‘Hustlers’ And The Gender Politics Of Making Money

The whole country is a strip club, according to Jennifer Lopez’s swindling erotic dancer character Ramona in “Hustlers.”

On the surface, writer/director Lorene Scarafia’s new film, in theaters Friday, looks like a straight man’s fever dream. There are scantily clad, enviably flexible women slithering down nightclub poles and grinding on the laps of handsy Wall Streeters showering them with dollar bills. But if you look beyond its tits-and-ass veneer, you’ll find the nut of Ramona’s schlocky one-liner: Women use whatever they’ve got — be it their bodies or Machiavellian ways — to survive male-constructed capitalism.

“Hustlers,” like everything, is about transactions, the two most important being sex and cash. Women in film have historically had passive relationships with sex and money (see “The Godfather” or “Gone With the Wind”). But in recent movies, including “Hustlers,” “The Hustle” and “The Kitchen,” women have become more active players in the dialogue about who gets to achieve wealth. In doing so, they’ve confronted the insidious gender gap.

Inspired by actual events reported in Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article, “Hustlers” is a sensationalized version of a story about shrewd strippers — played by Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer — who seduce then drug rich white men and swipe their million-dollar credit cards. The film highlights the insurmountable challenges women face in their paths to wealth as opposed to their male counterparts.

That’s particularly true for single moms like Destiny (Wu), who have to consider astronomical day care expenses as well as other household bills. Following the Wall Street collapse in 2008 that left the nightclub business almost barren, she tries to find a job at a Bloomingdale’s-type store but is rejected by an employer citing her lack of retail experience. Ramona, who’s also a mother, is able to find a job at a clothing store but is not making enough money to support her daughter and sustain the lavish lifestyle — a penthouse apartment, fur coats and designer heels — formerly supplied by her sugar daddies.

It becomes a question of how long do these single women put up with having to live paycheck to paycheck, while their grubby male clients, who continued to populate the club though in smaller numbers, parade their fat wallets around them before they start bucking the system. Of course, we all understand that what they’re doing is illegal, but the frustrating realization that wealth is always just out of reach for women is overwhelming.

“The structure is not set up for women to succeed,” Anjali Pradhan, an investment coach and founder of Dahlia Wealth, told HuffPost. For instance, women are prevented from getting promoted. If they’re entrepreneurs, very few women get funding for their projects.”

On top of that, the wage gap in 2008 meant that the average American woman who was getting paid above the table in a traditional full-time job earned $11,000 less than her male counterparts, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. For that same year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 13% of women lived below the poverty line as opposed to 9.6% men. Those numbers don’t even compare to the millions and, in some cases, billions of dollars that Wall Street men were earning before the crash.

The advantage of time has not helped change the dismal gender wage gap, either. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported that in 2018 women were still earning just 81% of their male counterparts’ salaries.

So there was little hope for workers like the women in “Hustlers” to ever see the kind of wealth their male clients possessed because their money is often undeclared, which prohibits them from investing in real estate or the stock market, Pradhan says. Those avenues are how a lot of people get very wealthy. So it’s easy to see how the demoralizing glass ceiling can lead some women, like Destiny and Ramona’s crew, to follow a scheming path just for a taste of temporary wealth. 

The same is true in the contemporary comedy “The Hustle,” which follows Penny, a jaded millennial (Rebel Wilson), who for all intents and purposes is a capable and smart woman. But like the ladies of “Hustlers,” she also knows her skills are undervalued compared with those of the successful yet foolish men she chooses to pilfer. And the men are too focused on their egos and hard-ons to notice either way.

It’s easy to call “Hustlers” and “The Hustle” simple revenge films in which female characters throw a middle finger up at the patriarchal economic system. But both movies are grounded by how they highlight women’s relationship with wealth. They’re less intoxicated by the idea of flaunting their cash than they are by being able to live gratifying lives — whether that’s with closets lined with chinchilla shawls, helping out their girlfriends in times of need or giving their kids the best care.

“A lot of men want to make money for the sake of making money,” Pradhan said. “But for women, becoming wealthy is a lot more about opportunity. It’s about living the life they want and helping other people. It’s a conduit to other things that they feel are impactful.”

This image of abundance is a far cry from how women regarded wealth back in the 1970s, the setting of “The Kitchen.” Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy star as New York City mob wives who turn to crime when their husbands are carted off to jail, leaving them to fend for themselves financially. Because this was an era when more women stayed at home while the men worked, these protagonists are left virtually penniless with little to no job experience. For them, wealth was about being able to feed themselves and their families.

“Women who were homemakers, many without secondary education at the time, trying to enter the workforce, weren’t going to be able to make as much as the former male breadwinner,” said Shahen Derderian, CEO and founder of Shahen Derderian & Associates, a business management and wealth advisory firm.They would have to make drastic adjustments to compensate for the lack of income. They’d be in a desperate situation and thinking of the easiest solution to get food on the table.”

That dire situation, Derderian explained, is a result of a severe lack of job opportunities for women, save for entry-level secretarial or office manager positions, which may barely pay their mortgages much less Kathy’s (McCarthy) child care. When Kathy flippantly asks Claire (Moss), “What job are you going to get?” she’s understandably met with silence. For women of color like Ruby (Haddish), the options were even worse, as they had to compete for whatever jobs white women were favored to get.

While the gender and racial biases were more explicit back in the ’70s, the women of “The Kitchen” face similar challenges as their modern peers in “Hustlers” and “The Hustle.” That they unapologetically center themselves in flagrant moneymaking situations is still radical. It gives them a voice they didn’t always have, which is particularly important today as more women fight to expose wage inequalities.

“Vast social conditioning has taught women that it’s not polite to even talk about money,” Pradhan said. “Whereas men, within a couple of hours, everyone knows how much they make. Men are not interested in following the rules to that degree, and neither should we.”