The American Dream, as most of us think about it today, can be subject to a variety of interpretations.
In the mind of President Donald Trump, the notion of writing your own destiny is something like a no-holds-barred “Hunger Games” scenario: pitting people – such as immigrants and the poor – against one another to scrap over the same small piece of pie as the rich enjoy their own bounty.
On the left, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders seek to radically re-imagine what a structurally lopsided country owes its poorest. This approach is also adversarial – ostensibly taking from the rich and giving to the poor. But it’s a corrective, moored in the acknowledgment that things have been rigged largely in favor of the privileged few from the start.
It’s this second, more complicated vision of the American Dream that’s reflected in recent, eye-catching pieces of cinema and television.
Lorene Scafaria’s superb, ripped-from-the-headlines crime drama “Hustlers” follows a squad of New York City strippers looking to stay afloat after the 2008 recession shrinks their stock of big-time Wall Street customers. Showtime’s trenchant dark comedy “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” set in the early 1990s, charts the exploits of Kirsten Dunst’s character as she desperately attempts to prevent her life from being swallowed whole after she’s caught in the web of a multilevel-marketing scheme.
The works arrive at a time of growing economic precariousness: 6 in 10 Americans believe that another downturn is on the horizon, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. And the US Census Bureau just released data showing that income inequality in America is at an all-time high since the agency has been tracking it.
The two pieces also coincide with the return of grifter season.
But unlike some of today’s more elite-focused con stories – Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, Caroline Calloway and her Instagram yarns, the college admissions scandal – “Hustlers” and “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” shed light on a less glamorous spectrum of America’s class regime; on how people in the underclass sometimes scam because the system wasn’t fair to begin with.
“The whole country is a strip club,” says Jennifer Lopez’s character in “Hustlers.” “You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.”
What better way to describe the at-times caustic relationship between America’s haves and have-nots – or, in today’s vernacular, between the 1 percent and the 99 percent?
But instead of paring their stories down to straightforward morality plays of good-versus-evil, both “Hustlers” and “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” nurture empathy for the hoaxers by interrogating their motives without letting them off the hook when their ambitions go awry.
“I won’t be poor again,” Dunst’s character says. As with the stripper crew of “Hustlers,” Dunst’s single-mother character isn’t initially fueled by greed. Rather, she’s just scrambling to pay off the massive debt her late husband has left behind.
It’s crucial to underscore that both stories have women at their centers. These characters are buffeted relentlessly by sexism, fitting with a broader contemporary pattern that investigates the lingering consequences of that discrimination.
“Discrediting women based solely on their gender, sexually harassing them, and reducing them to their f***ability endures today from the school yard to the boardroom in part because this was, writ large, ubiquitous and accepted behavior in the 90s,” the journalist Allison Yarrow writes in her 2018 book, “90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality,” which explores a decade that “was supposed to be the modern era.”
Both works run counter to Trump’s aforementioned version of the American Dream. They illuminate the hand – sometimes hidden, other times not – tipping the other, wealthier side of the scale while the have-nots, well, hustle. (As Sanders recently tweeted: “Most people work hard, they tell the truth, they pay their taxes. Trump does the opposite.”)
That “Hustlers” and “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” confront the crosshatching ways the economy and gender operate – often to women’s disadvantage – as well as what agency means in this particular context, is what makes them feel vital and fresh.
“There’s a theme of control that runs throughout the movie, and I didn’t want to make any bones about it – I wanted that to be very clear,” Scafaria told Vulture about “Hustlers.” “When we have it, when we don’t. Even when we’re empowered, it doesn’t mean we’re in control.”
While both plots can be devastating in their portrayals of how unjust America’s institutions are, they’re not completely devoid of hope. That’s because even when you suspect that things on screen won’t go exactly according to the characters’ plans, you still detect power in the fact that these women are bucking, however briefly, a system that wasn’t created with them in mind.