Strip clubs are highly profitable businesses. Last year in the United States alone, (mostly male) customers generated roughly $7 billion in revenue for club owners and financiers. As in all capitalistic enterprises, the bosses take a major cut of what the performers and other workers earn. Depending on where a stripper works, she may not take home all of the money rained on her person during a dance.
To work for a living is to be stolen from. American capitalism is built on theft—of lands, of peoples, of traditions, and of the fruits of human labor. In director Lorene Scafaria’s box office smash Hustlers, we find a cinematic depiction of women who rebel and try to steal back what capitalism has stolen from them.
Hustlers is based on a true story by Jessica Pressler published in 2015 in New York magazine. Her feature detailed a scheme coordinated by New York City strippers. They slipped drugs into the drinks of Wall Street bankers, led them seductively back to the strip club where they used to dance, proceeded to run up their credit cards, and took a cut of the profits.
There’s a long line of movies about strippers and sex workers—Player’s Club, Showgirls, Magic Mike, and Pretty Woman to name a few. Hustlers turns the genre on its head by inverting gender roles—turning entitled customers into helpless bait; predators and power-brokers into vulnerable victims. Not even Elizabeth—the reporter meant to stand in for Pressler, played with perfect stoicism by Julia Stiles—feels bad for these guys, though.
Because the subtext of Hustlers is that, yes, it’s a crime to take money that’s not yours. And, obviously, drugging dudes is very bad. But the spirit in which this is done is to wrest financial and social control back from the men who carelessly stole it—not just from them, but from the entire nation, during the largest single-day stock market crash in American history, on September 29, 2008.
Take from the rich, give to the poor. When you think about it like that, is it really even stealing?
Destiny, a lonely second-generation Asian American immigrant played tenderly by Constance Wu, isn’t so sure. As the film opens, we get a glimpse of her life. She sleeps until 3 pm, wakes up in her sickly grandmother’s home, takes the long trek to Manhattan on the bus, meanders through the strip club like a little girl lost until the sun comes up, day after day.
The other dancers don’t even talk to her in the dressing room. Like most dancers, she has to pay a cut of whatever she makes to the sneering jerks who run the place. Adding more insult to injury, a customer calls her Lucy Liu—and because she needs this job, what else can she do but smile weakly and give the guy a dance?
Just as we’re about to start sobbing with rage into our popcorn, Hustlers offers us hope in the form of Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez with swagger and a bit of Boricua machismo she hasn’t had the chance to show off on the big screen until now. Ramona performs a stunning pole dance routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and an inspired crowd rains cash on her perfect body.
Ramona loves money more than almost anything, and she possesses the ruthlessness required to come up with a plan to drug men and take their money. She understands what money is for—so that you can have things, so you can show off your possessions. Technically, she’s a kept woman—a client pays for the (stunning!) Upper East Side apartment she shares with her daughter. But when she nestles Destiny inside her beautiful long fur coat like a lioness comforting a cub as they smoke cigarettes on the roof of the club, you forget about the source of the cash. All you see is a woman in full possession of herself who has no plans to lose.
“This city, this whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money and people doing the dance,” she says. Men, who are almost always the ones tossing the money, are nearly all foils or predators in Hustlers. This, too, is an inversion of what happens in the real world, where things are a bit more complicated.
Every time Lopez or Wu, Keke Palmer as Mercedes, or Lilli Reinhart as Annabelle saunter into a bar, pop bottles as their scheme keeps working, we in the audience are transported from being bystanders to being co-conspirators. It is, we know, wrong to steal from people. There will have to be consequences. But the righteous feminist in you will ask, “Well, these men have been stealing all this time and getting away with it. Why not women for once?”
That is in stark contrast to how Lopez frames her partners in crime once police investigators catch up with them after a customer turns them in. “We were hurricanes,” Ramona whispers to Destiny in front of the precinct, tears in her eyes. This line sticks with me for a dozen reasons, but mostly because a metaphorical hurricane is the opposite of a woman viewed as passive entertainment. Hurricanes disrupt our sites of leisure, like the Caribbean islands which Cardi B (who plays Diamond uproariously) and Lopez claim as an ancestral home. These women quite literally steal back their power, and not just to get what they need but also to get what they want. It’s true—before the men lose too much and the jig is up, the women of Hustlers are forces of nature.
And Ramona’s point, that there are people who do the dance? Well, most often, women do the dance, especially women of color from poor neighborhoods who can’t find their way out of the hood working retail (try as they might—and these characters do try). This is what it means to be owned by a capitalist culture where people easily become commodities, bought and sold for a price.
There’s a scene in the middle of the movie when Destiny recalls going back to dance after the stock market crash, when Russian girls were brought in to do more with the customers for less cash. A rather Aryan-looking fellow offers her $300 to get a little closer and stroke him. It’s against the rules, and she’s trying to be a good girl, but she succumbs because it’s the money she needs for her kid and for her grandma. Then, when she leaves the VIP room, she realizes that he handed her three $20 bills and not hundreds. It’s the moment when she understands that she’s justified in taking these guys for all they’re worth.
There’s one more thing: Making your body into the site of pleasure in the marketplace sometimes means you can be cut off from the people who hold you close, who keep you fed, who remind you that you belong to yourself before anyone else. This is who Ramona and Destiny are for each other; it’s who Ramona is for all the girls: a site of belonging, a reminder of their sovereignty, financial realities and laws be damned.
When they all get busted, Lorde’s “Royals” soars like a melancholy siren in the background. The echo of what they would never be makes it clear that for the short time that the women got to be the ones tossing the money instead of doing the dance, they proved that women could be kings. And what greater joy could a movie provide to women at a time like this than the reminder of that?