“Hustlers” premiered in theaters September 13th, 2019. The movie, inspired by a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, is based on the actions of former strip club employees who devised a scheme after the 2008 recession to drug and steal money from wealthy club patrons. The movie, based on true events, made $33.2 million in domestic ticket sales, second only to Steven King’s “It – Chapter Two”. The success of the movie is likely the result of an intense marketing strategy, strong reviews, and could potentially lead to an Oscar nomination for Jennifer Lopez who plays Ramona (Samantha Barbash), the protagonist. “Hustlers” is filled with an all-star cast which captured the attention of millions of Americans, including Cardi B, Lizzo, Lili Reinhart, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Julia Stiles, and Jennifer Lopez.
The plot of the film revolves around the two main characters played by Lopez as Ramona and Wu as Destiny, both employees of the strip club. It begins by portraying the stereotypical glitz and glamour of the industry, complete with hordes of dollar bills raining down on the dancers. The plot then takes a shift following the 2008 recession, as former Wall Street patrons begun steering clear of pricey adult oriented clubs and bars. Instead of the usual dancing and running the V.I.P rooms at the strip club, Ramona, Destiny, and their colleagues began to search the New York City bars for men to make up for the financial short-fall. Their hustle involved drugging the men they would find, luring them back to the strip club, and then racking up charges on their credit cards. Investigations into their scheme began when the strip club sued a cardiologist for refusing to pay a $135,000 bill. Authorities from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the New York Police Department eventually arrest Samantha Barbash (Ramona), Roselyn Keo (Destiny), Karina Pascucci (Annabelle), and Marsi Rosen (Mercedes). In October 2015, Rosen and Pascucci plead guilty to grand larceny and conspiracy. Pascucci was given five years’ probation and sixteen weekends in Rikers Island. Keo received no jail time and Samantha Barbash was given five years’ probation.
Despite the box office success, the film has received backlash for its portrayal of female “sex workers” as empowered women taking the proverbial lemons they were handed and making lemonade. While many lauded the film’s depiction of strong females involved in the commercial sex industry, others criticized the unrealistic glamorization of what was actually a very dark situation. Laila Mickelwait, the Director of Abolition for Exodus Cry and the President and Founder of New Reality International, tweeted “Don’t get duped by the “empowered sex worker” narrative…The women featured were not heroes but were pimps who, as part of their scheme, recruited vulnerable women from Backpage/Craigslist and exploited them in prostitution-there is nothing feminist about that. @JLo”.
Many of those in the abolitionist community view the movie as an unrealistic and potentially damaging promotion of the commercial sex industry as whole. This perspective directly confronts a billion-dollar, patriarchal industry that exists entirely for male pleasure, and treats women as mere objects in service of that pleasure. For example, after being unable to get a job in retail with her GED, Destiny joined the strip club industry under the pretenses that her employment tasks would be limited to dancing and entertaining guests. However, following the financial crisis of 2008 Destiny provides oral sex to a patron for what she thinks is $300, only to later learn that he actually paid her $60. Prostitution is commonplace in many strip clubs across the country. Those engaged in prostitution are at a higher risk of rape, disease, addiction, injury from violence, and even have a higher likelihood of early death. Like Destiny, many of those in prostitution do not have other meaningful job options due to a lack of education, criminal convictions, among other limitations. Therefore, the “choice” to sell sex is born more out of desperation than it is a form of personal empowerment.
“Hustlers” remains in the spotlight and continues to receive praise from audiences around the world, but viewers should remember that while the movie strives to portray luxury and the sense of female empowerment, the reality for many women this industry is not nearly as glamorous. Many who engage in commercial sex use it as a means of survival in a world controlled by men who view their bodies as mere commodities. In the film, Lopez’s character famously states that, “the world is a giant strip club, there are those who throw the money and those who are dancing for it”. However, it seems like it is only the women who are dancing for it and believe me – most of them would rather do it with their clothes on.
Amira Guy is a junior at Villanova University studying political science and classical studies. Amira is from Laurel Springs, NJ and is an extern for the CSE Institute. After graduation, Amira would like to attend law school and focus on human rights and international law.