There is a debate among feminists about whether sex work is work, worthy of respect, which ought to be regulated — or whether sex work is slavery, inherently abusive, which ought to be abolished. The movie Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019) shows that both things are true. It shows that the work the women do as strippers, prostitutes, and porn actors can be degrading and that all of their clients — all of them — are gross. It establishes clearly that, by definition, any man that goes to a strip club is a pig. But it also shows the women who work there have dignity. They are skilled workers who take a sort of pride in their work, and being good at their job gives them a certain kind of power.
At the same time the film is clear that the power these women have is still located in a patriarchal system that treats them as mere objects for men’s pleasure. It shows that, in some circumstances, sex work can be a good job — at least better than any of a woman’s other choices — but it shows at the same time that none of these women would do this kind of job if they had a better choice available. In Hustlers prostitution is rock bottom, and stripping is a step up, but even the stippers would rather simply “date” the men and take their money without having to use a pole to do it. In any case all of the sex workers in the film are shown to be making the best of what little power they have in an evil system.
Hustlers helped me understand why when we, in the name of feminism, say that sex work is inherently degrading, strippers and prostitutes feel like we are judging them and trying to take away what little dignity they have left. Sex workers need to see sex work as work in order to have self-respect. The film brilliantly captures this dialectic cinematically. The first half of the film is a pastiche of Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 2019) (though it really could have benefitted from the sort of driving energy Thelma Schoonmaker brings to Scorsese’s editing!). Hustlers follows all the story beats of Goodfellas, asking us to see the work of stripping — and hustling their rich clients — as perhaps problematic but also sort of glamorous in the same way that Goodfellas makes the mafia looks sort of glamorous.
In his gangster films Scorsese is always only trying to show why a young man would be attracted to the mob. He is showing the glamor from their point of view, and he always undercuts their illusions by the end of his films. Hustlers makes the exact same move by introducing the journalist character Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) halfway through the film. She’s an Ivy league educated classical feminist who oozes white privilege, but her presence still gives a more objective perspective to the story. We gradually realize that the women who are telling their story of “hustling” see themselves as equivalent to Scorsese-style gangsters.
When the protagonist Destiny (Constance Wu) tells her story, she tells it in the style of Goodfellas, so the film itself takes the form of a Scorsese movie in order to dramatize her subjective experience. That’s how she wants to remember her story. But the journalist — and by extension the objective viewer — is not entirely convinced. Destiny sees her mentor Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) as a sex goddess, able to command worship and tribute. But later in the film we see outside the strip club that Ramona is actually just some chick who works a day job at Old Navy. Yet for Destiny Ramona is the mother figure she never had, and the hustlers were the family she needed.
Like a Scorsese gangster movie, Hustlers humanizes these criminals without buying into their self-mythologizing. It both helps us understand why they did what they did and gives them dignity, while also undercutting the self-deceptive fantasy they use to give themselves self-respect. Both things can be true.