers and clients as an allegory for capitalist victimization. A line spoken by Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona goes something to the effect of, “America is just a big strip club. Some people throw money, and some people dance.” Based off of an article written by Jessica Pressler (Elizabeth in the movie, played by Julia Stiles) titled “The Hustlers at Scores,” the film relays the true story of how the 2008 financial crisis led to a depletion of clients at New York’s once bustling strip clubs, and how a small group of performers turned to drugging rich men at bars and running up their credit cards.
Early on, Ramona frames her scheme as revenge against the bankers and CEOs who ruined America’s economy, leaving millions jobless, thereby turning the established class dynamic on its head. Hustlers uses this reversal in more ways than one. Primarily, strippers Ramona, Destiny (Constance Wu), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) play the role of Wall Street hucksters, using initial consent as a gateway to scam and manipulate those who invest in them, turning America’s financial predators into the prey they once fed on. And while the film takes care to depict the damage that such practices cause, it’s in the pursuit of clarifying the relationship between elite and working classes, not muddling it. Although the protagonists begin hustling as a last resort, the intoxication of wealth supersedes their righteous mission. With expedient ends comes an acceptance of immoral means, and soon Ramona and her band of merry women get carried away, damaging more innocent lives and becoming their own enemy in the process. But we must not forget that their corruption grew from necessity, preceded by the unjustified actions of the ruling class, for whom greed was the sole motivator.
A not-so-sneaking suspicion tells me that others won’t view Hustlers through the same lens. Several audience members responded negatively to the movie due solely to the immorality of the protagonists. To be sure, a deficiency of character history and development sometimes results in a failure to garner sympathy and identification with Ramona, and to a lesser extent, Destiny. Although Lopez’s honest and sometimes painful performance should be commended, the writing doesn’t quite provide her with what she’s able and willing to give. These flaws don’t constitute total dismissal, however.
It seems more so that the characters in Hustlers, due to race and gender, are not afforded the right to be antiheroes. After the screening, a group of several men could be heard remarking on how unpleasant they found the women because of their criminality and lavishness, and how Constance Wu was not as attractive as Lucy Liu (seriously). Their reaction further proves the point of the film. In America’s exploitative economy, where a small amount of the population scams the rest on a massive scale, many are forced to play the same game to survive. But only some are punished. Especially those who are demeaned in the first place. These women got probation and, some of them, jail. Who from Wall Street got the same? | Nic Champion