Magic Mike, Hustlers, Showgirls – on the surface these films are about strippers trying to make it. Taking a deeper look, they are a satirical look on the darker side of capitalism. Cash is king, but to what end?
Capitalism has been a recurring theme in cinema throughout the years. Films from 1987's Wall Street to last years Triangle of Sadness have showcased this motif. In the past decade, films such as Magic Mike and Hustlers have used the genre as a vehicle to satirize the excesses of capitalism. These movies, set in the world of stripping, are often marketed as raunchy comedies or dramas. But they also offer a nuanced and sometimes biting take on the various ways in which people are exploited and commodified in a quest for free enterprise.
“You are worth the cash you pry out of their fucking purses. You want a bigger piece? Come up with some fresher shit.”
(As said by Dallas in Magic Mike) 2012
Magic Mike, released in 2012, stars Channing Tatum as the titular character. By day he works at a roofing company. By night he is a male stripper. Mike has dreams of starting a custom furniture business. However, he is hamstrung by the fact that he cannot get a bank loan in order get started.
The movie explores the seedier aspects of the strip club industry. We see the male strippers face pressures to maintain their commodified bodies. They sell drugs. They hunt endlessly for new clients to their strip club. But it is the owner of the club, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) who is capitalism personified. Everyone who works for him must bring value to the table. Otherwise you are of little use to him.
This capitalistic streak is borne of a desire for Dallas to own his own chain of strip clubs. Mirroring Mike, he faces his own issues in securing the cash in order to make these dreams come true. But where Mike and Dallas differ, is that Mike refuses to put the health of his friends at risk in order to make money. By the end of the film we see Mike give up the majority of his savings in order to help his friend break free from debt. With this decision Mike has decided to no longer be guided by capitalism, but rather his heart.
Meanwhile with Dallas, we see him writhing on the stage in a thong. The scene ends with a room full of women throwing bills like confetti over his nearly nude body. The commodification is complete. Dallas will keep going along his current path, even if his dreams may never materialize.
“Look, baby, we got to start thinking like these Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody. Hardworking people lost everything. And not one of these douchebags went to jail. Not one. Is that fair? You ever think about when they come into the club? That's stolen money. That's what's paying for their blowjobs. The fucking firefighters retirement fund. Fuck these guys.” – As said by Ramona in Hustlers (2019)
Hustlers would be released a few years after Magic Mike. The film is based off of a true story. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, a group of female strippers turn to scamming their wealthy clients. This is because they are being undercut by competing female strippers, who offer more services (read: sex) for less money. For the strippers, opportunities are limited. With wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, the women are forced to make difficult decisions in order to survive. They are simply trying to make a living in a system that has left them, the working-class, behind.
Like Dallas in Magic Mike, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) is the driver of the capitalist dream in this film. Desperate to live comfortably, with dreams of launching a swimwear line, it is she who devises the scamming system. Ramona is angry at the Wall Street men who caused the 2008 crash. She believes that they haven't been held accountable for their actions. As a result, she argues that the women are justified in targeting these men as a form of payback.
For Ramona, the money that comes in is never enough. We see her make increasingly desperate decisions in an attempt to gain capital. Instead of taking small amounts of cash from the men, it's decided that the women take as much as they can in one fell swoop. It's a risky move. The old clients get burned, and the women struggle to find new clients to take their place. Soon the original crew are unwilling to partake further in Ramona's scam. However, by the end, the scam has fallen apart. The ladies, barring one who takes a plea deal, are placed on probation and/or jail.
The movie interestingly never really takes the side of the male financiers. It is only when the women target those outside of the Wall Street sphere that their troubles begin. The strippers are no longer justified in their actions. Instead they have become the very thing they sought to punish. They are now the greedy capitalists, who must be stopped.
Cristal Connors: You are a whore, darlin'!
Nomi Malone: No, I'm not!
Cristal Connors: We all are. We take the cash, we cash the check, we show them what they want to see!
Of course, none of these movies would be in the cultural sphere if it wasn't for Showgirls. On its release, it was much maligned. However, in the years since, there has been a reappraisal of sorts. More and more viewers have come to see it for what director Paul Verhoeven intended it to be. A satire on capitalism.
The film is intentionally set in Las Vegas, a city built around the proliferation of cash. It follows the rise of a young stripper named Nomi Malone. She has big dreams upon arrival. She wants to be a star. But starting out she's at a no-name topless bar. That is until her frenemy Cristal offers her a chance at an audition for her Goddess show, where Cristal is the star. Even after facing humiliation at the hands of the show's director, Nomi secures a role. It isn't enough for Nomi however, and she pushes Cristal down a flight of stairs. This results in Cristal breaking her hip, and unable to perform. As a result Nomi's competition is gone. She is now the star of the show.
Nomi now has the big bucks and the fame. But she is willing to set that aside when seeking revenge against the man who raped her friend. This man, a bona fide celebrity, has more capital clout than Nomi will ever have. Knowing that she is up against that kind of power, she takes matters into her own hands. She brutally attacks the rapist, causing him to end up in the hospital. With that Nomi makes a hasty exit, her dreams decimated by the capitalist world of Vegas.
These films all showcase the way that capitalism can reduce individuals to commodities, and leave them struggling to survive. In a pursuit to fulfill capitalist dreams, individuals, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, are exploited. These films can certainly be entertaining. But hopefully they also challenge viewers to think critically about the systems that shape their lives.
Magic Mike's Last Dance is coming to cinemas on February 10