I'm a woman and a feminist and "Hustlers," a movie that wants to be a girl power anthem, disgusted me. It's a well-made film with strong performances and high production values. The main characters, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Destiny (Constance Wu) are strippers who drug men with ketamine and MDMA and then rob them. "Hustlers" is based on real events. The real madame of the real-life Hustlers gang was Samantha Barbash. She and her former partners have publicly stated that the men they robbed deserved it. One said, "It sounds so bad to say that we were, like, drugging people. But it was, like, normal." These are not nice people.
The film works hard to convince us that these gals are sweethearts, that America offered them no economic opportunities other than sex work and theft, and that the men deserved to be drugged and robbed. Yes there is a lot of naked female flesh in "Hustlers." Viewers who want to see a porn show involving two women fondling each other to entertain a man in a private room, pole dancers, and naked boobs, this is the movie for you. The film also celebrates greed. There are long sequences that consist of nothing but the thieves purchasing and fondling chinchilla jackets, high-heeled shoes, and luxury automobiles. There are also lengthy scenes where the extended network of thieves Ramona has organized get together and give each other expensive presents, dance and laugh together.
What's not to like? A couple of things. For some people, and no doubt Jennifer Lopez is among them, women are valuable to the extent that they are sexual objects for men. "Hustlers" is for and about that narrow slice of a woman's experience. There is scant attention paid to women as family members, thinkers, creators. Yes, yes, there are exploitative, tacked-on scenes of the women with their kids, but it's clear that babysitters are raising those kids, not their mothers. One of the characters spends about sixty seconds pretending to read a book in order to study for a GED. Wow, a scholar.
What's really despicable about "Hustlers" is its utter dishonesty. Lopez worked really hard to make her pole stripping authentic. She didn't care about being honest about the women she was bringing to the screen. The film insists that these women had to strip and they had to steal because America is an economic wasteland that provides no other employment opportunities to women. The film also constantly waves around the strippers' daughters as justification. I have a daughter at home! I have to strip and steal from men!
Destiny goes to a high-end department store to apply for a job as a clerk. Destiny is impeccably courteous and obviously desperate. The boss treats Destiny with exaggerated contempt and refuses to hire her. It's a ridiculous, unbelievable scene.
By insisting that sex work and theft are the only ways a woman can survive, by celebrating greed with lustful close-ups of chinchilla jackets, "Hustlers" insults every woman who doesn't do sex work and who doesn't steal. My mother brought up six kids while working full time in factories and cleaning houses. Jennifer Lopez would have to work hard, and not on a pole, to be the woman my mother was.