Capitalism Is a Mental Illness: “Hustlers,” “The Known World,” and a Failed TV Project




IN THE SUMMER of 2016, a director I knew put together a small team of writers to develop a TV project set in a strip club. I was 35 but could pass for younger, and he asked me to get a job as a cocktail waitress at a local strip club, in Ohio, to collect research. Together, we cooked up a story I repeated at my interview: that I was a twentysomething grad student wanting to make some quick, easy cash. I was anxious to gather as much research as I could before anyone figured out I was lying. The club didn’t heat up until midnight, so I was able to soak in a lot in the first few hours. I expected to see desperate women with track marks dancing offbeat to bad music (what I remembered from my only other exposure to strip clubs, a dare at the end of college, my friends and I so dorky and out of place, the dancers had to instruct us how to act: put the money down, now go back to your table). Now, a decade and a half later, I thought I’d see evidence of depressions of various kinds: economic, emotional, situational. Instead, I saw a confidence so authentic it felt contagious. I saw dancing so athletic and graceful, I stopped in my tracks to watch it, stood in the middle of the floor with a tray full of Yuenglings and Miller Lites with my mouth hanging open. A woman wearing nothing but heels, a thong, and a tiara twirled upside down so skillfully it was breathtaking. I couldn’t believe she was here in this soulless strip mall and not on television, that she hadn’t been discovered. I approached a poindexter sitting alone, asked him if I could get him anything. He pointed to a girl young enough to be his daughter and shyly requested that I send her his way. I made friends with a girl named Wyoming. She was college-age, told me, blasé, that she danced two weeks on, two weeks off, and traveled the weeks she didn’t work.

I made about a hundred dollars a night. The ones multiplied inside my bra, where I kept them until I’d change them out at the front desk for 10s and 20s. Every hour on the hour was uptime, when a lap dance is two-for-one, or 30 dollars for exactly six minutes — two songs, each cut off at three minutes on the dot — of a woman in her thong, heels, and pasties grinding on the customer until the end of the song or the end of his money or the culmination of his lust. An experienced dancer knows how to turn two dances into three, four, five. Sometimes a dancer and a customer will stumble out of the cubicles and neither of them know how long they were in there. Customers try to swindle dancers and vice versa; often one or both are drunk. These episodes don’t often escalate because an attendant, a friendly Iraq War veteran with a hipster beard who smoked cigarettes on the patio, kept track of all the comings and goings on timecards. Dancers literally punch in and out of the lap-dance booths, even if it’s only a three-minute increment, like any hourly worker.

A dancer who can turn two dances into more has an effective hustle, and part of my research was recording the various hustles: how a dancer got a man to pick her, and not one of the other 40 women, and give her his 20, 50, 200 bucks. Some do it in obvious ways: a well-timed motorboat to a man who looks like he hasn’t been touched in years, a slow crawl across the bar, and when the music speeds up, a marathon twerk in the guy’s face until he is so overwhelmed by the intensity of the public intimacy that he chooses, just then, to look at his phone. Others are subtle. Some don’t approach the men at all or strut by a table like they’re on a catwalk. The woman with the tiara kissed an ugly, lost-looking man with such tender passion, I would have sworn they were on their way to make-up sex. (Dancers are allowed to initiate touch, customers aren’t.) I saw one whose sadness attracted men to her all night, her lack of confidence drawing them in like a tide. The poindexter bought her dinner, pushed the plate of mac-and-cheese-bites her way while the dancer sat slumped at the bar next to him, mortified by her nakedness. All around her buzzed women in stilettos and neon lingerie or kitschy Barbie outfits, their confidence barefaced.

I chewed on this in slower moments while I wiped down tables or leaned against the wall and waited for a new customer. How much of these hustles were authentic, how much a performance? We call it a hustle when it’s an exotic dancer or a drug dealer, but in the corporate world it’s just sales. In my real life, I taught freshman English at a big state school. There, we call it persuasion. Every August, I drew a big triangle on the chalkboard — Author, Audience, Message — and asked my students the same questions about a reading I was asking myself about the dancers (their triangle would be labeled Dancer, Customer, Hustle). How does a person get their audience to trust them, to believe them, to want them? To follow them into the future, whether it be a champagne room or a story or a scam?

¤

“All you have to do is figure out who you’re dealing with, and then play them at their level,” Ramona, a seasoned and successful exotic dancer, tells young Destiny as her tutelage begins in Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s blockbuster. Ramona is as transactional as the men she hustles, and this is what gives her power. When they begin drugging and robbing men, and Destiny tries to come clean with a client, Ramona snatches a cell phone out of her hand and growls, “If we don’t do it, someone else will,” before calling Destiny an “ungrateful little bitch.”

The scene reminded me of one in Edward P. Jones’s Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece, The Known World, in which William Robbins, plantation owner and slave-master, counsels his former slave Henry, who has just purchased his own first slave: “There are white men out there, Henry, who ain’t got nothin’. You might as well step in and take what they ain’t takin’.” Hustlers offers a parallel rationale — everyone is robbing, so why shouldn’t they? Scafaria films the crime scenes with breezy levity: the climax begins with a client who jumps off the second story of his house only to land face down on pavement, and Mercedes fears he’s dead in hilarious tones while Annabelle is so grossed out by his lifeless body that she vomits. The whole thing is treated so comically, dropping the man off at the hospital is the punch line of the main trailer. Sensuality and confidence may be the backbone of the dancers’ hustle — how they get the men to follow them — but humor is what kept my attention on film.

Hustlers, which is based on a real story, churned my stomach as much as it entertained me. While it appears to celebrate the women for drugging and robbing the men, with plenty of up-tempo montages and persuasive monologues by Ramona about how the men they’re robbing scammed the entire country, instead, it does something much more upsetting and artistically valuable: it holds a mirror to the brand of raging capitalism to which strip clubs and Wall Street alike belong. Where there is little middle ground between the exploiter and the exploited. Once you see your opportunity to stop being taken advantage of, your choices are grim. In the case of Hustlers, some of the women dabble in minimum-wage retail work after the crash of 2008; in Jones’s novel, Henry’s father, Augustus, is appalled that his son, born a slave, would become a slaveowner. Augustus is a craftsman who first bought his own freedom and then his wife’s, then finally his son’s, but he is never really safe: in fact, he is sold back into slavery and then killed. In Hustlers, nobody dies of the scam, and the only material things at stake are the dollars of the (mostly despicable) men.

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“Motherhood is a mental illness,” Ramona says to Destiny, and it’s a line so great she says it twice. Of course, the desire to take care of younger, vulnerable kin, especially by the female parent, is natural — we see it in nearly every creature in the kingdom. The power Ramona draws from being transactional with men is compounded by her maternal attitudes toward the women. “Good girl,” she says when one of her minions follows her orders. “I’m so proud of you,” she crows at Christmas as she gifts Destiny a chinchilla coat. When Destiny betrays her to avoid jail time so she can stay with her young daughter, she repeats it: “Motherhood is a mental illness.” It may be the most memorable line of the film, but the thesis might as well replace motherhood with capitalism. Ramona and Destiny wanting to care for their daughters, and all the dancers wanting to be compensated fairly for their work, is rational and intelligent. The system they labor under is warped, sets them up in a miserable binary: fail or exploit. Working in retail in New York City would not be dire if it did not necessarily drive them to poverty. Ramona, everybody’s mom, not only looks out for herself, but brings young women into the team over and over. Her generosity with the girls serves her intrinsically as much as extrinsically. In any case, it irks the more cautious-minded Destiny. But it’s her intense, heightened mom-ness that lays the groundwork for her intense earning. Ramona has monetized her uncanny ability to take care of people within the framework of this corrupted meritocracy. The film is empowering, yes, but oddly so: as I watched Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu and their crew use their femininity (and illegal drugs) to rob men, I felt energized the same way I had in the club in Ohio.

My observation of the strip club in real life was more patriarchal than the film’s, for better or worse. Each man paid a cover charge of 10 dollars to get in the door, watched beautiful women move in postures of love and sex, and if he wanted the company of one, he accepted it when she offered. He paid an agreed-upon price for an agreed-upon time and activity, and more if he felt like it. He left when he was sated or broke or tired. The woman disappeared to him then, or stayed in his mind if he chose. She could make him feel something, change his life ever so slightly, but only as long as he paid her to do so. That wasn’t all: if a customer was bothering a woman who worked at the club, she only had to make eye contact with a man who worked in security (which was every man who worked there). I wasn’t allowed to walk to my car after closing without one of the men walking me part-way or watching me get into it safely. On my first night, the Iraq veteran who manned the lap-dance wing called out, “Good job, Annie!” as I served drinks to a large table. The chef offered to buy me dinner, and a floorman who allegedly doubled as a pimp gave me a crash-course in high-end whiskey brands.

Our TV project folded for a lot of reasons, most of them stupid, but one was that the male director, whose idea the whole thing was, wanted to tell the story from the perspective of a male manager, which the writing team, both women, didn’t want to abide. Frustratingly, it seemed like most of the beauty and verve I witnessed happened for a man or because of a man’s power, money, or prerogative. Hustlers’s greatest accomplishment, and its greatest feminist accomplishment is that, in existing, it subverts that.

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Annie McGreevy is the author of the novella Ciao, Suerte. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Chicago Review of Books, STORY magazine, The Portland Review, Electric Literature, Shouts and Murmurs, LitHub,The Kindland, and elsewhere.


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