It’s all a strip club. You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.
On Friday night I went to see the much hyped new movie Hustlers. If you haven’t heard of it, it tells the story of a group of strippers in New York who start to drug and rob rich men. It is inspired by a true story and, in essence, it is a standard American parable of rags-to-riches-to overreaching-to-rags again.
The film is OK. It too often sacrifices characterisation in favour of pop-video-style montages to really work, but I think that it has some interesting stuff to say, so I thought that I’d write about it.
So, this is what I think that people who are interested in careers should take from this movie.
- The political economy shapes careers. One of the most powerful things about the film is the explicit link that it makes between the way that the main characters’ careers unfold and the wider political economy. While times are good, there is a lot of money to be made in the strip club and stripping acts as a pretty good way for the women to get their piece of the American dream. Once the 2007/2008 crash happens it all collapses. Work gets harder, (even) more exploitative and pays less.
- The opportunity structure shapes our morality and career enactment. The women in the film typically come from working class backgrounds. Dorothy/Destiny, who is the character that the narrative is focalised through, is abandoned by her parents and fails to finish high school. Stripping offers her the best chance of a shot at the good life. When the money from stripping dries up, crime is one of the only things left. This is not a deterministic point where structural disadvantage = crime, but rather a recognition of the idea that opportunities are structured by societies. Individuals can’t make opportunities out of nothing and have to work with the situation that they find themselves in. The women in this build a career narrative and self-actualise brilliantly with the resources that they are offered. But, exercising this kind of agency requires you to go against social norms, first by engaging in sex work and then by engaging in crime. The film is excellent in the way that it highlights the moral asymmetry between the traders and bankers, who have ruined America without consequence, and the women who cause much smaller amounts of damage, but who face the full weight of social and legal sanction.
- Erotical capital/career image matters. I’ve written elsewhere about erotic capital and career image. Clearly, this is going to be relevant to a film about stripping. In essence these ideas make the point that one of the personal/social resources that individuals have is how good they look and how attractive they are (which also includes aspects of personality as well as appearance). Viewing this as a capital in a similar way to the way that we would view human capital (skills, knowledge and education) challenges the hierarchy of what is viewed as valuable in career. It is common to feel that if you are successful because you are clever that it is more legitimate than if you are successful because you are beautiful. Hustlers challenges this premise, highlighting the gendered and classed nature of these concepts and also arguing that there is a false equivalence between them. Having erotic capital is not just natural, it is also a matter of work and skill.
- Mentors and colleagues are important to career development. Dorothy’s career trajectory is profoundly influenced by her meeting with Ramona. Ramona mentors her into being a more successful stripper, both through teaching new skills and connecting her to new networks. Ramona is also more creative and daring, leading Dorothy and the others into their lives of crime. However, Dorothy also provides structure, organisation and some kind of risk assessment to their criminal endeavours. By linking up the two become more powerful and expand each others career possibilities. This shows how unhelpful it is to view career as an individual task, it is always embedded in relational and social factors.
- Sex work is work/careers in the sex industry are just careers. Finally, the film is excellent on showing that stripping is just another form of work. The women struggle to fit their lives around their daily routine in the club, experience exploitation by their bosses, improve their earning power through the acquisition of new skills and labour and so on. The imposition of huge amounts of moral censure onto this industry obscures this fact and tends to render strippers and other kinds of sex workers as either fully in control or victims (this binary is a reimagining of an age old patriarchal angel/devil trope). The reality is that as with all of us the truth is somewhere in the middle. Hustlers is good at showing the women’s agency whilst also recognising the structural inequalities of power that they face in their working lives. A useful complement to this discussion can be found in the recent interview with Stacey Clare on Labour Days where she talks about stripping and exploitation in a lot more detail alongside a discussion of the challenges of organising sex workers politically.
So that is my take on Hustlers. In short, it is probably worth careers interested people watching the film.