Review: ‘Hustlers’ exemplifies female reclamation of power
“Doesn’t money make you horny?” Ramona (portrayed by Jennifer Lopez) whispers this to newcomer Destiny (portrayed by Constance Wu), as she leaves center stage, bathed in dollar bills. In the film “Hustlers,” Ramona immediately establishes the primary foundation of the film: the intertwined web of money and sex.
“Hustlers,” directed by Lorene Scafaria, tells the story of Destiny, who began stripping to take care of herself and keep her elderly grandmother out of debt. At a strip club called Moves, she meets the charismatic and captivating Ramona, who the film establishes as the leader of the group early in the film. “Hustlers” follows the two women through their glory days, the blossoming of their friendship and the hardships that fall upon them during the 2008 financial crisis. As their entire incomes are funded through their wealthy Wall Street patrons at Moves, the crisis nearly shuts down their business. Thus, in order to support the lifestyles to which they have grown accustomed, they decide to get creative.
In order to reel in new clients, they start “fishing,” targeting wealthy men, drugging them, taking them to Moves and racking up charges on the men’s credit cards. The two women work alongside Mercedes (portrayed by Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (portrayed by Lili Reinhart), other strippers that Ramona had taken under her wing. The group of women band together, relishing in the lap of luxury and cherishing the family that they have built.
The film is structured around a journalist named Elizabeth (portrayed by Julia Stiles), who interviews Destiny and her fellow stripper friends seven years after their antics. Destiny’s interview frames the women’s glamorous escapades and scandalous con, providing structure to the story, as well as a strong narrative.
From Destiny and her friends’ perspectives, the powerful men of the world determine their lives; the women only get paid based on whether the men determine they are sexy enough to dance for them, if the men decide to tip well and if the men buy them gifts. And therein lies the root of the reason the audience cheers on the women. Sure, they rob men blind, and they’re technically guilty of assault. But they regain the control that they so desperately need, and frankly, have earned. In the end, it all comes down to power and what you would do to get it.
For the clients, their money and masculinity warrants their power, and that is what they are accustomed to. But in Moves, the women control their customers; the men are suddenly at their mercy, as the women utilize their sex appeal to establish dominance. Sex is power, and as shown throughout “Hustlers,” sex is the most powerful tool — even more powerful than influence and money. Ramona pertinently declares how the whole world is “a strip club … you got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” Ultimately, all the women do is make sure that, for once, they are not the people doing the dance. They reclaim their power, their control and their dominance through their sexuality and quick thinking.
Through the catharsis presented by the band of women flipping the typical power dynamic, Ramona’s word becomes gospel to the other strippers and to the audience. Throughout the film, even the parts in which Ramona shows her flaws, every word that comes out of her mouth seems to make perfect, logical sense, even the statements that are outrageous. In fact, Ramona’s charisma sells all of her ideas — especially the ones that are outrageous.
For example, when preaching her plan to scam their clients to Destiny, and thus, the audience, Ramona exclaims that the Wall Streeters, the investment bankers and the CEOs of the world stole from everybody and caused the country’s financial crisis, yet still got off scot-free — so why shouldn’t the women do the same? Why shouldn’t they just steal from the original thieves themselves?
And something clicks. In that moment, Ramona is queen. I sat there in awe of her every moment that she was on screen — not just because Lopez brings this character to life, not just because she’s amazingly magnetic, but also because Ariana Grande was right: Ramona’s character is proof that God is indeed a woman. And Ramona, Destiny, Mercedes and Annabelle transform themselves into the Wall Streeters of the world, just with less clothing and more freedom. Destiny embodies a Wall Streeter, drunk on victory, as her voice drips with triumph: “I was CFO of my own f—ing corporation.”
Throughout their journey, the women steal, scam and spend. They’ve successfully transitioned into who they wanted to be: the people tossing the money. Toward the beginning of the film, Scafaria creates a beautiful symmetry of Wall Streeters and strippers through cross-cutting. As Britney Spears’ “Gimme More” sounds, the screen vividly flashes between women wearing pasties while giving lap dances in a nightclub and men donning fancy suits, screaming wildly across generic office spaces. The juxtaposition is clear: Who has the real power? The men may have the power in the daylight, but they willingly surrender it to beautiful women who fulfill their fantasies. And in that scene, you understand how these women, fueled by frustration and ambition, want to conquer and replace the men on top. Because at the end of the day, for both the men and the women, it’s just business.
And so the women embody the ethos of the businessmen. Detached, smart thinking, quick-witted and just like the men they loathe and blame, they reap no consequences. Through the interviews Elizabeth had with these women, it’s apparent that the scam eventually comes to an end. However, during the interviews set in 2014, Destiny is shown decked head-to-toe in expensive white and beige clothing with gold jewelry to match. Her home is elegant, and through the window behind her, the audience can see the picturesque, swanky neighborhood in which she resides. The women are bold and smart, so they essentially come out unscathed. Ramona’s words rang in my ears: “The game is rigged and it doesn’t reward people who play by the rules.” These women knew that; the system is broken, so rather than trying to repair it, they chose to benefit from the shattered pieces. You kind of have to admire them for it.
Although Scafaria paints the women as smart and motivated, the part that allowed me to root for them was not their intelligence or business acumen; rather, it was their familial bond. In a world that is starting to recognize how women constantly are compared to one another and are placed in competition with each other, “Hustlers” is a breath of fresh, female-friendly air. Sure, it’s a movie about strippers, and the feminist point of view might sound ridiculous and laughable, but it’s true.
When Destiny first starts at Moves, she struggles to rein in loyal clients. Ramona, along with Diamond, portrayed by a hilarious Cardi B, help her improve and give her tips to strengthen her sexual presence. As the scam picks up, the women become a family. They take care of each other’s children, spend a wonderfully luxurious Christmas together and have each other’s backs when things start to become unstable. At one point, you can see Destiny’s daughter refer to Ramona as “Aunt Ramona.” Furthermore, Ramona offers Destiny a place to recuperate after traumatic events and takes care of her throughout her devastation.
That being said, there are several points throughout the film where the women get into disagreements; for instance, they disagree on how to handle a certain client or what drugs to slip to a man. In other films, these arguments might have been enough to split up the friendship, but not in “Hustlers.” The bond that these criminals form is resilient and a strong exemplary for female friendships in Hollywood movies.
Ultimately, the basis for “Hustlers” is sex and money, but its heart lies in the friendship. The sex and money are compelling, but the friendships make the women not just admirable and interesting, but also human. Scafaria balances the intensity of crime with the warmth of friendship so well that each character emanates intelligence and power, as well as a persona of someone with whom you would want to be friends. You might come for the excitement and scandal, but you’ll stay for the sisterhood.