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27 September 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 6:51am

Hustlers is a refreshing example of changing attitudes to sex work

Strippers on the big screen are typically gritty decoration or gruesome punchlines. In Lorene Scafaria’s film, they're working-class women trying to build decent lives.

By Eleanor Penny

Strippers on the big screen are typically portrayed as gritty scene dressing or gruesome punchlines. At best, they grace film sets as spectacles of morbid titillation, doomed or already dead. In reality, though, sex work is one way that working-class people – largely women – make a living. 

Hustlers attempts to capture this reality. For all that Lorene Scafaria’s film revels in the dangerous glamour of the scam, it’s a story about working-class women trying to build decent lives for themselves and their families, without depending on the fickle favours of men, or the endless, low-paid drudgery of retail work. In films like Belle du Jour and L.A. Confidential, sex work is a signal of downfall and despair. Scafaria’s female leads are instead haunted by the boring tyranny of “going straight”, a life of predictable drudgery and 9-5 jobs. “What are you going to do?” Jennifer Lopez’s charismatic matriarch Ramona asks of her fresher-faced mentee Dorothy: “Go back on minimum wage?”

Hustlers doesn’t gloss over the slog of everyday earning: the club relies on an internal economy of casual bribes and routine exploitation, where the house charges a hefty cut of the dancer’s earnings, bosses levy fines for minor misdemeanours, and bouncers guard the most profitable spots. After the 2008 financial crash eviscerates the club’s wealthy customer base, its working conditions deteriorate. Even at the giddiest heights of their success, “there were bad days, like any other job”. The film’s high-octane fantasy is anchored by a grim economic reality that maps onto real life; in the UK, upstart new unions like United Voices of the World have highlighted the exploitative practices that sex workers face, where insecure employment, stigma and zealous policing converge to rob workers of their bargaining power. 

Dorothy (Constance Wu), the film’s central character, is a newcomer to the club who chose sex work for unapologetically pragmatic reasons: “I just want to take care of my grandma and maybe go shopping once in a while.” She is drawn to fellow stripper Ramona, who offers maternal affection, sisterly comradeship, and a powerful model of self-sufficiency. Dorothy briefly samples the lifestyle of a “saved” stripper in the bosom of a life deemed much more respectable; as a bored suburban mother struggling for work in the daytime economy, but finds it mediocre, restrictive and deeply unsatisfying: too great a compromise for an ambitious woman.  

Scafaria draws her male characters as helpless buffoons disarmed by female cunning. The schmuck divorcées, snarling 20-somethings and aggressive CEOs that frequent the club are only tolerable when in a state of semi-consciousness, fumbling for their company credit cards. The sisterhood are united by a profound disinterest in the male species; male family members, friends or partners are largely missing from Hustlers. The male world, it seems, is something you enter, grab what you can to survive, and swiftly escape. Female campaigners accuse the hustlers of colluding with male fantasies and collaborating with the patriarchy. To be sure, the strippers are working on the frontlines of male desire – but those desires are a fatal weakness they exploit for cash, not a power structure they brainlessly reenact. 

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Newly loaded, the central gang of four strippers-turned scammers – Dorothy (now Destiny), Ramona, Mercedes and Annabelle – revel in their wealth; this is their turn to experience the ease of not having to live pay cheque to pay cheque. Hustlers is a mixture of Betty Friedan and Nineties high-heeled empowerment – women buy their way to liberation by paying other women to do the dirty work (the hustlers hire nannies to help with childcare). If you’re looking for the communist manifesto, you won’t find it here. Sex work earns its place among other respectable forms of capitalist self-sufficiency, restaging the entrepreneurialism of Stormi Daniels. Again and again, Dorothy insists she doesn’t want to depend on anyone.

Watching the hustlers enact a campaign of opulent vengeance on the suited men who tanked the economy is undeniably fun, though. “Hard working people lost everything,” rages Ramona. In Shakespearean rhythm, their revenge ultimately spells downfall. As the gang plays a high-stakes game of individual swindle, they stray into increasingly dubious moral territory: their targets become so helpless that they become the objects of our sympathy. 

But the analogy Hustlers draws between Wall Street and the seedy dealings of a strip club replays the same stigma that the film attempts to confront. The sisterhood remain carefully detached from sex work that involves physical contact. When Russian migrant workers arrive at the club and breezily give out blowjobs, the central gang carefully toe the line of mainstream respectability – the American hustlers don’t want to “go there”. The film demonises “junkies” and “felons”, and distances its characters from the murkier areas of their profession. It replays a dangerous distinction between archetypes of “good” and “bad” sex workers, between the middle-class, happy stripper, and the messy, drug-addled migrant struggling to get by. In reality, laws around drug criminalisation, borders, policing and incarceration endanger the lives of all sex workers (if to varying degrees). 

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Still, leaving the cinema, I felt grateful to Hustlers for not punishing the profession it dramatises. The film is an idealised American dream, rolled in glitter and snorted off someone else’s inner thigh. It’s committed to the humanity of its characters, and their struggle for the kind of power and freedom which gets handed out on a silver platter to people utterly unlike them.