I wasn’t sure how I felt going to watch a film about strippers. I already part-loved Hustlers because of its cast – J Lo, Lizzo, Cardi B all playing strippers – but I was nervous. This was a film based on a real-life story of female crime, where a group of strippers began drugging men to steal their credit card details. Trailers showed half-naked women dancing around poles while men throw dollar bills at their feet. Would it be a story of female empowerment, or would it reinforce the male gaze?
When it comes to sex work, there is no ‘set feminist view’ on it. Often sex workers themselves disagree on how to view it. To some, it is purely freeing. It is women using what they’ve been given to earn an honest, and potentially lucrative, living. To others, it’s more complicated, because women are doing that via the male gaze within a patriarchal set-up. And to some, sex workers are all victims – be that explicitly with exploitation, or victims of circumstance.
I needn’t have worried. From the second that J-Lo took Constance Wu under her huge fur coat – quite literally – the film was a dazzling celebration of women. It didn’t condone the women’s criminal actions, but it explained them. In much the same way that it’s impossible to have a clear, one-size-fits-all opinion on stripping and sex work, the film explored so many aspects of stripping and the reasons why women do it, that it allowed the viewer to make up their own mind.
In Hustlers, the desperate financial situations that force women like Constance Wu’s destiny to strip are explored, but the women aren’t presented as victims. Things aren’t always fair, like the fees they have to pay to strip clubs and bouncers for protection. There are hints at physical abuse, and heartbreaking moments like men offering hundreds for additional sex services – and then failing to deliver. But the strong women use their sisterhood bond to try and move on. To the point where the men become the victims.
The criminal aspect of the plot begins after the financial crash, when Wall Street bankers can no longer spend thousands in strip clubs, and the strippers are out of jobs. They turn to drugging men to steal their credit card details – the rationale being no man will call the police to say he overspent thousands in a strip club. Here, the line becomes blurred, as the tables turn and it is the men who are taken advantage of, sometimes at their most vulnerable. It suggests that gender is irrelevant; having your consent taken away from you is unacceptable, regardless of whether you’re male or female.
Yet, nor does this film glamorise stripping. Even though J-Lo’s show-stopping scene where she pole dances to Fiona Apple’s Criminal made most of the audience wish they had the body to do the same, and the women happily spend their money on big, bright, shiny handbags and cars, the film also explores the downside. There’s the working six nights a week, losing jealous boyfriends, battling off predatory men, and the sheer hustle of it all. Even in the most swaggering parts of the movie, there’s a sense that this won’t last forever, whether that’s down to the financial crash, or the fact that ageing strippers – even when they look like J-Lo – don’t bring in the big money.
What Hustlers does do is portray a female-centric story of a variety of diverse strippers all doing it for different reasons, with different stories of their own. Some want to leave the industry ASAP. Others don’t. Some also offer added sexual services. Others haven’t had sex in two years. Cardi B’s ‘boyfriend’ is a vibrator. The point is that it all comes down to a woman’s own choice, and the most victorious part of it all is the fact that the women form their own family.
The real message of the film isn’t even really about stripping or the actions of these women looking for financial freedom – it’s a look at the relationships between women. Hustlers celebrates female friendship, the highs and the lows, from the inexplicable closeness that turns friends into family, to the way that such tight friendships can become toxic. One of the most exultant scenes shows the strippers have a euphoric time celebrating Christmas together as a family with their grandparents, daughters and surrogate mothers – with not a single man in sight. It hints at a matriarchal world where women are happier without men, partying, laughing and thriving without a male provider.
In fact, both Wu and J-Lo’s characters repeatedly stress their desire to earn enough money to ‘be free’, so they can raise their daughters alone, while Lili Reinhart’s character just wants to be able to live alone with a cat. They might all get taken in by the designer bags and oversized chinchilla fur coats, but their real goal is to be independent.
Hustlers thankfully offers no moral judgment on their profession of choice, nor on their decision to go sideways into a criminal heist, but it does explore a world of diversity and difference, where a group of women are brought together out of their desire to earn financial independence – a goal no-one can disagree with.
This is what it’s really like to be a stripper
It gets hard when you get into a cycle of waking up late after finishing at around 6am then getting ready and going to work again. It’s easy to not see daylight or even do anything other than work and sleep so it’s super important to make sure you exercise, eat well and actually see people like friends and family. There are super glamorous, exciting and thrilling aspects of the job and it can be really fun but the stories on stripping need to stop being so polarised. For some reason it’s either ‘I earn £5000 a night and drink champagne every night’ or it’s ‘I get harassed and drugged‘.
To me, stripping is just a normal job and in a way, I think of it like an office job. It has its pros it has cons, and the media portrayal should more closely reflect that strippers are normal people. We go to work, do a job, go home and get into comfy clothes. Not everyone goes to work at a strip club and aims to live a 5* Mayfair lifestyle or live like a crackhead.