October 7, 2019

The Red Carpet: An Introduction & The Neon Dazed Dream of ‘Hustlers’

The Red Carpet: An Introduction & The Neon Dazed Dream of ‘Hustlers’

The Red Carpet: An Introduction

Red Fightback is excited to introduce The Red Carpet, our pop-culture critique series offering regular commentary on the latest films and shows that are pinned up on the superstructural wall of capitalism.
Film and TV are not the only forms of cultural media, but they are two of the most important. They are a primary form of relief for so many of us, and yet they are also a constant avenue through which capitalism reasserts itself. From the subtleties of visibility and representation (or lack thereof) in productions that tell our stories the way the ruling class desires, to the headache-inducing brazenness of dramatised vomit like Jack Ryan, we can see how capitalism commodifies and disseminates its propaganda and floods it into our collective and individual lives.

And yet there is hope within cinema too. Movements across history, such as the Argentine-born Third Cinema, have offered a liberatory culture that tells the stories of the working class in opposition to the tasteless bourgeois propaganda. Revolutionary consciousness requires revolutionary culture. Where shall we find it? Where to begin?

Analysis

Until we replace this dead weight with a new communal culture, we must know our enemies, and know them well. The Red Carpet aims to join many other brilliant commentators in scrutinising the terrifying, manipulative and often downright crap cultural content that capitalism is churning out.

Alternatives

We can and must supersede the art of the oppressor. There is a rich history of cinema, television and other art forms in the revolutionary and liberatory traditions, telling the stories of struggle. Red Fightback regularly screens some of these brilliant pieces. Why not get in touch and come to our next viewing?

Agitation

Culture is the tip of the iceberg. Capitalism, imperialism and all forms of oppression will ultimately never be toppled by agitprop or criticism alone. A revolutionary uprising of the working class is the only viable option. We are building a movement and our demands, like those of James Connolly, are most moderate: we only want the Earth. Join us today!


The Neon Dazed Dream of Hustlers

Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is, admittedly, an odd choice to start The Red Carpet with, despite a synergetic colour scheme between sex work and the series title. One would assume that a big blockbuster should take this first spotlight. And yet, I think, Hustlers offers a rich example of what this series will address: the fabrications of capitalist cinema and the damage it causes to the working class, despite its glossy veneer. Hustlers’ version of sex work is itself a fantasy, which causes not just erasure of but material harm to real-world sex workers. As Stacey Clare reveals in their excellent piece, in using an authentic strip club for shooting, they prevented real-life sex workers from performing and thus actively damaged their livelihoods in the creation of their homage to ‘stripper empowerment’. Clare poignantly notes the deep irony ‘that a film made about strippers which just about touches on their complex and unfair working conditions... fails to safeguard the interests of the actual women working in the club used for its location’.

Meanwhile, as real-life sex workers are struggling to get by as a direct result of the production process, the film is desperately trying to assert itself into pop-cultural canon. Adorning the film are cameos from Lizzo to Cardi B to Usher (the latter in a scene set in 2007, at his pop-cultural peak), and regular one-liners that Scafaria is itching to see become new cultural references: ‘Does the money make you horny?’ comes to mind; you can just hear the writers aching for it to be deemed ‘iconic’. That one of the key protagonists, Ramona is played by Jennifer Lopez, who also co-produced the film, only furthers demonstrates the efforts to expand Hustlers’ broader pop-cultural capital. Her performance, while at times hit-and-miss, is generally the highlight of the film; to her on-screen colleagues she is both an effervescent sister and a simmering maternal figure, and she’s undeniably compelling. Along with Constance Wu’s character Destiny, the two strippers set out to make their millions by drugging Wall Street types, and running their credit cards to max. Although a devilish enough scheme, it feels somewhat lacklustre in scale compared with the striking presence of the two main characters in an otherwise underwhelming story. Their scheme goes too far, and they get caught. An uninflated anti-climax, the story and the pacing feel at odds with the characters that populate them. Basing the film on a true story limits its cinematic potential; ironic, as the film is out of touch with the realities of sex work.

Hustlers begins in the days before the 2008 financial crisis, where the nights of stripping are depicted as carnivalesque celebrations of skin drenched in neon; joyous flashes of diversity, with enough money literally raining down for all, everything punctuated with a nostalgia for the riotous heydays of just several years ago. Through its festivities that collapse past with present, Gatsby’s parties are evoked. Particularly brought to mind are director Baz Luhrmann’s montages of disgusting bourgeois men fawning over languishing women on stages, with temporality shrunk as contemporary music intersects the jazz era. This evocation is continued by Destiny’s vocalised desire for her then unborn daughter to be born a son, echoing Daisy’s world-weary fears of womanhood for her own offspring. Like in The Great Gatsby, this reflection rings hollow, by ignoring the vital class and race considerations that delimit the potentiality of youth.

Nonetheless, the discussion of gender in Hustlers offers its most compelling commentary. The exploration of relationships between mothers and daughters is, at points, rich. The subtext is that families are created as much as born, potentially presenting alternative familial units as a form of resistance against capitalism and challenging heteronormativity with its women-populated families. Hustlers’ handling of men, much in the spirit of the movie, is sharp and withering. Both sleazy, arrogant bankers and pining, desperate accountants are constructed as figures worthy of mockery and criticism, and rightfully so; both types ultimately view themselves as entitled to the bodies of sex workers (who are predominantly women, trans‑, non-binary and/or otherwise gender non-conforming), particularly who are also people of colour such as our protagonists. The cops dealing with the case casually reference that even they would not be going back to the club, which is revealing of their positionality. The police operate to criminalise and shut down sex workers, which only forces them ever further into precarity and violence, whilst these same individual agents of patriarchy also exploit these workers in their personal lives; they are shown to be just more faces in crowds of leering men. The unapologetic hypocrisy of patriarchal state violence is yet again revealed. In Britain, the criminalisation of sex work facilitates brutal raids on brothels, that puts the sex workers there in danger of state violence, which can also be exacerbated by immigration status, gender or other factors. For example, as Decrim Now shares, in October 2016 a London Metropolitan Police raid of six massage parlours led to police seizing cash from women’s lockers, 24 arrests (none for trafficking, 17 for immigration offences) and 13 deportations.

Despite a solid exploration of gender, the typical liberal tendency to completely falter at class analysis kicks in, with perhaps only a couple of scenes as the exception. The manager at Ramona’s brief retail job tells her that she cannot leave early to pick up her daughter. He pleads for sympathy for his ever such hard labour of creating the work schedule, and argues that if she stays and works she can earn enough to hire a nanny, thus solving her issue. Hooray. This is perhaps the most authentic scene in the film. Who has not had to feign sympathy for the faux-woes of managers, or sat through their monologues on the supposed laziness of the working class? The scene is intended as a gendered criticism, as demonstrated by the manager’s further comment that ‘Craig has two children, you don’t see him leaving early’, enriching an intensely and perhaps unintended class-critical feminist scene. Yet this class dynamic is abandoned in the rest of the film; later, Ramona has moved into her new penthouse, and casually complains to the workers lifting some excessively bejewelled furniture into the room to not scratch the walls. A film that handles a backroom discussion about schedules with such delicacy and realism, oozing with gendered class violence, is undermined when an allegedly sympathetic character shouts at working class black men about the well-being of her flawless white-washed walls. This scene is, unfortunately, far more typical of the film than the former.

The story fails to ground itself in genuine, liberatory struggle. Destiny leaves the club for a few years after the financial crash, once she has her daughter, and yet only a couple of comedic scenes later she is back. In the real world, the violence of capitalism and the conditions that the most marginalised people find themselves in are pivotal in driving so many towards precarious labour. As well documented by the likes of the Sex Workers Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), the reasons so many are pushed into sex work in Britain today are vast; the need for flexibility due to childcare or other familial commitments, health (mental or physical) limitations, discrimination in the job market due to ethnicity or trans status, language barriers, domestic violence displacement or the need for quick and urgent cash for healthcare, bills or just to pay the damn rent and so on.

However, the material conditions that push people towards sex work are barely even addressed in the film. Hustlers, a liberal celebration of women working together, looks into one of the harshest industries of capitalism and, despite so many wanting to find solace in its scenes, flinches. Its gaze breaks before meaningful commentary is made on why so many people, predominantly women of colour and also often LGBT+, must resort to sex work to survive the hellscape we inhabit. It draws a temporal distinction between pre- and post- 2008, bluntly positing that capitalism was a feast of prosperity for all before the crash. This is, of course, completely false; it hurts to have to point out that capitalism was exploitative and violent far before the contemporary moment, regardless of the nonsense Novara Media rolls out.

The film takes pains to draw a distinction between what is seen as moral and immoral sex work; with its lambent glaze, Hustlers desperately tries to show that stripping is the glittering empowerment of women – all while depicting the most marginalised victims of capitalism, and full service sex workers, as repulsive. Destiny, our protagonist and voice of reason throughout the film, is nonetheless imbued with a disgust towards ‘felons and druggies’, drawing herself as separate from these people that she blatantly considers below her. No consideration is given to why these people might be so hard done by. On her return to the club, she is disgusted by the young women now engaging in full service sex work, in a workplace that her rose-tinted glasses somehow did not perceive as violent before – and again, this film reinforces a nostalgia that celebrates a pre-crash capitalism. Inconsistently for a film with a diverse cast in terms of ethnicity, Destiny and Ramona repeatedly highlight with contempt that these service workers are Russian, in some bizarre neon red scare. The film does not criticise these negative attitudes towards full service sex workers, who repeatedly face the most violent treatment from clients and the state alike, but reinforces it. This unchallenged assault on sex workers leaves a bitter taste: in valorising one form of sex work, it unashamedly throws others under the bus.

When capturing the realities of sex work, glorification is a dangerous game. Hustler’s depiction of glitzy work with huge pay cheques might be true for the case the film is based on, but is far from the realities of the vast majority of real-life sex workers. Indeed, the parallel it constantly tries to draw between sex workers and Wall Street capitalists is crude and offensive; the former is a group doing what they can to survive, the latter is leeching and exploiting for unbelievable profit. In centring this case, an outlier based on a singular real life story, it marginalised the majority. Destiny, Ramona and co. do what they have to do to afford their luxurious lifestyles. The majority of real world sex workers, whose erasure Hustlers is complicit in, do what they have to do to survive. There is no acceptable alternative but to stand in solidarity with all workers, especially those such as sex workers, who are among the most precarious and who face extraordinary violence under capitalism.

To return to the first question, perhaps Hustlers does still feel like a strange choice to have as a first piece for the series. It is no big blockbuster; neither a cinematic triumph nor failure of some grand scale. And yet perhaps, for this reason, it is the perfect exemplar of what this series will cover. Yes, we will address the big, groan-inducing messes of Hollywood (Star Wars, we’re coming for you). But we must also engage in the day-to-day liberal malaise, the ‘bourgeois fog’ that floods our culture. We want to analyse both the weary sighs as well as the outraged cries that so many people feel about cinema. It would be easy for many well-intentioned people to envelop themselves in the chinchilla-fur coats of Ramona and Destiny, to fall asleep in their comforting embrace and wish that the problems of capitalism could be solved by Louboutin-clad slow-motion walks. How iconic! The capitalist cultural metaphor of Hustlers – characters literally drugging people into giving them money and telling them they enjoyed it – is perhaps too blatant to make. But as stated earlier: this is the escapism we turn to films and TV for. In reality, the coats are faux; the hope they offer is hollow. True liberation of sex workers of all kinds, and workers everywhere, does not come from duping the capitalist class and ‘beating them at their own game’, but by removing capitalists full stop, and thereby removing the need to hustle by whatever means necessary to survive.


Further reading and sources on sex work:

Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith

A stripper’s take on Hustler’s: https://slutever.com/hustlers-movie-stripper-response/

Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement: https://www.swarmcollective.org/

Get involved and donate to SWARM here: https://www.swarmcollective.org/get-involved

United Voices of the World Strippers: https://www.uvwunion.org.uk/strippers

Union Survey of Strippers: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/whatdancerswant

DecrimNow on Unionising Strippers: https://decrimnow.org.uk/join-the-union‑2/