Note: This article contains spoilers for the film “Hustlers.”
As “Bodak Yellow” climbed the charts in 2017, Silvia Stardust* started her night job. With songs like the anthem for “making money moves” blaring at her workplace, Stardust would spend her long shifts in eight-inch platform heels.
In some ways, Stardust has a lot in common with the characters in the recession revenge flick “Hustlers.” She performs onstage and dances with clients, much like Bronx rapper and supporting actor Cardi B used to do. And like most of the star-stacked cast, the 27-year-old, born in Canada to Filipino and Syrian parents, is a woman of colour.
But unlike Cardi B or her “Hustlers” crew, drugging and robbing men has never been part of Stardust’s job description.
“I personally wouldn’t want people to think that I’d steal from them when they’re drunk or while they’re looking the other way,” she told HuffPost Canada over email.
Based on real-life events reported in a New York Magazine article, stripper scam comedy “Hustlers” is already a certified blockbuster; the film outperformed studio expectations thanks to a $33-million box office open.
Constance Wu has been commended on her emotional range as Destiny, a rookie dancer who begins to swindle Wall Street bankers following the 2008 recession. Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona, Destiny’s mentor and eventual partner-in-crime, and is enjoying Oscar buzz.
Watch: Jennifer Lopez teaches Constance Wu how to dance in “Hustlers.” Story continues below.
The women-led, woman-directed film has particularly resounded with female audiences: over two-thirds of those who saw it opening weekend were women, the Hollywood Reporter found.
The film’s success comes at a time where stripper aesthetics have never been more popular, as fashion retailers like DollsKill are hitting it big with stripper-inspired apparel. Pole-dancing itself is easy to pick up, thanks to fitness classes.
But the movie about strippers is getting a mixed reception from its real-life counterparts. Sex workers, who have long been misrepresented in mainstream media, are voicing both praise and apprehension around its portrayal of their profession.
On one hand, some sex workers who’ve seen the movie have appreciated scenes where authenticity shines.
How it humanizes workers, by showing women of various body types and ethnicities living full lives, raising kids, and supporting each other, has been admired too.
The positive emotions many feel revolve around mainstream representation and seeing A-list women of colour onscreen (one worker says, “Lizzo is fucking amazing”).
On the other hand, the movie has been criticized for failing to use its platform to advocate for solidarity with sex workers.
All of the Canadian sex workers interviewed by HuffPost Canada expressed mixed feelings over a film that gets extensive advertising on the very platforms they’re banned on, along with worry that its criminal plotline will contribute to whorephobia.
Alongside the excitement of mainstream representation, Stardust and others are frustrated about society’s willingness to embrace their visuals without tangible support for their rights.
“Hustlers” gets marketing as strippers face censorship
Clara Prefontaine*, an escort from Montreal, says she’s seen ads for the movie at least twice a day on her social media feeds. She uses the word “aggressive” to describe both the campaign and the censorship sex workers undergo.
Prefontaine and other sex workers online are constantly at risk of shadowbanning. It’s a practice used by social media platforms to effectively silence users without deleting their accounts or notifying them. While the user can still engage with the platform, the username may be hidden from search and their comments may no longer appear under posts. This tactic, which greatly affects sex workers, can hurt their abilities to promote their businesses and communicate with prospective clients.
Stardust feels similarly. She points out that the billboards and Instagram ads she’s seen for “Hustlers” have been rampant. In a promotional stunt for the movie, beauty vlogger Nikita Dragun posted an Instagram ad where she learned how to strip for the first time.
“There are disgusting amounts of double standards when it comes to visibility and engagement for real pole dancers and real hustlers,” Stardust notes.
The official movie campaign was also heavily endorsed by Twitter. Women on the platform were encouraged to engage with the hashtag #TweetYourHustle. Many sex workers took issue with it, including Demi Valentine*, a Toronto-based stripper who uses they and them pronouns.
“Hustlers gets a hashtag, while strippers get shadowbanned and sex workers get their accounts deleted. It’s fucked up,” Valentine, who has worked at three clubs, says.
The irony of “Hustlers’” hypervisibility is not lost on dancers online, with one suggesting a co-opt of “Hustlers’” hashtags to get around shadowbans.
Aside from its presence, sex workers have noted the movie’s marketing has distanced stripping from sex work. The sex worker community is inclusive of those who provide erotic services without offering sexual acts, such as pole-dancing and camwork. Stripping is never mentioned as a part of the sex work industry in the movie, with characters voicing negative opinions about engaging in sexual acts with clients.
As outlined in Vulture, the marketing strategy behind “Hustlers” deliberately focused on its female representation and Cardi B’s stripping past. Although the movie’s plot revolves around the money-making schemes strippers use to supplement their income, the labour problems that plague strip club workers (which has led to a rise in stripper union-organizing worldwide), aren’t mentioned in the studio’s strategy.
In New York, in which “Hustlers” is set, real-life strippers went on strike to protest their working conditions. These included racist hiring practices, unfair termination, outsourcing to bartenders, and exorbitant wage percentage cuts going to club management. The latter is a major factor in Destiny’s unhappiness with her circumstances at the start of the film.
As promotion of “Hustlers” ramped up before its release, none of its social media messaging mentioned sex work by name or stripper labour movements either, with the exception of a brief acknowledgement on sex worker stigma by director Lorene Scafaria in USA Today.
Additionally, steps have been made to distance exotic dancer aesthetics from actual strippers and instead, closer align it to a sport. Jennifer Lopez’s pole dancing trainer called the act of pole-dancing in a club for money, instead of as a performance for fitness or artistic expression, as an “unfortunate” aspect of the dance’s history.
“I think that the stigma that surrounds where pole dancing generated where it started is unfortunate because like any art form — and pole is an art form — it morphs and it changes,” she told Page Six.
Gigi Blue* is an escort in Toronto. At first, she was really excited to see mainstream representation of sex workers. But like Valentine and Stardust, she says the criminal plot has turned her off. And then she noticed how “Hustlers” had distanced itself from full-service sex workers: the term refers to those who provide sexual intercourse as a service for clients.
“I think it is important for the public to know that sex work can occur in a whole variety of ways … there is no place for shaming one type of sex work over another and I am concerned that Hustlers has perpetuated this division,” Blue said.
The whorearchy in “Hustlers”
There’s a turning point in the movie, where the recession’s severity makes itself known: Wu’s character is told by the strip club’s house mom that new employees are willing to offer oral sex. The scene, along with other moments, paints workers who provide these services as unseemly. Later scenes unfavourably depict workers who use substances and those who have criminal records as unstable.
Strippers online have referred to the judgement against certain kinds of sex workers as “the whorearchy,” which refers to a sense of hierarchy in the sex worker community: marginalized identities and higher degrees of client intimacy face more stigma.
Elizabeth Lorde,* a 22-year-old Black queer escort in Toronto, is on the fence about whether or not to see “Hustlers” because of how it may uphold the whorearchy. Although she’s excited for the WOC cast, she notes that it lacks LGBTQ+ representation. And although Cardi B is a former dancer, Lorde points out that the singer has room to grow when it comes to doing better by trans communities and dark-skinned Black women, both of whom she has shared prejudiced comments about in the past.
“I worry that stripping is already a more acceptable form of sex work, and while this may provide more representation for dancers, the whorephobia in the film will continue to harm [full-service sex workers] and therefore all Sex workers,” she said over email.
Lorde believes that a big-budget film about strippers bears a significant social responsibility towards sex workers.
“If you are not with us, you are actively supporting getting us killed. I’m not being hyperbolic. This film will either help reduce stigma, perpetuate stigma, or do both of those things to varying degrees,” she answered. “All those possibilities have real effects on our lives.”
Strippers are victims of crime, not perpetrators
Although the movie is free from tropes like the “disposable sex worker,” it still involves a criminal plot line. The movie’s storyline itself takes measures to differentiate between all strippers and the crimes committed by the main cast. As Destiny is interviewed by a journalist in the film, she points out that not all strippers are criminals.
However, this point isn’t made until halfway through the film. The takeaway that scamming men is justified is something many non-strippers are repeating, mostly for comedic effect.
Sex workers interviewed worried that although fictionalized and played for laughs, some will conflate theft with their job. In fact, sex workers are more vulnerable to violence than the general population.
How to support sex workers
Victoria* is a Sudbury-based stripper currently touring across Alberta. Victoria, who uses she and they pronouns, says they hope to see some of “Hustlers”’ earnings donated to sex worker rights organizations and the stars speak out against SESTA/FOSTA legislation in the states.
“Hustlers gets a hashtag, while strippers get shadowbanned and sex workers get their accounts deleted. It’s fucked up.”
Victoria, along with other dancers on Twitter, are taking it upon themselves to educate civilians beyond what “Hustlers” portrays. That’s including criticizing the movie’s failure to pay the strippers who lost revenue while their club was closed for a week of filming.
Since criticism of the film has grown, Scafaria has apologized on Instagram to the club’s dancers who lost out on pay. She promised to donate some of her royalties from”Hustlers” to sex worker advocacy organizations, such as Sex Worker Outreach Project’s Behind Bars chapter.
“I pledge to give a percentage of any royalties I receive from Hustlers to the organizations that help these causes including @swopbehindbars,” the director wrote, adding that people are free to suggest more organizations to her.
Blue is a fan of directly mobilizing the stars. She notes that sex worker rights blogger Adrie Rose has penned an open letter to Cardi B, directly asking the film star to advocate for the decriminalization of sex work.
Valentine hopes Canadians do their part in dismantling the whorearchy, which includes staying informed of federal legislation that sex workers have spoken out against. They use Bill-C36, otherwise known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, as an example.
WATCH: How sex work works in Canada. Story continues below.
There are other issues that affect Canadian sex workers too. Workplace raids, overpolicing migrant workers, and violence and imprisonment faced by trans workers are just a few that have recently come into prominence.
While there hasn’t been a Hollywood film made by and for strippers yet, independent media made by sex workers is on the rise. Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press published the poetry anthology Hustling Verse, which compiles written pieces from over 50 sex workers. Tits and Sass produces journalism relevant to sex workers, including a nuanced review of “Hustlers.”
Viewers hoping to visit strip clubs after their screening are encouraged to tip workers well.
Stardust says that stripping is the best decision she’s made. She hopes those who see “Hustlers” realize that, like those close to her know, stripping is a real job that involves emotional labour, athleticism, and hard work, and encourages non-strippers to support the online profiles of those like her.
For Canadians who watch “Hustlers” and are inspired to take from sex worker culture, Lorde has some advice.
“The hardest part of this job is the stigma. And if you want to join us or dress like us after watching this movie, you better support us and fight for us too.”
*Pseudonyms have been used when requested due to safety concerns.