So I bought into the buzz and went to see Hustlers last night. Given that it has generated critical acclaim and even Oscar buzz for once-struggling movie star Jennifer Lopez, I went in with some moderately high expectations. The good news: Not only were they met, they were blown out of the water.
By the time a 50-goddamn-year-old J.Lo slinks onto that stripper stage, twirls around that pole, writhes in that pile of cash, and walks away holding her bills like a chinchilla shawl, asking Constance Wu if money makes her horny, I was screaming my little gay head off.
Aside from depicting the man-scamming, fur-wearing, bad-bitch dream life to which I aspire, Hustlers is an enticing and very well-executed morality play about the haves and have-nots, the caprices of capitalism, and female agency in defiance of the male patriarchy, led almost entirely by a cast of women of color. It is the most culturally relevant movie we have right now, and it’s also one hell of a good time.
At its center is Lopez’s Ramona Vega. A maternal figure to Wu’s Destiny, Ramona is the mastermind behind the heist that funds their lavish lifestyles. Along with her fellow strippers (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart round out the cast, with some stunning cameos from Cardi B and Lizzo), Ramona drugs Wall Street finance bros and runs up their credit cards, living high on their dime. They rely on the embarrassment of these alpha males to keep them from running to the cops, which works for a while. Until it doesn’t.
Vega is a shrewd businesswoman with an implicit understanding of how the system operates. At one point she says that life is a strip club: You’re either the one spending the cash or dancing for it. She has no qualms about stealing her victims’ money because, she argues, that money was stolen anyway.
Inspired by a true story, Hustlers begins in 2007, a year before the financial crisis threatened to upend the global order. After the government bailed out the banks that were “too big to fail,” the major culprits behind the crisis avoided any real comeuppance or justice. Ramona and her stilettoed gang of grifters merely take from the takers—the ends justify their more unsavory means.
While watching this spirit of survival coupled with an unparalleled glamour in the face of economic ruin, I couldn’t help but think of Auntie Mame, that grande dame made famous by Rosalind Russell in the classic 1958 film of the same name. Both Hustlers and Auntie Mame are movies about fabulous women taking a young protégé under their fur-clad wing and braving a financial crisis with their fabulousness more or less intact.
For Mame, life isn’t a strip club, it’s “a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” When her estranged brother dies, leaving her young nephew Patrick (Jan Handzlik) in her care, she takes him in with the promise to show him all that life has to offer. Because she can.
Mame occupies a world of bohemian pleasures, where love is free and mythical lesbians populate the background. Because she is a wealthy white woman, her experience is naturally far removed from that of Ramona. However, when Mame loses all her money in the 1929 stock market crash—the most serious financial crisis until the one in 2008—she’s forced to pare down her life of excess, work retail, and take humiliating odd jobs, until she’s rescued by a rich Southerner who takes a fancy to her. She marries him, and when he suddenly dies on a climbing trip during their honeymoon, she inherits all his money. Still, she retains her sense of freedom and wonder, even as Patrick drifts away from her.
For generations, Mame has been a popular queer touchstone. She was the brassy, bold, fearless icon with whom gays could identify and look to for inspiration.
“We love her for her humor and her wit, and we envy her travels and adventures; but more than that, she is the mother figure every gay man wishes for,” Eric Peterson wrote for NBC News in 2016. “While there’s nothing explicitly queer about the story, Mame personifies the freedom to be whomever you want to be.”
If Mame was very much a gay icon of her era, Ramona is the gay icon these times require. Ramona is funny, loving, resourceful, tough, fabulous (of course), but also incredibly empowering. She urges all the women around her to have confidence in themselves, take what they want out of life, and not feel obligated to apologize for it. She’s certainly the mother figure I wish for.
But because we’re living in this crazy world of 2019, Hustlers takes into consideration very 2019 problems. The 2008 financial crisis put an official end to the party for Ramona and her girls. The Wall Street bros stopped spending money at the clubs and had to find a new way to make ends meet. Ramona winds up working at an Old Navy where she has to plead with her boss to let her leave a little early so she can pick up her daughter from school. He argues that she should get childcare, but Ramona says she can’t afford it. Her boss’s solution is to work more so that she can make more money, entirely missing the point of their conversation.
After that, Ramona decides to even the scales. If the Wall Street guys won’t come to the club, she’ll go to them. She and Destiny concoct a potent cocktail of ketamine and MDMA (ah, 2008, when molly was still dangerous), dose their targets, take them to the club, fleece ’em, and leave ’em.
They make the club hundreds of thousands of dollars, of which they get a share. Destiny is able to get out of debt, pay off her grandma’s house, and provide for her kid as a single mother. Her entire goal is independence. She doesn’t want to rely on anyone, let alone a man.
Ramona, on the other hand, doesn’t have a man in her life at all. We don’t even know if she’s straight or queer, as we don’t see her through the lens of her romantic potential, which in itself feels pretty revolutionary. Unlike Mame, Ramona doesn’t benefit from the windfall of a rich man’s love. In her world, everything is a transaction. Life is a strip club. And most poor suckers are dancing to death.
Love is, therefore, not part of the equation—not romantic love, anyway. If anything, it’s a liability. But Ramona does love Destiny, even more than Destiny realizes, long after the jig is up and they became estranged. At the very end of the film, Ramona still carries Destiny’s baby picture in her wallet, next to a picture of her own daughter. That sort of unconditional maternal love still resonates for queer audiences today.
Ramona Vega is ultimately a pole-dancing update of Auntie Mame, twerking in a pile of cash as if to tell us to “Live! Live! Live!”