How “Hustlers” Hustles Us

Still from “Hustlers.”

Hustlers, the Fall 2019 film that grossed $33 million on opening weekend, focuses on a group of gorgeous, sassy, New York women earning an honest living through stripping.

Of course, that’s before the Stock Market Crash of 2008, for which we can blame Wall Street greed and George Dubya Bush, as well as Obama who bailed out the banks instead of the people who lost everythng.

For Hustlers, desperate times lead to crime. In order to feed their families, pay their rent and buy their Chinchilla fur coats, our beloved strippers take to “hustling,” drugging (with a potent blend of Ketamine and MDMA), robbing and sometimes blackmailing their customers. As is the typical Hollywood “caper” formula, heartwarming comradery, wild hilarity, catchy musical numbers and tear-jerking pathos ensue.

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria based on Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine article (The Hustlers at Scores), Hustlers the movie stars Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, the ringleader, who does a mean pole dance. Yes, 50-year-old J Lo performs her own dancing—no stunt double for this former Fly Girl. For me, that’s probably the most impressive part of the film, even though she practiced with a pole dance teacher rather than a real stripper, and she demurely keeps all her sweet spots concealed.

Hustlers also features Constance Wu in the leading POV role of Dorothy, aka Destiny, and Grammy-winning rapper Cardi B (a Bernie Bro like me!) in a supporting role as “Diamond from the Bronx.” A real-life former stripper who admits—disturbingly albeit candidly—to having drugged and robbed men in her “imperfect” past, Cardi delivers one of the film’s catchiest lines (although escorts take issue with the anti-escort implication), “Drain the clock, not the cock.” There are other stellar performances and colorful background scenes with “real stripper” extras, as well as an amusing Usher cameo.

Critics have given Hustlers mixed reviews, and I have mixed feelings about it. Regardless, it’s an “important” film for American sex workers, an unsung section of the American working class, now struggling to survive in the wake of the new anti-sex work SESTA/FOSTA law.

But how true-to-the-stripper-life is this flick?

Sisterly Sex Workers

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Hustlers and you want to be surprised, zip it up and stop reading!

Though Hustlers is not a very suspenseful film. Most viewers know the stars are going to have a good old Thelma and Louise-like time drugging and robbing douchebags until they get busted.

Most of the real strippers, former strippers and other sex workers I’ve spoken with appreciate that Hustlers portrays the “stripper life” with more accuracy than previous films about stripping like Showgirls, Planet Terror or Striptease. They especially love the tender girlfriend relationship portrayed between the two stars.

That powerful girl-girl love is very bonobosque. All bonobos are bisexual and, as I discuss in The Bonobo Way, the females tend to form the most intimate relationships, strengthening their bonds, making bonobos the most female-empowered apes on Earth.

Unfortunately, in Hustlers, the great female relationship at the center of the storm, leads all the females to jail, or at least probation. That’s not too empowering.

But that’s Hollywood! And that’s just one of my problems with Hustlers.

Then there’s the fact that for a supposedly sexy movie, there’s not much sex. The stars spend a lot more time shopping than shagging.

The most orgasmic (retail-gasmic?) scene in the movie is when Ramona and Destiny pay one snooty saleswoman with a big thick wad of small bills.

Striptease Capitalism

“Everybody’s hustling,” Ramona explains. “This city—this whole country’s a strip club. You got people tossing the money. And people doing the dance…

“It’s business and it’s a more honest transaction than anything else they did that day…

“We gotta start thinking like these Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country? They stole from everyone. Hardworking people lost everything. And not one of these douchebags went to jail. You ever think about that when you’re in the club? That’s stolen money. That’s what’s paying for their blowjobs. The fucking fire fighters’ retirement fund. Fuck these guys.”

Preach, Ramona!

But wait, what are you preaching? That capitalist corruption excuses you for being the Bill Cosby of strippers?

But speaking of getting ripped off…

Where are the Boobs?

Hustlers has a lot of authentic strip-club touches, competition alternating with solidarity among the workers, highs and lows under the flashing lights.

But one key factor that’s missing—for obvious Hollywood reasons—is nudity. In a typical strip club, there are lots of naked or at least topless dancers, both onstage (that’s what the customers come to throw their money at) and backstage. There are a few titillating titty flashes in Hustlers, Lizzo frees the nipple for a bouncy second, Cardi B wears gigantic flower pasties, and one of the male customers is naked—while passed out. But the star strippers never strip.

I understand that the producers didn’t want to receive an “X” rating which would have damned their movie to the gulag of adult films (though Hustlers is banned in Malaysia anyway).

But presenting strippers without nudity is kind of like portraying Batman without the cape.

That was one of many things I liked about the much maligned 1995 Showgirls: lots of boobs. Do I sound like a pervert? Well, all right, I confess: I like nudity in mainstream films, and I am not ashamed! Of course, it’s just a superficial quibble. If I want to see boobs, I can look at porn or go to a real strip club, right?

Besides, the Hustlers actresses are so gorgeous; I get turned on just looking at Constance Wu’s expressive face… or J Lo’s expressive buns.

Still, there is that authenticity factor. It’s missing.

How Many Strippers Would Rob You?

More disturbing is that Hustlers gives the erroneous, sex-work-maligning impression that all or most strippers are, essentially, criminals who drug, rob and blackmail their customers. This false trope is based on a few isolated true stories mixed with a truckload of fantasies that many people have about strippers who, just by their very existence, are stereotyped as seductive villains.

In the middle of the film, Dorothy/Destiny tells a reporter that she doesn’t want to perpetuate the stigma of all strippers being thieves—”because they’re not,” she says. But the movie does just that.

Despite all the feel-good action, Hustlers strongly suggests that drugging and robbing customers in strip clubs is business-as-usual. It certainly makes me uninclined to go to a strip club, let alone order a drink there. Somehow I don’t think Hustlers will be good for the stripper business.

This makes me sad because, as imperfect as it most certainly is, the strip club is an oasis of nudity in our Puritanically censored society, a place where consenting adults can legally enjoy the usually taboo visual pleasure of unclothed fellow humans in erotic motion, and where those courageously unclothed humans can make a little cash for the very special pleasure they provide.

The fact is that nothing bad has ever happened to me at a strip club. But movies, especially well-made movies like this one, can give you feelings that are stronger than facts.

As a sex therapist, I talk to many men who fantasize about gorgeous, unscrupulous strippers and other types of sex workers doing what these hustlers do: drugging (via erotic hypnosis or real drugs), robbing and blackmailing them. It may boggle the minds of most people, but that total surrender of control is the ultimate erotic fantasy for these men. Though when it comes to reality, they almost never really want to be robbed. In fact, it’s their greatest fear. But then, fear and fantasy is a potent combination.

Hustlers teases the fantasy and enhances the fear.

Behind the Hustlers Scenes

Many real strippers are upset because Hustlers was shot at an actual strip club called Show Palace, shutting down the club for almost a week to shoot, paying the owners and some extras, but depriving the strippers themselves of work and failing to compensate them for their lost hours.  Later, Scafaria apologized for this, promising to donate to SWOP Behind Bars, but still, those Show Palace strippers never got paid, and it doesn’t look like they ever will. You think those Wall Street guys are assholes? How about some Hollywood insensitivity to the very workers whose work you’re exploiting for your movie.

Meanwhile, strip club hostess Samantha Barbash, aka Samantha Foxx, the original real-life hustler busted in 2014 and the focus of Pressler’s article, as well as the inspiration for J Lo’s Ramona character, is not so happy with the film. She feels that Hustlers is her story. However, when the Hustlers producers failed to offer her sufficient money for the rights, she said no, and they made the Hustlers movie without her anyway. Now Samantha’s upset that J Lo didn’t contact her or play her “accurately” (Ramona’s a stripper and Samantha was and still is a hostess). She thinks Cardi B should have played Ramona, maybe because Cardi really lived the life.

But Hustlers cast The Wedding Planner as the lead “hustler,” because Hollywood loves sex workers, but only on Hollywood terms. Mainstream movies like this tend to present sexuality as an enticement, only to moralize against it “in the end.”

“This is a story about control,” says Janet Jackson who famously lost control of her Superbowl outfit, as Hustlers begins. While that line pertains to the stripper life, the same could be said of the film industry in general.

Bonobo Sex Work

To be fair, Hustlers is more stripper-positive than most Hollywood films. After all, what’s not to love about a gang of beautiful, fierce, sisterly women dominating a bunch of half-baked Gordon Geckos?

This is also bonoboesque, in that bonobo “FemDoms of the Wild” tend to dominate the males, sexually and otherwise… but the males are happy about it (see The Bonobo Way for more about bonobo sexual culture). Like the ladies of Hustlers, bonobo females hang out in groups, the better to handle individual males on their terms.

The difference is that bonobo males don’t wake up the next morning, only to find that their wallet is gone.

Of course, bonobos don’t have wallets, or capitalism.

Bonobos do engage in a kind of “sex work,” as in “I’ll give you a blow-job for that banana,” or “How about a mango for a muff-dive, you big ape?”

A lot of non-human animals practice sex work of different kinds, usually involving an exchange of sexual favors for food, showing us that sex work is not just the “oldest profession,” it pre-dates humanity.

The difference with the female-empowered bonobos is that it’s often the chick who picks up the check… because she’s got the mangos.

Hustlers & Joker

Back to the movies: I don’t see very many of them, as you can probably tell by my decades-old cinematic comparisons.

Oddly enough, I’ve seen two current films in the past two weeks, one being Hustlers and the other, Joker. On the surface they are completely different, the first very upbeat and the second very down. However, there is a common theme.

Both Hustlers and Joker attack Wall Street guys, portrayed as obnoxious buffoons in both films. In Hustlers, the strippers knock them out and rip them off. In Joker, the clowns just knock them off.

On the surface, both films root for the underdogs—the strippers and clowns—the revolutionaries who upend the system. At least, their tale is told with some sympathy and recognition. But on a deeper level, Hustlers and Joker stir up real primal fears in audiences, fears of the thieving strippers and evil clowns who lurk among our fellow workers, our fellow humans.

How do we as a society address these primal fears? Often, disastrously, through more policing.

Wall Street loves the police, the protectors of “private property,” and it’s Wall Street that provides the capital for Hollywood movies… even movies about sympathetic working people who attack Wall Street assholes.

Made by the 1% to titillate, scare and repress the rest of us, both Hustlers and Joker turn reasonable revolutionaries who cry, “Tax the rich!” into captivating crooks and mad murderers who holler, whisper, scream and mime, “Kill the rich.”

And when these workers—these feisty sex workers and regular working clowns—rob, riot and murder people in movies like these—even obnoxious Wall Street guys—what are we peaceful citizens to do but give more power to the police?

These are the underlying social messages of both Hustlers and Joker.

Hustlers & Joker Police

The irony is that many of the most cold-blooded killers in our real society are the police. They’re also the best-equipped gang in every neighborhood, with hand-me-downs from the American Military, including guns, ammo and bellicose attitudes more appropriate for fighting wars than keeping the peace.

A couple days after I saw both movies, a Fort Worth Texas cop murdered a young woman named Tatiana Jefferson playing video games with her nephew in her home, without announcing “Police!” and within two seconds of saying “Put your hands up.”

He was “scared,” say the police. What a joker.

Maybe people who get scared so easily shouldn’t be cops.

Of course, the fear is systemic, especially targeting people of color. Though to some degree, our heavily armed police are trained to be trigger-happy and scared of all of us.

When I was raided by the LAPD years ago (because the police erroneously assumed I was running an illegal strip club when they watched my public access TV show), I was confronted by a shaking young man in uniform with a petrified look in his eye and a very large assault weapon in his hands pointed at me. “You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you,” he said to me as I put my hands up. “Your jewelry looks like a gun.”

The great majority of us would never be a Ramona or a Joker, but any of us could be Tatiana Jefferson.


More articles by:

Susan Block, Ph.D., a.k.a. “Dr. Suzy,” is an internationally renowned LA sex therapist and author, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels. Her newest book is The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace through Pleasure. Visit her at http://DrSusanBlock.com. For speaking engagements, call 310-568-0066. Email your comments to her at liberties@blockbooks.com and you will get a reply.

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