Constance Wu's real-life 'Hustlers' inspiration and the problem with model minority redemption narratives

While it’s refreshing to see a character like Destiny in Hollywood, the movie’s feel-good storyline is neither accurate nor empowering for the women who have lived these stories.
Image: HUSTLERS
Constance Wu stars in "Hustlers."STXfilms
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By Kate Zen, director, Red Canary Song

Never in my teenage stripping dreams would I have imagined that a story starring a complex Asian American sex worker would become a blockbuster feature film.

Yet recently, Red Canary Song, our cohort of 12 Asian sex workers and friends, went out for a group movie night to see “Hustlers,” wherein Constance Wu plays the real-life Roselyn "Rosie" Keo, a Cambodian-American stripper who probably worked in the same clubs we did around the 2007 financial crisis.

Certainly, any movie about an Asian sex worker that doesn’t conform to the “Dragon Lady” or sex slave Hollywood tropes is a breath of fresh air. Destiny, the character played by Wu, exhibits a nuanced relationship with the so-called model minority myth, monetizing her perceived sweetness and studiousness to demonstrate how the stereotype can also be performed for profit.

While Destiny appears on some levels to transgress the model minority stereotype, it’s not quite so simple.

“My big advantage over the other girls is I don’t look like a stripper,” the real Rosie said about her business strategy. But while Destiny appears on some levels to transgress the model minority stereotype, it’s not quite so simple.

“Destiny actually reinforces the essence of the term by proving herself to be family-focused, hard-working, remorseful while committing crime and ultimately dedicated as a ‘good mother,’” Lillian Miao, a former Manhattan dancer and member of Red Canary, told me. Fulfilling Confucian virtues of filial piety, Wu’s character on screen was devoted to her grandmother in ways that the real Roselyn Keo never talks about.

Sacrificing themselves to help their family is a stereotypical narrative that is often told about sex workers in Asian tourist cities as well as migrants to North America. The point of the narrative is to justify their golden-hearted albeit “taboo” labors. Destiny and Ramona (played by Jennifer Lopez) are portrayed as devoted mothers, a mitigating factor designed to confound the madonna/whore stigma, create dimensionality and inspire empathy from viewers.

However upon closer examination, as Lillian noted, “their relatives appeared only as superficial props, to be appeased and fed with money, rather than acting as key characters in the story.”

Particularly surprising is the unquestioning attitude that Destiny’s grandmother shows towards the money that Destiny brings in. She does not shame Destiny, not the experience of many sex workers who fear telling their loved ones the truth about their financial situation.

Destiny’s grandmother smilingly accepts the stacks of cash with no hand-wringing over salvaged mortgages and jeopardized matrimony. No apologetic mixture of gratitude and self-loathing. No proud refusals nor contrite acceptances. The tortuous relationships that sex workers and our families have to “dirty money” is eerily absent from this worry-free celebration of feminine capitalism.

In reality, many sex workers have deeply complex, even philosophically combative, relationships with money.

In reality, many sex workers have deeply complex, even philosophically combative, relationships with money. We are overrepresented in the socialist and anarchist factions of political parties. We’re often on the margins of capitalism, opposing a broken system that fails to serve the people we love. We are feminists, critical of “leaning in” to neoliberalism, often donating our sex work money to support activist efforts fighting the racist criminal legal system, mass incarceration and violent policing.

As Jia, a former dominatrix and massage worker told me, “It was incredibly upsetting to see Wu’s character work with the police.” It felt like this was another way to show that Destiny was truly a "good Asian." Just as frustrating was the way her cooperation made her safe — certainly not the case for many sex workers, who take big risks when they involve law enforcement.

In real life, Asian sex workers are unfairly targeted by police. Stereotyped as human trafficking victims, Asian migrants are disproportionately arrested, deported and even killed in police raids. These raids are purportedly launched to “rescue” us from human trafficking, but more often subject us to invasive, sexually exploitative and traumatic arrests, which do not lead to trafficking charges so much as they result in criminal convictions and immigration penalties.

In real life, Asian sex workers have been remarkably resistant to becoming witnesses, even under intense four-hour long interrogations, as seen in the Orchids of Asia Day Spa scandal involving billionaire Robert Kraft. After eight months of video surveillance, arrested migrant workers were kept in “safe houses” where police struggled to convince them that they were trafficking victims. But the women continually insisted that they were not; they had massage licenses, green cards and even citizenship.

This loyalty was not rewarded — while Kraft and other spa clients had most of their charges dropped, the migrant women targeted for “rescue” have had their life savings taken away by police. Now, several women face up to 15 years in prison.

While “Hustlers” portrays a powerful gang of women who take advantage of embarrassed Wall Street clients, in real life it’s sex workers who are most often subject to violence by clients and criminals, including thieves, rapists, serial killers, police and police impersonators. These perpetrators target sex workers because they know we can’t trust the police and are scared to report crimes committed against us.

Given this reality, we are disappointed that the cast of “Hustlers” refuses to take a stance on the issue of sex work decriminalization, which could give equal dignity to sex workers, and protect us from violence and exploitation.

In fact, at the end of the day, the movie is actually denigrating towards sex workers. It’s not really a story about sex workers at all, but rather a story about con artists, thieves, drug dealers and madams. Meanwhile, the actual prostitutes in the film are treated as minions by the con artists who “outsource” full sexual labor to more desperate women.

And rather than dignifying the care work of sex work, the dehumanization of male clients in this movie negates the possibility of sex work as an honest and valuable service. By demonizing all clients, and reducing them to a simplistic and pathetic trope, this movie falls right into the rhetoric of “end demand” advocates who prefer to portray all “johns” as morally repugnant in order to justify violent policing against the sex industry.

In reality, our relationships with clients are complex, not always artificial or mutually exploitative. This movie may cause some people to be more afraid of visiting strip clubs, and unreasonably worried about being drugged or robbed. It may lead to potential loss of income for actual sex workers.

But the real Roselyn Keo is not concerned about the impact her actions have had on the greater sex worker community. Speaking to Oprah Magazine about her upcoming book, Keo has hustled just about everyone: her clients for money, Samantha Barbash (the woman Jennifer Lopez's character is based on) for mentorship, her colleagues for a plea bargain, her story for celebrity.

She’s trying to hustle her hustle too, with a model minority redemption narrative. And while it’s refreshing to see a character like hers in Hollywood, the movie’s feel-good, empowerment storyline that so many critics have praised is neither accurate nor empowering for the real women who have lived the stories told on screen.

Members of Red Canary Song contributed.