Why it matters what real-life strippers think of ‘Hustlers’

Editor’s note: Breena Kerr is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, entertainment, travel, science, and current affairs. Her work has been featured by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, Rolling Stone and many others. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.

“Hustlers,” the true story of a group of strippers who beat the 2008 financial crisis by drugging and fleecing wealthy (and horny) New York men, opened to rave audience reviews over the weekend. Earning $33 million and surpassing earning expectations, it was the best opening weekend yet for lead actress Jennifer Lopez, who stars alongside Constance Wu as the masterminds of the illicit business scheme.

But many real life strippers have spoken out against the movie on social media, saying they’re upset by a disconnect: a film about fictional strippers is celebrated while strippers are often dismissed and ostracized in real life. Some also say they fear that their work — already stigmatized — will now be conflated with criminal activity.

I saw “Hustlers” over the weekend and loved it. It has the same timeless appeal of Robin Hood, except here, Robin Hood works in a strip club, stealing from Wall Street sharks and giving to, well, herself. Or, as Lopez’s character, Ramona, frames her ethical starting point to Destiny, played by Wu, “The game is rigged, it does not reward people who play by the rules.” Ramona proceeds accordingly. But after talking to a number of women who do the real-life work that’s glamorized in the film, I have more complex feelings about “Hustlers.”

Strippers I talked to, as well as many who spoke out on social media, emphasized their objections to the film’s portrayal of women like them as criminals, pointing out that those who do this work are doing work, period — they’re putting on a show because it’s their job.

Jacqueline Frances, a stripper, artist, and comedian who acted as a consultant for “Hustlers,” later told me on the phone, “Hustlers” isn’t so much about getting away with a crime, or the world of strip clubs generally. It’s a story about women “surviving under capitalism.” Based on the reviews and box office numbers, people love it. Why then, real strippers seem to be wondering, don’t they get more support for the work they choose to do in our capitalist world?

Although exotic dancing is one of the few branches of so-called sex work that’s legal, the heavy-handed regulations on stripping give an indication of just how uncomfortable lawmakers and voters are with this very steadfast profession. In some cities, dancers must cover their nipples and stay at least six feet away from customers. In others, they can’t sell alcohol or give lap dances with physical contact. In yet other cities dancers cannot even touch their own breasts or buttocks at work. What, I wondered, are we so afraid of?

Las Vegas-based stripper and burlesque dancer Isabelle Green told me that she has a suspicion why the public’s relationship with strippers can be so fraught. “I think it’s very hard for people to combine intimacy and money,” she said. Green said she doesn’t intend to see “Hustlers,” because she fears it gives the impression that law-abiding strippers are literally hustling when they go to work.

“It’s just work,” several strippers told me. Work that’s legal, taxable, and comes with the unexpectedly mundane trappings of eight-hour shifts and dress codes.

After the success of “Hustlers,” many strippers spoke out on social media to ask: if audiences are rooting for Hollywood’s version of strippers, why aren’t real strippers more accepted, more visible? Could it be that we’re thrilled by stripping as long as it’s sparkly, criminal and wildly lucrative, but repelled by the workaday realities of stripping as a regular job? It’s something that Salem, a Denver, Colorado-based stripper has firsthand experience with. When she “came out” as an exotic dancer, numerous family members and friends stopped speaking to her. Others, she told me, started messaging her with offers of money for sex and companionship.

Salem mused about the reaction she thought she’d get if she went to see “Hustlers” in her work clothes.

“I thought, it would be really funny to go see the movie wearing my stripper heels,” she said. “I think I’d get a lot of judgment and people making comments. … It’s like it’s OK for people to pretend to be strippers but not OK for people to actually be strippers.”

To the same point, multiple strippers told me they’re angry to see “Hustlers” celebrated on social media platforms like Instagram while those same sites take measures to restrict and block the kind of sexual content that strippers and sex workers need to post to promote their businesses.

“Having their account deleted has happened to almost everybody I know,” Green said. Frances, who has also had her account (“Jacq the Stripper”) hidden in searches and also deleted, said, “We are literally getting erased on social media.”

Frances said she hoped, at a minimum, that the film would bring attention to working conditions for strippers that should be improved. Toward the beginning of the film, there’s a scene in which Destiny, played by Wu, leaves the club with only a few bills in her hand. Frances and others said that scenario is a reality for many strippers, who are saddled with a host of costs built into the job — from hair and makeup to fees taken out for the DJ, the “house” and other staff. “You walk in the door and it’s about $140 just to do your job,” Frances said. “You have to do seven lap dances before you’re at zero.”

Spoiler alert: If you’ve seen “Hustlers,” then you know that the film ends as the real life story did, with the arrest of the band of strippers who were drugging and robbing their customers. It reminded me of something that the women I spoke to brought up repeatedly. Someday, they said, they’d like to watch a story about a stripper in which a crime wasn’t at the center of the plot. You don’t need the crime, some of them said, lots of crazy and interesting things happen in a strip club, and in strippers’ lives, without that. And maybe that film will be made in a more advanced future, but we’ll have to learn to be comfortable with strippers — and the national market that demands their services — first.

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