Sex, Drugs, and Power – Amber Stewart

“Hustlers” and how women get ahead

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Screenshot from Trailer

When Wall Street crashed, I was living in an apartment in Brooklyn, later condemned. The stairs creaked dangerously when you walked up them. Holes in the walls let in bedbugs and rats and every other kind of creature known to man. The windows had gaps between the wall and the pane, letting in cold wind in the winter. My landlord’s religious convictions prohibited him from being alone in a room with me or shaking my hand or, apparently, taking my complaints about his property seriously. However, when my dad called from 900 miles away and requested he fix a problem, he reluctantly made sure it was taken care of.

At night, when my friends would walk to my apartment, other men who shared my landlord’s faith would often hit on or catcall them. Sometimes, those catcalls rose to propositions. Sometimes for money.

This is the message that women receive: you have no power, except in sex. And only on men’s terms, only at their behest. So while the actions of the women of Hustlers are not morally defensible, they are understandable. Because in the women of Hustlers we see the struggle of all women, trying to find our power in a world that tells us we have limited paths to achieve it.

Did you grow up thinking you could be anything you wanted? I did. My mom, who had books such as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and How to Succeed in Business Without a Penis but no college degree, believed that the glass ceiling was at its breaking point, and expected that, with a good education, I could be the next Fortune 500 CEO, if I wanted.

But for most women, this simply isn’t true. Only 25 of those Fortune 500 companies are headed by women. And of that number, only one of those number is openly gay, like me. While the glass ceiling may have been cracked, it certainly hasn’t shattered. And in a world where money equals power, and where women only make $0.79 to a man’s dollar, power can be just as hard to come by as money.

But we know that sex sells. It’s not difficult to see how sex (or sex adjacent) work could be seen as empowering. Stripping is not a place where you are punished for being a woman, but instead rewarded for it. It’s the most desirable trait one could have. But what happens when the money dries up?

When Wall Street crashes in Hustlers, these women, who pride themselves on not needing anyone, of being independent, discover that sex isn’t in an of itself connected to power. While an individual act of sex can give an individual woman a sense of control, it will not lift her out of poverty. As long as sexual empowerment still depends on a middle man, is still tied to a dude with a pocket full of twenties and an expense account, it will still be work, no matter how unorthodox. As Ramona says, we’re all hustlin’.

Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

So, in Hustlers, they take the power back. Instead of being at the mercy of men’s whims, they hijack the men’s ability to make their own decisions, to be aware of how much they’re spending. They give them drugs, take their credit cards, and never face any consequences, because who’s going to feel sorry for a man that spent too much money at a strip club?

And while running their scheme, they develop a family of sorts. After all, you can only call someone your sister so many times before you start to believe it. This family celebrates together, calls each other for help, buys Christmas gifts for each others’ kids. In some ways, the alternative family structure here is a little queer: four women getting together, foregoing the company of men, in order to raise children, earn money, and support one another emotionally?

This is not to mention the fact that queer people have redefined the role that sex can play within friendship groups. Have you ever been to a lesbian bar? If you have, you’ll know how many of these women have fucked their friends who are their exes, or friends of friends, or their ex’s ex, or so forth. While the women in Hustlers do not have sex with each other, they are using their sexuality to build kinship groups. And here is where they find real power. It’s also where everything begins to break down. Because society doesn’t like it when women take power.

Hustlers is revolutionary because it exposes the flaw in the system. It shows us how women’s futures are directly tied to the futures of successful men, because men like it that way. But it also shows us how, when we try and step outside that system, we are punished for it. The women in Hustlers tried to cut out the middle man, and, for some time, succeeded. They tried to take their power back. But, at the end of the day, the middle man is how we all gain power or a paycheck: our boss, our spouse, our parents. One day, I hope to live in a world where women can band together and empower ourselves enough to not need the middle man. But until then, I’ll keep rooting for the strippers.

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