Photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures / IMDb

'Hustlers' Strips Down Classic Portrayals of Sex Workers

Lorene Scafaria’s latest feature, Hustlers, is based on the 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler. The article profiles two women, Roselyn Keo and Samantha Barbash, and how they move from the legal exploitation of wealthy men in strip clubs to illegal methods of drugging and swindling them for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the film adaptation, Dorothy (Constance Wu), a new dancer at the Manhattan club, Scores, is looking to make enough money to support her grandmother. There she meets Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), a veteran of the industry with a cult-like following of both fellow dancers and wealthy clients.

Dorothy, despite being new at the club, immediately notices Ramona’s prowess and finds it almost impossible to take her eyes off her. Jennifer Lopez is the heart of the movie. Her natural charisma translates into a career-defining performance as she portrays her character’s ambition, greed, scorn, and maternal instincts.

The pair first meet in the dead of winter after a particularly unprofitable night for Dorothy, when the two take a smoke break outside. Ramona sees Dorothy freezing and immediately invites her to bundle up under her fur coat, foreshadowing the coddling essence of the relationship they will develop throughout the film. Ramona overflows with parental affection, offering to help Dorothy develop her act, and Dorothy, yearning for guidance and connection, quickly becomes attached.

They begin by teaming up in the private room where it is clear their relationship is mutually beneficial. Despite their exorbitant wealth, the Wall Street types that occupy strip clubs are not in control of the dancers. Instead, Dorothy and Ramona maintain control of their situations by manipulating their clients into spending more money than they would if only one dancer was in the room.

With Ramona’s help, Dorothy starts to earn enough to get her grandmother out of debt and buys her own apartment in Manhattan. Their lifestyles radiate glamour and luxury until the 2008 financial crisis devastates the economy. The number of Wall Street types who used to frequent the clubs begins to dwindle, Dorothy gets pregnant and has to leave her job, and the pair lose touch for about two years. When they ultimately reconnect, Ramona introduces Dorothy to a creative, illegal twist on hustling.

The movie follows not only their spiral into a less-than-legal business, but also the complexity of their relationship. The core of this movie does not focus on the fact that these women spiked some drinks in order to run up a few credit cards. Instead, themes of mentorship, autonomy, control, and family are examined more than the pair’s crimes.

Pushing the boundaries of what can be shown on the screen, combined with an increase in the production of different types of visual content, creates a hazy line between what is edgy and what is exploitative. The distinction between the two is difficult to define, but the answer can generally be found in the person given agency within the narrative. Is it the person whose story is being told? Is it the people looking to profit off the material?

In a story centered around strip clubs, this distinction becomes even more important. The world of exotic dancing has been frequently and callously misrepresented by movies and television. Strippers are typically used to fulfill a bachelor party fantasy in a raunchy comedy. Or worse, they’re the target of the actual protagonist’s savior complex as they’re “rescued” either financially or emotionally. Even attempts to give these characters dimensions are pretty one-note—they have tragic childhoods, abusive boyfriends, or if the story is being generous, are attempting to pay for their educations. In most cases, they’re deprived of identity and complexity.

Hustlers overturns this standard as Director Lorene Scafaria places power firmly in the hands of Ramona and Dorothy. For better or worse, they have complete control over their stories. The question of whether they are ultimately the heroes, villains, or victims has no overt answer because we are given insight into so many sides of their lives.

As Ramona says, “The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.” In her eyes, she’s just copying the ruthless mentality of the men she’s stealing from. It paints not only an interesting portrayal of the culture of strip clubs, but also one of a modern crime story that provides timely commentary on the survival of the fittest.