“Women claiming the power and agency that historically belonged to men is both the story of female evil and the story of female liberation.” — Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror
We hear Ramona (J. Lo) before we ever see her: It’s a characteristically neon-lit night at the strip club. The Lil Jon and Lil Wayne standards give way to the foreboding piano and braggadocious cymbals of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Ramona takes the stage wearing a fringed silver G-string one piece, a matching conductor’s hat, and hoop earrings with more gravitational force than Pluto. She may be performing for the men in the room—the ones baying like hyenas as they rain dollar bills down upon her—but we see Ramona from Destiny’s (Constance Wu) perspective: an artist, athlete, and businesswoman.
This is the female gaze you’ve been looking for.
But Ramona, as the song explicitly warns us, is also a criminal—or on her way to becoming one, anyway. The same will be true for several of the other women working in the club, including Destiny. In trying to do good by their grandmas, their children, and themselves, they will end up breaking bad. This is, after all, Hustlers, a box office sensation based on the true story of Scores dancers who strategically drugged men, hauled them to the club, and maxed out their credit cards.
Critics and fans have accurately described Hustlers as a bedazzled Recession-era period piece. But the movie is equally specific to our times, the first in Hollywood history to produce movie after movie about ordinary(ish) women doing crimes.
Since the summer of 2018, audiences have been cursed and blessed and cursed again by no fewer than five such films. Ocean’s 8, a gender-swapped take on the perennial heist franchise, was most notable for generating $270 million at the box office and an equal amount of queer meme content. (Cate Blanchett’s suits can strangle me anytime.) Snubbed by the Oscars, Widows, a dark drama about three women who decide to execute their dead husbands’ last job, was still a commercial and critical success. And Hustlers, the best of the bunch, paved the way for the deserved return of classic Ugg boots, among other incalculable cultural impacts.
The sub-sub-genre has also inspired some truly terrible films: The Hustle, starring odd couple Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, was an epically unfunny fail. And the most succinct way to describe The Kitchen is “Worst Movie of the Year.” But these cinematic crimes are not the writer’s or the director’s alone. These hollow narratives are on all our rap sheets.
Unlike the female outlaws of the past—the women playing defense (Thelma & Louise, Miss Bala) or the extralegal good guys (Charlie’s Angels)—the motivations of recent lady con artists, mafiosos, and stick-up shooters may feel justified to the viewer, but never a jury. And where femme fatals (Heathers, A Simple Favor, Killing Eve) or paid assassins (Kill Bill, Colombiana) have no use for their audience, this new crop of female anti-heroes still want our approval.
That makes them fundamentally different than their male counterparts. Whether it’s Freddy Benson or Fredo Corleone, a life of crime is depicted as a series of unparalleled thrills. The grifters and gangsters drink, gamble, and fuck. They go to Miami and Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe and Sicily—and that’s just two Al Pacino movies. Their motivations are thin (they articulate abstract masculine responsibilities, like “providing” for their families) and their backstories are quickly sanded down by the champagne waves at the casino. For a man, time spent justifying his actions is time diverted from making money. For a woman, time spent currying favor and eliciting sympathy is foundational to her earning potential.
On occasion, female criminals experience uncomplicated joy, too. Ocean’s 8 and Hustlers are especially sensitive to the capital-G glamor of classic heist movies. For Ocean’s 8, it’s mostly a matter of set-dressing, as various characters visit the Cartier showroom or stride down the Met Gala red carpet. For Hustlers, it’s about reveling in the innate charisma of the ensemble cast. The chinchilla coats and Juicy Couture track suits they wear are comically out of fashion, but there’s nothing a contemporary audience wants more than Lizzo squealing about Usher or Cardi B delivering a raunchy soliloquy.
But it’s rare that these light-hearted moments stem from the criminal activity itself. Where most men are comfortable enough with their line of work to kill a man and eat some cannolis, women tend toward nausea. (In Hustlers, Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) literally vomits whenever she’s stressed.) A rare and delightful exception is Cleo (a swaggering Queen Latifah), one of four female bank robbers in F. Gary Gray’s 1996 action movie Set It Off. Unlike Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith), who wishes for a way out, or Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), who the film shows has earned her anger, Cleo’s thirst for blood is formless and ever-increasing. She simply enjoys doing whatever she’s been told not to, even when it kills her.
The prevailing sentiment of these films, then, is one of fatalism. Women are finally taking control, but only because they have to. In The Kitchen, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) see their husbands sent to jail. The mob promises to care for the women and their families, but ultimately deliver a pittance. Unable to provide for themselves or their children through conventional routes, they decide to take over the neighborhood. By the sole metric of power, they’re successful. They eliminate the indolent men who stand in their way and take over the better part of Manhattan’s west side. But for what? While they talk at length about the challenges they face, and the effort they’ve put into overcoming them, their lives lack any recognizable human emotion. Pain, pleasure, or even a hint of connection between them are totally absent. And Berloff’s repeated attempts at levity, like the scene where Kathy loses count of her endless stacks of bills, read as calculating instead of comedic.
For women, malfeasence is ultimately depicted as another item on their long to-do lists: Pick up the kids, buy the groceries, murder the snitch, do the laundry. They don’t want to be this way, but for reasons they’ve already explained, aloud and at length, they have to. It’s a chore for the audience, too. In an NPR interview, Berloff told listeners to see The Kitchen because,“If people don’t start going to the theater to see female-driven content…there aren’t going to be more of these movies.” So we pick up the kids, buy the groceries, vote with our dollar, do the laundry.
If male criminals never feel the need to explain themselves, these women are often about as subtle as a pink t-shirt with the word “FEMINIST” written in glitter. In Widows, Veronica (Viola Davis) tells her skeptical comrades, “The best thing we have going for us is being who we are.” Why? “Because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.” In The Hustle, Josephine asks Penny why women are better con men. Penny replies, “Because we’re used to faking it?” Josphine corrects her. “It comes down to one universal truth. No man will ever believe a woman is smarter than he is. We will always be underestimated, and that is what we use.” Almost all of the dialogue in The Kitchen echoes this: “They have been telling us forever that we were never gonna do anything but have babies.” “Pretty doesn’t matter, it’s just a tool women use.” “You girls kill me—all Gloria Steinem and shit.”
What these women mean to say—and what we, the audience, already know—is that though they may appear to be murdering individuals, they are actually dismantling systems. That has always been the promise of a heist well-planned or a con well-executed. As Ramona says in her own speech, which masterfully remains on just this side of show-don’t-tell, “These Wall Street guys—you see what they did to this country? Hardworking people lost everything, and not one of these guys went to jail. The game’s rigged and it does not reward people who play by the rules.” The only solution, as she tells it, is to take what’s yours.
Critics, for the most part, have called out the moments that pander to the idea of a complex woman, and rewarded the movies genuinely invested in a woman’s complexity. “An offense against feminism, narrative logic, and Fleetwood Mac, The Kitchen is a terrible, witless mess,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times. And box office numbers suggest audiences are wise to it, too. But still, these movies have their avid fans. In my screening in Brooklyn, for every time I involuntarily gasped at The Kitchen’s absurdity, a woman one row ahead of me yelped in support and genuine delight.
Perhaps this woman was simply mad in a society where women have a lot to be mad about, but angry women are dismissed, resented, and pathologized. In her new book Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime and Obsession, author Rachel Monroe explores the female rage behind the current true crime boom by dissecting the genre’s dominant female archetypes: the detective, the defender, the victim, and the criminal. In every case, Monroe argues, these women’s proximity to murder was “a way to live out other kinds of lives, ones that were otherwise unavailable to them.” For these women, the womp-womp inevitability of Melissa McCarthy giving the order to kill her feckless husband is more than worth the price of admission.
But there’s another, scarier reason movie-goers might like these stories. In her recent book of essays Trick Mirror: Reflections of Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino writes that feminism “has put such a premium on individual success, so much emphasis on individual choice, that it is seen as unfeminist to criticize anything that a woman chooses to make herself more successful.” In the real world, that may mean celebrating another woman’s plastic surgery as empowering. In a movie, it means letting yourself believe that dismembering a few corpses or drugging a few bankers is a small price to pay for girl power.
This tracks with the contrasting statements of women behind the best and worst movies on this list: Berloff, writer-director of The Kitchen, told the Los Angeles Times that the project “hit at exactly the right time that I was feeling angry enough to think to myself, ‘What would happen if women could take over? What would that look like?’” Bloody, she seems to conclude, but better. By contrast, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, a producer on Hustlers, recounted conversations with male studio executives who would ask, “‘Can they just drug the bad guys? Can they just do it to the people that deserve it?’” Goldsmith-Thomas refused, adding, “By the way, does anyone deserve to be drugged? No!”
In all but one of these films, the women get more or less what they wanted: Debbie Ocean steals the $250 million diamond and transfers the money to her ex’s account, successfully framing him for the job. The Widows pay off their debts and move on with their lives. Penny and Josephine team up to defraud the rest of the French Riviera. Even the surviving women of The Kitchen broker a truce, each running her own section of the city, free from interference from each other, and from indolent men.
Of course, the traditional male criminal got his way, too. But none of these outcomes feels ordained quite like the fictional successes in female criminal movies. Audiences have always loved a Hollywood ending, but the stakes for this particular cinematic crop is even higher. In a world of persistent gender discrimination, it’s tempting to think movie magic could balance the scale. But then we remember what these women have done. Only the Hustlers fail. The women are caught and forced to start their lives over again. It’s deflating—if Ramona can’t catch a break, who can? And, as she herself argues, it does feel a little unfair. The men responsible for the financial collapse avoided punishment, while the women who stole from them are spending their probation working minimum wage jobs at Old Navy. But getting caught isn’t all bad. Like Fiona Apple sings on “Criminal,” they no longer have to deny what they did—we see its danger, and its brilliance.