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.