It’s been 24 years since Elizabeth Berkley licked the pole in Showgirls and I’m still mad about it, so I understand the mixture of anticipation and dread with which strippers await Hustlers. What stupid misconceptions will it leave the audience with? How many years will it be the general public’s touchstone for what we do? Will it portray all strippers as one national financial collapse away from forming a ring to drug customers, then max out their credit cards, as they did in the real-life criminal cases at the center of the New York story on which the movie is based?
Hustlers addresses that last question head-on. The film’s framing device is an interview of Destiny (Constance Wu), the character based on Roslyn Keo, by Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), a stand-in for journalist Jessica Pressler. Destiny asks Elizabeth what’s going into the story, and says she doesn’t want it to be a hit piece about how all strippers are thieves, because it’s not like that.
If you, like Destiny, don’t want to see another story paint strippers as ripoff artists, are left unable to enjoy the movie because of the real stigma faced by strippers, because FOSTA has made your life harder while movie stars build award-contending performances on our stories, or because it doesn’t resemble your experience remotely, I absolutely get it. But one reason sex workers feel our depiction in Hustlers is a high-stakes issue is the low rate of representation of strippers and sex workers as leads in major motion pictures. We’re accustomed to being props, punchlines, victims or villians, and we know that it’s going to be a long time before another stripper story is allowed to take center stage. Shouldn’t this one do something good for us? Is it good for the strippers?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s much anticipated writing and directorial debut, Don Jon, is a romantic comedy about the shared struggle for intimacy between two shallow New Jerseyites, one with a propensity for porn and the other for Hollywood fairytales. Unfortunately, the film’s “satire” is so uncritical it mirrors the very problems it claims to critique. For starters, the filmmakers intended Don Jon to be a critique of negative media portrayals of women, yet the film itself fails to pass the Bechdel test.
Gordon-Levitt’s character, nicknamed for the legendary, womanizing libertine, occupies himself by rating women’s attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10. He makes a rather sick game of seducing “10”s—or “dimes,” as he and his douchey friends refer to them—despite not actually enjoying the ensuing sex. In fact, after bland fucking with equally bland “dimes,” he scrambles from post-coital cuddling to his computer where he loses himself in the fantasy world of mainstream pornography. He prefers pornography, as the annoying voice-over informs us, because “real pussy can kill you.” Of course, this doesn’t make much sense considering he’s presumably face-to-face with “real pussy” every time he takes home a “dime,” but whatever… In any case, his love interest, Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson, is meant to parallel the protagonists’ shallowness through her adoration of Hollywood chick flicks. Cause, like, dudes like emotionless fucking and chicks like romance, duh.
The news that Joe Manganiello was making a documentary about the Dallas male strip club La Bare thrilled me, because I loved Magic Mike and his performance in it. When it finally came to Netflix, I roped Matthew Lawrence into watching and chatting with me. It was no Magic Mike, but the real-life Magic Mike, Randy “Master Blaster” Ricks, didn’t disappoint. Below is an edited version of our real-time viewing experience. There’s probably spoilers.
Matthew: How many stars does Netflix THINK you will give this movie? For me it’s only one and a half!
Bubbles: Two for me! Seems like you don’t know me at all, Netflix.
Matthew: My Netflix is hampered by my boyfriend’s mysterious love of The Vampire Diaries, so maybe it assumes I will hate any documentary narrated by a True Blood cast member?
Bubbles: I’m so happy. I loved Magic Mike so much.
The film opens on two male strippers in cowboy hats and sleeveless shirts, about to perform for a bachelorette party.
Bubbles: Haha, it’s ok to take her number if she isn’t engaged. These outfits are fantastic.
Matthew: Those hats! I am in New England, I don’t see hats like that ever.
Bubbles: OK, so, it kicks off with the Flaming Lips “Free Radicals,” one of what I assume are many interesting musical choices. Is there a “businessman” male stripper? I guess that would be “Richard Gere Armani Suit” male stripper
Scene changes to the office of La Bare, where the manager talks about the club’s early days, when it switched from a topless club with female dancers to a male strip club named “La Bare.”
Matthew: Hahaha, nude in French or whatever.
Bubbles: “Which means nude in French or whatever.” Jinx! 9/11 killed the male stripping business? Had you heard anything about this?
Willie Dynamite is the story of a pimp, for the most part. But! Because I could care fucking less about how hard it is to be a pimp, or how difficult it must be to keep your women together, or whether he decides to get out of the game in the end, I will be focusing very little energy on him. Anyway, his clothes make it difficult to take him seriously. I mean, he starts the film off wearing what could loosely be described as a hot pink matador-esque suit with puffed sleeves. Yes, puffed sleeves.
I’m pretty much only interested in the women.
The film starts off with them strutting about, dressed in what I can only describe as my dream wardrobe if I lived in the 70’s (and now, I won’t lie. Knife pleats and capes are timeless). The hair is large, the lips are red, and it’s all to show that they are classy ladies or so we’re told. These are women who were on the street but were….upgraded, according to the film. It brought to mind something I heard many times last year at the Desiree Alliance Conference, presentation is everything. From your photos, to the text in your ads, clients decide whether you are “worth” your rate by how you look. Like Willie says, “We’re selling an idea.”
Nicole Witte Solomon and I have kept up with each other online for a while, dating back to the era when she was a young phone sex operator/film student, just beginning to pitch her clever writing on topics ranging from vegan cooking to feminism in pop culture to a variety of venues. As the years have gone by, she’s fulfilled many of her dreams, from directing a video for her favorite Jewish post-riot grrl band The Shondes to co-founding writers’ site The Stoned Crow Press. Having followed the making of her phone sex horror movie short Small Talk since its inception, it’s exciting to get a chance to interview Solomon about it as it finally makes the festival rounds.
What attracted you to horror as a genre? What sort of opportunities do you think horror provides for feminist artists?
I’m attracted to horror as a viewer because it has the potential to make me feel a wide range of intense emotions within a controlled and hopefully safe environment. A great horror director is much like a great domme; of course I gravitate towards the genre as both a viewer and filmmaker.
The whole reason Small Talk happened is I was writing a phone sex memoir and got the image in my head of a PSO taking a phone sex call while dismembering a corpse. It felt a lot more compelling than a long, tedious recounting of autobiographical detail. Horror allows us to break into the supernatural where needed and requires no happy endings.
It was enormously therapeutic for me to make this film. I had some unresolved feelings and then I exploded a couple [of] people in a movie and now I feel fucking great. I am a huge proponent of filmmaking as a form of narrative therapy and encourage any and all sex workers who have unresolved feelings to make art about it, if for no other reason than my own selfish one of I really can go the rest of my fucking life without reading, viewing or otherwise consuming a sex worker narrative by a non-sex worker, and god knows everyone else is apparently starved for them [narratives by and about sex workers] and—
The horror community has been by far the most welcoming of the film. I submitted it to a ton of “women’s” film festivals and not a single one has wanted to touch it. One festival that rejected me offered to send a summary of jury comments for free and the comments were basically like “It was well shot and acted and all but it was about a phone sex operator and it was so disturbing and suddenly people were exploding and I don’t understand why and our audience will be so disturbed and upset.” That was the consensus of why my film was a bad choice for their festival.
I was impressed with how Manini Gupta, as the phone sex operator protagonist, Al, was so versatile with the affect of her voice as she worked the line. And I empathized with her so much as she rolled her eyes through most of those calls. What were you looking for in the actress that would play the PSO? What was most important for you to say about being a phone sex operator in your movie?
It was not easy finding someone who could do all the things you mentioned, and the most important thing to me was that the actress I cast be believable—to me. That was the litmus test. I needed someone who could 1. Convincingly play all those things on the PSO fantasy end—sound like a believable, good PSO while also 2. Play the Al character’s own, usually conflicting reaction to what’s going on. Manini was totally on the right track from the first audition, whereas most people I saw couldn’t really do either, let alone both at the same time.
In terms of what I wanted to say about being a PSO—I guess I wanted to portray it as a challenging job involving a particular skill set. I wanted to show some of the less savory aspects of the job without demeaning it in any way. I wanted to open up to the world about the specific aspects that can be difficult and sometimes emotionally damaging in a way that contextualized it within a broader service industry—looking at race and gender dynamics within capitalism in general, not just the sex industry specifically or the phone sex industry in particular. I meant this film as a kind of valentine to other PSOs, honestly. Our labor and skills are so commonly undervalued and misunderstood, and what we do is so tricky, if we do it well.