‘Hustlers’ relies on apathy to build its protagonists. Here's how.
I saw the first trailer for Hustlers sometime in early August or late July. My first thought when I watched it: ‘J. Lo, Keke Palmer, Cardi B, and Constance Wu as strippers that scam Wall Street guys? Sign me tf up!’ Especially in the midst of my, albeit failed, attempt to have a Hot Girl Summer, I knew it was the perfect movie to wrap up the summer and kick off my senior year. In the weeks leading up to the movie, I kept dropping hints to my friends and roommates that it would be the perfect “girls’ night out” movie. Finally, on Saturday, September 14 at 10:30 pm, my wish came true.
I spent the film whispering with my friend, who doesn’t even like (going to the) movies, about all the crazy twists and turns the film threw at us. Later, on our walk home, we shared our favorite parts and, of course, finally marveled *out loud* about that pole dancing scene. But as we got closer to our dorm, my friend started to share her concerns about something I honestly hadn’t given much thought to. That is, the whole drugging-then-stealing-cash-and/or-credit-cards-from-rich-men thing.
For the first time ever, or at least in a very long time, I realized it was exceedingly difficult for me to feel bad for those men, which freaked me out. Most days, I’m the one smacking sense into my friends, preaching about compassion, and here she was being the voice of reason. My friend’s concern, specifically, was around how the message would change if the roles were reversed with regard to the “drugging and stealing” that the men fell victim to. And it’s a valid question to pose when we consider all that we know about victims of rape and how seriously we take public discourse about it, even when our justice system continuously fails survivors.
With that said, we can all agree that what happened to these men was both immoral and illegal. So, how does the film make it so hard to admit that? I’m not talking about the fact that the plotline is obviously trying to get you to sympathize with the women (it literally opens with Janet Jackson cooing “This is a story about control… My control”). I’m interested in how the film is set up to make you want to whisper “trash” anytime a man appears on screen. It’s done in two ways. The first: for the majority of the film the victims are uber rich, complete jerks on Wall Street who make and commit the most vile comments and actions against these women. The second: we’re made to view these men as so ridiculous that your immediate reaction isn’t to sympathize with them and, in fact, the film does an excellent job of giving the viewer very little space to do so.
Early on in the film, you hear J. Lo’s character in a voiceover explaining that the big-spending men will require that you have the thickest skin because they’ll do everything from verbally degrading you to physically assaulting you. For example, in one scene, a man, while getting a private dance, whispers into one dancer’s ear something along the lines of, “Who hurt you? What happened with Daddy? Daddy wasn’t at home, huh?” And it only gets worse.
At one point, one of the dancers walks into a big, fancy corporate office and gets berated by an honestly pretty tiny man. Much further along in the film, a character returns to dancing after a hiatus. While giving a man a private dance, he propositions her for oral sex and begins taking out straight-up $100 bills, one after the other the closer she gets to his groin (at some point he was already at $300 or $400). He then pressures her into snorting a white powder. When it flashes forward to the present, the character explains that when she finally woke up he was gone and only left three twenties or $60. To that point, it’s kind of hard to feel bad for him when later in the film the women drug him, let him pass out on the floor in the private room, and run up his card (including an order of chicken wings). It’s poetic justice.
The other piece to this is that we’re meant to view these men as stupid, ridiculous, irresponsibile even. For example, when the main characters scam some men who couldn’t afford the hefty charges the women left on their cards, the audience is meant to mock the men for allowing something so ridiculous to happen. In my full, 10:30 pm showing, when one man called the police to report that he’d been drugged and had exorbitant charges on his credit card after a night at a strip club, the audience erupted with laughter as the cop laughed and hung up on him. The irony is that this same man was all too excited to meet and have sex with the main characters earlier in the film before they even drugged him.
Moving on, the case that acts as the nail-in-the-coffin for the main characters is when they try to scam a not-so-rich family man. The whole scene explaining what happened to him lasts about five minutes. Within that five minutes, however, there’s also quite a bit of attention to the toxic and manipulative friendship and business partnership the ring leader has with the other main character. This moment is disguised as an emotional and empathetic break through, when in reality we’re just conjuring up more sympathy for our main character.
It provides an amazing framework to think about the intersections of gender and class and a look into the 2008 recession from people who we rarely think about.
Immediately following this scene is a comedic wrap-up of events, including a pair of cops saying they stopped going to the club after they found out about all the scams (even though they didn’t make enough to be the strippers’ targets). If one failed scam is given the same amount of screentime as the other successful scams, if the victim’s story doesn’t even get to be solely about their victimization, and if their stories are stuck between fantastic comedy that’s aimed at mocking the men who are reckless enough to blow $5,000 at a strip club in one night, then it’s really hard for the audience to feel bad for them.
So, I give my friend points for this. She caught something I wasn’t inerested in investing time in- the ways the film fails men by reducing them to these shallow and stupid, but still very entitled, people who allow themselves to get drugged and cheated. That sounds a lot like victim-blaming to me and that’s exactly what the film does. It’s important not to reduce the film to just this, however. It provides an amazing framework to think about the intersections of gender and class and a look into the 2008 recession from people who we rarely think about. The film certainly isn’t perfect and has its blindspots, but it’s still an important piece of cinematography or whatever the men usually write to justify their trash hot-takes.