What Hustlers Missed: How Sex Work Stigma Continues

Lyric Shen

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star in HUSTLERS.

The movie theater at which I saw Hustlers at is located in a plaza in the San Gabriel Valley that I frequented as a child with my family and grandfather. Though it is filled with people who look like me, walking into any dark room with strangers reminds me of being at the club. I saw the film with three of my friends who also work at strip clubs.

Hustlers gets a lot of details right about stripping—the painful tip out, the tampon string trick, various types of customers. I like that I can relate to what I thought, in high school, were sexy clothes and hairstyles. But other parts also left me wanting more. I wish Cardi B’s character had more screen time. J.Lo is very hot, but her exotic, exaggerated choreography causes our whole group to chuckle. It reminds me a bit of watching the dancing in Showgirls or Flashdance. While performing can be a big part of sex work, those of us who are doing this for the long haul feel our income involves navigating many different kinds of relationships and providing very real and tangible intimacy work. I like the scene where Destiny calls up her old regular; you can tell he’s surprised, but happy to hear from her.

For many years, seeing faces like mine on screen was mostly limited to the foreign movies and Taiwanese news my parents watched. I’ve thought a lot about how it’s been important for me to seek out media featuring and made by Asian Americans. Constance Wu is a protagonist in this story and I find her character independently to be somewhat believable; however, the relationship between Destiny and her grandmother feels reduced. Maybe I didn’t have a similar dynamic with either of my grandmothers, or maybe secondary plotlines can never be fully fleshed out. Destiny’s relationship with her grandmother’s (spoiler alert) goes from being a central focus in the beginning of the film—it’s the whole reason Destiny starts dancing—to a comedic afterthought during the extravagant Christmas party scene (which our whole group felt was fluffy) and finally a symbolic bookend with her grandmother’s sudden death. In the end, it made me wonder if her character was necessary at all, or perfunctorily placed to remind a general American audience of Destiny’s background.

I never expected this film to be a documentary, but I do wish that a blockbuster could portray stripping and sex work in a way that visibly moves popular culture towards ending stigma, rather than perpetuating ideas that keep violence towards workers not only normalized, but state-sanctioned. I want viewers of the film to research the narrative that inspired this movie and to listen to conversations that workers are leading now regarding SESTA/FOSTA, a bill package that has failed to punish traffickers and has made sex work more dangerous. Samantha Barbash, the woman Ramona’s character is based on, was involved in sex trafficking. However, she felt that her character being written as a stripper was “degrading” and has stated that she would hire “lower tier girls” to do the “dirty work” in her schemes. It’s ironic that this movie fictionalizes and glorifies a character based on a woman who is both whore-phobic and complicit in exploiting sex workers. Meanwhile, sex workers all over the world, online and IRL, become further and further marginalized.

I didn’t catch the end of the film because I excused myself to the restroom during the last five minutes. My friends met me in the hallway and we exited together. The movie theater is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and things that remind me of being around my grandfather—my only living grandparent. He currently lives between LA and southwest China with his girlfriend, who is around forty years his junior. Remembering that transactional care is everywhere is strangely comforting.