For most of Jennifer Lopez’s career, Jennifer Lopez has been seen less as an actress or a singer or a dancer than as a body.
That’s not to say she’s bad at acting or singing or dancing, or that no one knows she’s good at them. JLo has the classic “triple threat” breakdown, and she’s won critical and commercial acclaim for her work across all three of her media. She was hugely acclaimed for her work 1997’s Selena, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. Billboard put her on their list of the greatest dance club artists of all time. She has two Grammy nominations.
But for all those accomplishments, for most of Lopez’s career, the discourse around her has been less about her body of work than it has been about her body.
“I find all 66 caramel-colored inches of Jennifer Lopez lying face down on a poolside chaise,” begins a profile of Lopez from 1998. “Her bikini top is slightly loosened, her nether regions are towel-draped, and a masseuse is kneading oil into the precipitous peaks and valleys of her formidable body. Her skin glints as if it were flecked with 24-karat gold.”
“And then there is her body,” wrote dream hampton of Lopez in Vibe in 1999. “Her butt, in particular, has overshadowed her formidable acting ability. It is written about, photographed lovingly (with her cooperation, of course). It is used as an example, in teen mags for girls and grown women’s fashion tomes, of a changing body ideal.”
Jennifer Lopez’s body has been a major cultural shorthand for ideas about sex, race, class, and gender norms for more than 20 years now. Her body in that famous green Versace gown from the 2000 Grammys red carpet led to the creation of Google Images. Directors go out of their way to center her butt in their movies.
Lopez herself has eagerly participated in the world’s focus on her body, but she’s also occasionally registered some ambivalence about it. When she was on the come up, she tended to explicitly rely on her curves to distinguish her from actresses striving after the heroin chic look that was in vogue in Hollywood at the time: in that 1998 Movieline profile, she says that she’d like to be known as “the Butt Girl,” because “that separates me from everyone else.” But by the 1999 Vibe article, she’d already started to get tired of the press’s focus on her rear. “I would love to read an article where it’s not even mentioned,” she said.
But by then it was already too late. The world’s obsession with Lopez’s body only grew. This year’s focus narrows in on the fact that at 50 years old, Jennifer Lopez still has the body to believably play a stripper and pull off an even skimpier version of her iconic Versace dress. We talk about JLo’s body so much that there is a thriving academic sub-discipline of peer-reviewed articles on the discourse about Jennifer Lopez, her body, and especially her butt.
Hustlers, the new stripper movie in which Lopez’s performance has already started to generate Oscar buzz, is also interested in Jennifer Lopez’s body. But what makes Hustlers different — and a huge part of what makes Lopez’s performance in it so compelling — is that it’s not interested in Lopez’s body as a fetishized object. It is interested in the labor that Lopez does with her body and the capital that she produces with it.
Here’s how Hustlers started a new conversation about Jennifer Lopez’s artistry by focusing on her body as part of the work.
None of what Jennifer Lopez does in Hustlers looks easy. That’s the point.
Lopez gets the diva entrance in Hustlers, a big, hyped-up showstopper that comes after we’ve already spent some time in the movie’s world and know what it looks like and how it works. It’s the kind of character introduction that tells us that now that we’ve gotten comfortable, we’re ready to meet the character who is the key to the way film operates. The diva is the one who sets the plot in motion, who is so charismatic that everyone else defers to them.
Lopez is playing Ramona, one of the old-guard strippers at a club where Destiny (Constance Wu) is the new girl. Before Ramona appears, we’ve already seen Destiny get the lay of the land: She’s done a little amateur spin around one of the poles and given a few dead-eyed lap dances.
But it’s clear that Destiny doesn’t fully understand how to make all of the money she needs to get out of this club. Her tips are meager, and management is ripping her off and taking away most of what little she’s earned. She doesn’t yet have the tools she needs to survive in this world.
Lopez’s Ramona does.
Ramona arrives in the world of Hustlers in a barely-there leotard, dancing to the top of the pole like she’s defying gravity while men hurl money at the stage. Within seconds, there’s so much money onstage that Ramona starts to roll in it Scrooge McDuck-style, only with a lot more thrusting; and while the men remain faceless the whole time, even when Ramona is motorboating them, the camera keeps cutting to a closeup of Destiny’s face, gazing at Ramona with awe.
Over everything, Fiona Apple is singing, “It’s a sad, sad world, when a girl will break a boy just because she can,” and just under the music, you can hear the thud of Ramona’s platform heels hitting the stage with the force of her dancing.
As the scene ends, Ramona saunters offstage cradling her hard-earned cash to her chest, dollar bills literally dripping out of her arms. “Doesn’t money make you horny?” she purrs to Destiny.
That scene is the thesis of the movie in a little over two minutes. Hustlers is about the labor of sex work and the money that comes out of it. It’s about how capitalism turns bodies and sex into tools through which we can make money. It doesn’t really focus on the eroticism of sex work or the idea that strippers are sexy and glamorous at all.
Ramona’s dance is sexy and glamorous, sure — and the camera spends plenty of time pointed at Lopez’s famous rear — but sex isn’t the point of the scene. We know that because we aren’t made to focus on the men watching Ramona or their lust for her. They’re only important insofar as they are providing Ramona with cash. What we’re meant to care about is Destiny watching Ramona, and what Destiny is clearly thinking as she watches is, “She is so good at that, and that looks so fucking hard” — or, as Destiny puts it in the next scene when she introduces herself to Ramona, “How come you’re so good?”
We’ve already seen through Destiny’s failures that stripping is hard work, that it takes technical skill and athleticism and emotional labor. So now, when we see Ramona executing such a demanding routine with so much power — and having money rain down on her as a result — we understand exactly how much effort she had to put in to get there. That’s why we hear the sound of her heels on the stage. That’s why a few scenes later we see Ramona teaching Destiny a few moves on the pole and watch Destiny fumble at them.
Ramona’s not making it look easy, and that’s the point. Stripping is hard, Hustlers is saying, and it should look like it.
By extension: Ramona’s body — Jennifer Lopez’s body — doesn’t just so happen to look like that. It doesn’t just so happen to be able to dance like that. Jennifer Lopez put in the work to get it that way. It was hard work, and it should look like hard work.
And Hustlers’s publicity strategy has focused extensively on exactly how hard Lopez worked. Video of Ramona’s full entrance isn’t available online except in bootlegs, but there’s a 13-minute documentary on YouTube showing Lopez learning to pole dance, showing all the blood and sweat that went into the scene.
And as Lopez rehearses, the camera keeps panning down her legs, but the subtext of the shot is not “oh, look how sexy.” It’s, “oh, look at all those bruises she’s getting from hanging the whole weight of her body by her knees off of a pole.”
“This is just as hard as anything I’ve ever learned,” Lopez tells the camera. “It might be one of the hardest. I’ve gotten cuts and bruises with movies before, but I’ve never been bruised like this.”
Hustlers is a movie about labor and about the labor that goes into Jennifer Lopez’s body. And part of what makes Lopez so good in this movie is that she brings with her decades of cultural baggage around her body, around all the ways pop culture has drooled over and fetishized her body, around all the ways we’ve flattened her image into nothing but a body without a person inside it.
Then Hustlers says, “Okay, now take that body seriously. Recognize the labor that goes into making this body. Recognize the capital that this body has made. Recognize that there’s a human being doing all of this, that there has always been a human being here, for the past 25 years.”
In response, the way we talk about Lopez’s body has changed. We’ve begun to talk less about her body as an object and more about the work her body does.
“Lopez’s work in Hustlers also allows her to showcase some impressive physicality,” writes David Canfield at EW. “Scafaria has a habit of just holding the camera on the actress while she performs, particularly in that grand entrance, which is as much a demonstration of strenuous body work as anything else. Lopez knows when to live in her character’s skin — she doesn’t ring a false note — and when to show her work.”
“She trained for months to pull off that show-stopping opening number,” says Empire Online. “She summons genuine warmth for a hardened entrepreneur driven by money. She delivers monologues with Scorsese-level finesse. This is a physically and emotionally demanding role, and she clears every hurdle without a sequin out of place.”
Hustlers seems to have freed Lopez from the discourse around her famous body by allowing Lopez and her body to become subjects rather than objects. The movie represents the opening of a new chapter in Jennifer Lopez’s career, and that’s why it’s so subversive.