The Uniquely Female Scam of ?Hustlers?
The working-class women of the film take care of their own before taking care of themselves
Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu. Annapurna Pictures
?Only help women, only scam men,? declares Joanne the Scammer, the larger-than-life viral character dressed in a fur coat and wig, whose videos depict the glamorous lifestyle of a grifter. This statement could just as easily describe the plot of Hustlers, a dizzying tale of desire, transgression, and the women who operate at the intersection of sexual and economic power. It?s not the first scam story to have captured America?s attention lately ? and likely won?t be the last ? but its focus on the realities of working-class women diverges from the aura of entrepreneurial providence surrounding female grifters like Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey. Instead of scamming for influence, Hustlers narrows in on the ambitions of women who prioritize cold hard cash over social capital.
When we?re introduced to this world, it?s from the perspective of Destiny (Constance Wu), a new dancer at a New York City strip club who just wants to make enough money to ?take care of [her] grandma, maybe go shopping every once in a while.? The charismatic veteran Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), has a different opinion of wealth: ?Doesn?t money make you horny?? she quips, passing Destiny as she exits the stage, a surplus of $1 bills tucked into her sequined bodysuit.
When Ramona takes Destiny under her wing ? in this case, a tremendous fur coat, not unlike Joanne?s ? she is introduced to a sparkling tableau of city lights, expensive bottle service, and the excessive spending of Wall Street heavyweights in the era just before the 2008 financial crisis. As Jessica Pressler describes it in her 2015 article for New York magazine, which the film is based on, it was a time when ?improbably, the values of third-wave feminism had aligned with those of Howard Stern, ushering in an era in which taking off one?s clothes in front of an audience was no longer degrading but sexually liberating and financially empowering.?
For the women of Hustlers, sex work is a way to gain access to an increased form of class mobility that no longer exists for the mainstream American workforce ? especially for women and minorities. Their use of erotic capital exposes the women to a world of extreme wealth, and we witness the evolution of their friendship as, united in grand economic ambition, they revel in the opulence their marks take for granted.
Destiny pays off her familial debts and Ramona takes care of her daughter before using the excess to purchase the trappings of class status: luxury goods like chinchilla fur coats, Louboutins, and designer handbags.
But when the recession leaves the sex industry in shambles, the women resort to new tactics to overcome the spending freeze: drugging their Wall Street clientele, maxing out their credit cards, and relying on the victims? sense of shame to keep them quiet. This is presented as excusable in light of the men?s own infractions; as Ramona justifies it, they?re just taking back the money that Wall Street stole from working-class America.
Research now shows there is less economic mobility in American society than we have been led to believe; this is especially true for more recent generations, who have experienced a slow but steady decline in social mobility since the 1980s. As researcher Michael Hout puts it in a 2018 study on intergenerational mobility, familial origin stories ?tend to understate what social science research confirmed long ago: Social and economic origins loom large in who gets ahead in America.?
In Hustlers, the women use a mix of feminine performance and personal ingenuity to navigate class boundaries and gain entry into a world of privilege. In doing so, they replicate a version of the American dream by taking stock of its flaws: grossly unequal wealth distribution, gender inequality, and materialism. For the most part, we?re on their side ? after all, it?s the lack of business brought on by the financial crisis that ultimately leads them to turn the scam-like mechanics of Wall Street against its key operators. As Ramona claims, ?The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.?
On some level, Americans sense that the premise of equal opportunity is a sham, and this moral ennui engenders an individualist approach to success. Especially in Donald Trump?s America, it?s increasingly clear that the system doesn?t work for the everyman ? so those who take advantage of its flaws are not only morally justifiable, but in the words of Joanne the Scammer, ?iconic.?
We are in the age of the scammer as modern American folk hero ? only instead of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, they steal from the rich to give to themselves. Hustlers taps into this modern zeitgeist by presenting the scammer as a winsome protagonist, whose transgressions against society ? and the men of Wall Street ? are forgiven in acknowledgement of their flaws. It?s especially successful because in this case, the women actually are underdogs ? working-class and women of color.
Survey the privilege that accompanies other recent viral scammers, many of whom are white and from upper-middle-class backgrounds: Elizabeth Holmes, whose father was a vice president at Enron, leveraged her background and family connections to impress famous board members. As Eliana Dockterman describes in her review of HBO?s The Inventor, ?The men she hustled were probably seduced by her pedigree.? Anna Delvey successfully fictionalized her background as a German heiress, using the trappings of privilege to understand how high society functions ? but would she have been able to fool the New York elite if she didn?t understand how the better half lives?
Our fascination with female scammers hinges on their assumed rarity. In a logical extension of ?lean-in feminism,? the display of blatant self-interest has been refashioned into a kind of radical praxis ? at least when it?s exhibited by women, who historically haven?t had these interests served. Women scammers are capitalizing on an underdog narrative that makes the ruthless pursuit of social or economic capital appear revolutionary, much as the ?female dirtbag? archetype has been celebrated for exhibiting the same toxic traits as men. (Yas, queen!)
The celebration of the ?unlikeable woman? as feminist icon relies on a buried assumption of gender differences: that women are innately more caring, community-oriented, or ethically centered than men, and must overcome a natural predisposition for self-sacrifice to pursue interests like sex, wealth, and social capital. Though neither of these polarities are implicit to women, both are human and valid ? and in Hustlers, the desire for material wealth and community responsibility are both held in the balance. Destiny pays off her familial debts and Ramona takes care of her daughter before using the excess to purchase the trappings of class status: luxury goods like chinchilla fur coats, Louboutins, and designer handbags.
For women, simply behaving with the same rugged individualism as men is perceived as a form of female vengeance, rather than as the logical calculation readily attributed to male criminals.
So where does this leave a woman who was raised working class, scams her way into an upper-class lifestyle, and now experiences all the trappings of wealth without access to the accompanying social capital? She is economically empowered but remains subject to the volatility of a moral climate that holds women to account, but often allows men to slip away unchecked. No matter what their class, in the end, the women always get prosecuted one way or another. The main players in Hustlers were all sentenced to probation or jail time, with the exception of Destiny, who was the first to take a plea deal ? meanwhile, the bankers who caused the financial crisis walk free. Samantha, the real-life inspiration for Ramona?s character, hits the nail on the head in the original article: ?What about the things the guys did??
For the women in Hustlers, the men were collateral damage ? and while their bad behavior may have enabled the woman to rationalize what they did, their actions were never intended as a fantasy of female revenge. Instead, it was a pragmatic means of survival in a system that didn?t work to their advantage ? especially after the economic collapse brought on by the men of Wall Street. But for women, simply behaving with the same rugged individualism as men is easily perceived as a form of female vengeance, rather than as the logical, emotionally neutral calculation readily attributed to male criminals. Even now, some find it hard to believe what women have been telling us for millennia: It?s not always about men.