Hustlers, the Blockbuster hit about scamming strippers, doesn’t portray sex workers as victims (hooray!). Instead, they’re self-interested criminals, and the film’s production cheated actual strippers out of thousands of dollars of income (hooray?). Stacey Clare, a veteran stripper and activist, asks: when it comes to strippers on screen, is representation enough?
Rumor has it that Jennifer Lopez will be nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the newly released film Hustlers, based on a true story about a group of strippers in New York City. As a stripper of thirteen years myself, it’s easy to see why. There are very few female performers in the mainstream who can carry off playing a stripper with such proficiency and panache, let alone one who has just turned fifty. J-Lo’s portrayal of Ramona—a sassy, smoking hot exotic dancer, half her own age—is utterly archetypal, and her flawless pole dance routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” is life itself. Anyone who has ever worked in a strip club, or has a fondness for the aesthetics of plastic shoes and diamante g-strings will find the first 45 minutes of the film gloriously accurate. It’s perhaps one of the most convincing silver-screen depictions of a New York strip club at the turn of the 21st century, and it’s roll call of celebrities (including Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, and former real-life stripper Cardi B) should guarantee its box office success. For strippers everywhere it should be monumental.
For some, then, it may come as a surprise to hear there is an outcry from the sex worker community about the movie’s representation of strippers. However, it’s no surprise that a traditionally maligned group who are normally silenced in mainstream culture will find themselves deprived of a voice once more. Despite the media hype and excitement surrounding the film, sex workers feel let down by a problematic production loaded up with examples of already marginalized women being thrown under the bus.
The term “sex worker” is used to define anyone who works in the sex industry; stripping, webcamming, escorting, porn, sex chat lines, BDSM role play and many others jobs all fall under the umbrella term of sex work because they all involve selling or trading sexual and emotional labor. However, Hustlers never ventures anywhere near the concept of sex workers’ rights, or even uses the term, which is disappointing in itself.
But what really dismays activists—those who are pushing hard for harm reduction and employment protections for sex workers—is the general noise being made by the actors, producers, director, and scriptwriter about advocacy and “supporting women” in the industry. Any claim that the film is empowering sex workers by telling their true stories is staggeringly short sighted, and totally collapses under the weight of the long list of shortcomings that lie behind the glamor and kudos.
Firstly, there is the fact that the film was shot in a New York club, Show Palace, which was closed for the week of the shoot. It’s not unusual for a strip club to be hired out privately as a film location, nor is it unusual for the club to be empty while it happens. What is unusual is for a strip club to be hired to make a film about strippers, only for the actual strippers who work there to be removed and deprived of work. STX films, the production company behind the movie, undoubtedly paid tens of thousands of dollars in corporate hire fees, all of which went directly into the club owners’ pockets. But not a single cent went toward compensating the Show Palace strippers, whose lack of employment rights and miscategorization as self-employed workers ensures their inability to claim indemnity for their lost earnings. Strippers who don’t get paid a wage, but instead work within a business model that exploits their labor while providing no financial safety nets, will always be at the bottom of the pile. It’s deeply ironic, therefore, that a film made about strippers which just about touches on their complex and unfair working conditions (only one scene is used for this, when Constance Wu has to pay out a cut of her earnings to the club’s seedy management) fails to safeguard the interests of the actual women working in the club used for its location. Very little of this has ever surfaced in the mainstream dialogue about the film; so much for advocacy.
This isn’t the only example of strippers being erased from their own workplaces. My colleagues from the East London Strippers Collective and I were approached by the PR company who organized the movie’s UK launch to put on a private event for a specially selected guestlist of social media influencers in the week leading up to the film’s release. Before the premiere of the film there was a pre-party that took place at Platinum Lace, an actual strip club next door to the screening. When we arrived, we quickly realized that we were the only actual strippers who had been invited to the party. There was a pop-up nail bar and a twerking competition for partygoers to play the stripper for a night. None of the strippers who work at Platinum Lace were invited to perform for the crowd, no lapdances were happening in the private booths, and once again the strip club owners benefited from a nice juicy corporate hire fee while the actual strippers got literally nothing despite the hype being generated. Later in the week, the same PR company organized a special private screening of the film with a panel discussion afterwards. The panel included a Love Island contestant, a content creator and ambassador for the Young Women’s Trust, a trans DJ and activist, a pole fitness entrepreneur, and a plus-size model with a child psychology qualification; not one stripper was invited to talk about the unionisation efforts going on in the UK right now to establish workers’ rights in strip clubs.
Then there is the plethora of problematic narratives within the film’s storyline itself. The Hustlers trailer makes much of the stripper personas and their alluring lifestyles, but the film is essentially a polemic about female vengeance. After the global economic crisis in 2008, the strippers suddenly find themselves out of pocket when their Wall Street clients are no longer spending, so Ramona gathers a motley crew of colleagues willing to engage in nefarious behavior to continue funding their opulent spending habits. It’s a narrative that the majority of hard-working strippers don’t relate to; it’s not a celebration of our culture, nor is it empowering to watch. It’s a film about women who drug men and steal their money, but if they weren’t hot the film would never have been made. The cutaways of Cardi B’s jewel-encrusted tits and J-Lo’s breathtaking body will get bums on seats in cinemas, but the storyline does nothing to destigmatize the sex industry. In fact, it reinforces age-old societal beliefs that sex workers are bad women. Using sex work as a plot device isn’t new, but the attempts made in this film at humanizing us have backfired badly. The one time we aren’t characterized as victims in a mainstream production is a milestone in pop culture. Sadly, instead, we are portrayed as aggressors: money hungry, opportunistic, and self-interested perpetrators, but not—as we should be—workers.
The film attempts to say something about solidarity—women working together and having each other’s backs—and feminist themes are vaguely woven through the tale. Strange then for the plot to have been taken from a real scenario in which the main protagonist, Ramona a.k.a. Samantha Barbash, was betrayed by her co-conspirator Destiny, a character based on real-life ex-stripper Rosyln Keo. Keo took a plea deal in return for a lesser sentence, incriminating her partner in crime, Barbash, who is still serving out her 5-year probation. The screenplay was written by Lorene Scafaria, who is not a stripper and wasn’t initially connected to any of the women involved, but got most of her information from a New York magazine article and transcripts from the court case. Roslyn Keo has since gotten a book deal and Barbash is likely to follow suit. Hustlers grossed $33 million at the box office in their opening week, and without a doubt a select few will grow extremely rich from the film, but almost none of the income generated will go towards structural support or financial reward for working strippers on the ground. In fact if the film merely serves to stigmatize the industry further, we are even more likely to suffer financially.
The final problem with the film is the ongoing issue of sex workers being censored online. Hustlers had no problem promoting and advertising the film on all of the major social media platforms. Images of J-Lo’s voluptuous curves, eyefuls of bare flesh, and high-heeled Pleasers are abundant on Instagram, and yet real-life sex workers, strippers and even pole dance enthusiasts are censored and shadowbanned for “sexually suggestive content,” regardless of nudity levels. Strippers and sex workers, like anyone trading on their image or profile, rely on their online presence to make a living, but the global aftereffects of the FOSTA/SESTA laws are still being felt. It’s not just about self-promotion; it’s proven that using the Internet as a tool for accountability and protection contributes in the long term to sex workers’ safety. Is it any wonder, then, that when sex workers are perpetually driven off platforms used to keep themselves socially visible and safe that they find themselves dabbling in more aggressive activities to make an income? Honestly, it’s a troll that strippers are kicked off Instagram, while the platform makes bank advertising a movie about strippers.
Judging by the various interviews and promotional clips online, the women who made Hustlers seem proud to have produced what they perceive to be an accurate rendition of a world normally hidden from view. But if it was intended to have a positive impact on public perceptions about the sex industry, it has failed. It’s not enough to simply produce an accurate portrayal of sex workers on screen, particularly if the wider social impact of the film fails to make a positive contribution to the lived experience of real sex workers. Stealing culture from a marginalized group without giving any structural support in return is the literal definition of cultural appropriation, and, viewed through this lens, Hustlers is a fine example. By the end of the movie, it’s hard to see who has been empowered. Oh yeah, except J-Lo of course.
Stacey Clare is a stripper, writer, activist and theatre maker. She is a cofounding member of the East London Strippers Collective and member of United Voices of the World (UVW), the trade union fighting to establish employment rights in strip clubs. Her upcoming book, The Ethical Stripper, is available to pre-order here. Follow her on Instagram @ethicalstripper.