Editor’s note: “Hustlers” has proven to be a richly divisive topic among the sex work community — and for good reason. Here at PULP we’re honoring those complexities and publishing two conflicting companion pieces side by side to give a better bird’s eye view. Read the counter-point here.
hen the news first broke about the film Hustlers, my twitter feed started blowing up. People were asking if my “Justice Hustlers” series of novels had been adapted into a movie, or worse, if my story had been stolen. Neither one is true.
Both stories are about a group of New York sex workers who rob unscrupulous men, but mine is pure fiction, while the film Hustlers — written and directed by Lorene Scafaria — is based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 true crime article, “The Hustlers at Scores” in New York Magazine. But given my own preoccupation with justice, it’s no surprise that I loved the movie Hustlers. Like my own series, it’s about more than slick cons and heists, it’s a complete indictment of the patriarchal system that drives the women to commit crimes.
In Hustlers, former exotic dancers run a scam to rip off some of their wealthiest customers after the 2008 financial crash that those men helped create.
The way that the film centers sex workers, and particularly sex workers of color, is unprecedented. The voices of women of color are so central that the New Yorker critic Richard Brody didn’t even know quite what he was looking at.
He mistook Janet Jackson for Constance Wu in the beginning of the film. The opening scene begins with Jackson’s song “Control,” which has spoken lines at the beginning. Brody writes, “It’s ‘a story about control,’ Dorothy says, in a brief opening voice-over.”
He mistakenly believes that the line was spoken by actress Constance Wu and is part of the script written by writer/director Lorene Scafaria.
But it comes as no surprise that we can’t expect male critics with perspectives embedded in sexism to understand complex critiques of the patriarchy.
Feminists like me often use patriarchy to describe a worldwide system of male domination, and I mean that, too. But for the purposes of understanding Hustlers, I also mean it in terms of patriarch, our cultural mythology about father-knows-best.
In our economic system, women historically and currently own less than 1% of the world’s wealth. Those who support this system justify the economic inequality by spinning a tale of benevolent male power. In this myth, patriarchy works because men can be counted on to take care of women — in families, in workplaces, and everywhere.
In Hustlers, we see one man after another who leverages women’s economic vulnerability to his benefit and her detriment. One example of this takes place in the strip club, where it all began. Destiny (played by Constance Wu) is the new girl. She’s made it through her first night, and gives much more of her earnings than she expected to the one of the male managers. “Is he bothering you?” an older manager asks her.
“Listen he bothers you, you got my number right?” He begins to give her a “new girl” speech that’s part workplace pep talk, part creepy uncle. “You need anything, you call me. Someone to talk to. Coke. Anything. You wanna keep working that VIP, all right.” Then he puts out his hand for his cut of her wages. His offer is shady enough, but later, we see Diamond (Cardi B) cuss him out. She says he doesn’t actually do any work at the club, except con new girls into believing that they need to give him oral sex as part of the job.
Part of liberal patriarchy is the idea that we can count on male generosity to take care of us. And during the period before the financial crash of 2008, the dancers can. Destiny explains to a journalist that times were good because everyone was making money. But after the crash, men are no longer so generous. Women at the club are pressured to offer more sexual services. A new roster of dancers, mostly Russian immigrants, are offering $300 blow jobs. Destiny is in the VIP room with a client who promises a very reluctant Destiny $300 for full contact sexual services. After she finishes servicing him, she says “when I got up off the floor, I saw that he had only left me three twenties.”
When the economy crashes, Destiny is pregnant and terrified. “How am I going to make money?” she asks her boyfriend. Implicit in this scene is that Destiny is deciding whether or not to continue the pregnancy. “I’ll take care of you,” he vows. “Des, look at me. Look at me. I promise. I’ll take care of you.” And he shares his hope that the baby will be a boy.
The baby is a girl. Soon we see the couple in a screaming fight and Destiny asks him to leave. Remember, the boyfriend says, “this is what you wanted!” But it wasn’t what Destiny wanted. The boyfriend lured her into his narcissistic fantasy of a family. But he was not prepared to make the necessary sacrifices for the real-life labor of parenting. And like so many fathers, he couldn’t hang. He leaves Destiny holding the bag, and refuses to take responsibility for his choice.
Finally, this is a story about the ostensible benevolence of contemporary American capitalism, which promises that we in this country can work hard and we will be rewarded. But the financial crash showed that the system only works for those at the top. And when times get tough, the dreams of working people are expendable — pension funds, life savings, mortgages — none of those financial promises were enforceable. Yet public bailouts went to the very segment of the society that had profited.
I have been in various conversations about the possibility of adapting my “Justice Hustlers” for TV. One producer/director asked if I could change the location from New York to the Bay Area because it’s so much cheaper to shoot a TV show in Northern California. But I couldn’t really see it. Because like Hustlers, Justice Hustlers is about not about stealing from individual men, but stealing from the class of men whose wealth comes from the most unscrupulous practices in contemporary capitalism. New York City is the heart of U.S. capitalism.
Hustlers is a story of women who turned to crime when honesty didn’t pay. In the recession, Destiny couldn’t get a retail job because she lacked experience, and because the uptight woman interviewing her had contempt for her history of working in strip clubs. Even though Destiny said she did “bartending mostly.”
Destiny reconnects with Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who had been a mentor to her when she first began working in the Manhattan strip club. Ramona has a new hustle in the post-financial crash, and draws Destiny in.
It is this tight community of women that they build that is the heart of the film for me. This is a story about moms. Single moms of color, in particular. How they will ride or die for their families, and how they make family together. Jourdain Searles explores this beautifully in her article “Family Ties: HustlersPromises Crime, but Delivers Matriarchy”.
After the patriarchy fails her, Destiny builds family with Ramona. In the family they build, Ramona plays both roles — as single moms do — of mother and father. You can see it in the Christmas scene, how she really daddys up, and provides for everyone. She has all the ruthlessness of masculine conditioning, but also the urge toward nurturing of all the broken girls that comes from feminine conditioning. And it’s the combination of these that ultimately takes the gang down: Ramona is too ruthless and some undeserving men do get hurt. Also, Ramona abandons her #1 daughter Destiny to caretake another one of the girls who’s too messy for the operation.
Yet in that moment of Ramona’s abandonment, we also see Destiny step up.
I will never forget that moment when Destiny shows up with blood on her shirt, pulls her young daughter out of the white neighbor’s arms and takes her to school. Destiny is totally unapologetic about doing what she has to for her child. That’s some gangster single mom ish. Serious ride or die mom of color business.
Overall, I love how the focus of the film never wavers from a compassionate and loving gaze on these women’s lives and their relationships with each other.
The film is practically an inverse Bechdel test: Few of the men are named, no man has more than two or three lines, and they never exchange any lines with each other — only with women. The film is rooted in women’s relationships with each other.
A number of male reviewers have panned Hustlers, but much of their criticism so obviously stems from their inability to value the richness of the relationships between women. One critic bemoaned the missed opportunities to explore more deeply the relationships with the men in the film.
I wonder if some male critics were disappointed because they expected a movie about sexy strippers but got a deep film about women’s connections with each other. About single moms who do what they need to do to keep their families going. And under the male gaze, there’s nothing sexy about the authentic challenges of women’s real lives. But for those of us who root for smart, flawed, complex female protagonists who make risky calls in tough situations, Hustlers is everything.