With just days left of 2019, I’ve started reflecting on the past year. And to be frank, it’s been a tough one. From the racist that continues to run this country, to the beginning of the 2020 Democratic Race, to the less serious decision to make Cats into a film (something no one asked for, I’m looking at you cat Jason Derulo). But there is one person that gave us everything we needed this year – Jennifer Lopez.
This year Lopez, a goddess living among us mortals, is finally getting the proper respect and recognition she deserves thanks to her role in Hustlers. Not that her career hasn’t been noteworthy thus far. Spanning two decades, Lopez has gone from a backup dancer for New Kids on the Block, to Jenny from the Block, to a leader of our cultural zeitgeist.
Now I’m not just saying this as a mere fan, JLo and I are friends. We first met after my 7th birthday party after my uncle introduced us. Okay we’re not friends. To be real, I only know the off-brand Barbie version of Jennifer Lopez as Selena. As soon as I took her out of the box, I remember Lopez, even in doll form, kind of intimidated me. Her outfit was perfect, with her iconic purple sparkly romper, matching lipstick, and think silver hoops. I mean it takes a confident person to pull off a sparkling purple romper, and at age 7 I thought she was the epitome of hip Latina glamour. She was my first and only Latina Barbie.
Fast forward to me at 13, my mom let me watch a PG-13 romantic comedy called The Wedding Planner starring Matthew McConaughey (with glasses) and Jennifer Lopez. I loved this movie, not because it took place in my home town of San Francisco or had a particularly moving script (nothing special) but specifically because of Jennifer Lopez herself. To this day, I still will sometimes pick the brown M&Ms first because “Chocolate’s already brown.” She was smart, intelligent, and was allowed to be more than just the “sexy Latina sidekick” – she was the lead. And while the film doesn’t quite pass the Bechdel test, it did give me one of my earliest memories watching a Latina as the lead role in a mainstream movie, much less a rom com (my mom hadn’t let me watch Selena yet, unsure why).
For much of her career, Jennifer Lopez was given roles that didn’t embrace her whole identity. From Maid in Manhattan to The Wedding Planner to Gigli to Monster in Law, Lopez was regulated to roles where someone decided last minute to hire a woman of color or where her ethnicity played a backseat. And it is not because she wasn’t a talented actress, roles for Latinas in Hollywood were scarce. The roles she took were for more than just the maid or sexy sidekick, the movies she chose placed her at the center no matter the narrative (I argue this is true even in Maid in Manhattan). While these films were never nominated for a Golden Globe like Selena, they were the films consumed by the masses and gave her a hold in American pop culture. The truth is Lopez knew the game of Hollywood and she played it well. She knew what studies show us now: Latinx actors represented only three percent of lead or co-lead roles in top-performing movies and only three percent of producers and casting executives were Latinx during the last 12 years. With every role, not only did Lopez know she was a star, she knew all she had to do was put in the work and wait.
Her role in Hustlers cements her journey to icon, one that began with her role as Selena in 1997. Selena personified the potential she had as an actress in her twenties, one connected to her identity and portrayed her dedication to her craft. She’s more than an actress – she’s a triple threat, singing and dancing, even starting her career as a backup dancer for Janet Jackson. These threats magically align for Lopez in Hustlers.
Hustler’s Ramona is fully aware of what society expects of her and is fully capable and willing to subvert it. She uses her invisibility as a stripper as a tool to trick and manipulate the entitled white men of Wall Street – a smart and strategic subversion of the male gaze. This story written and directed by Lorene Scafaria proves what happens when you give women control on and off screen: individual, complex human characters.
And Ramona is that character. A woman completely in control of her own legacy, a woman without a romantic interest, deeply committed to her daughter, and a palpable matriarchal energy. Lopez gives this character grit, nuance, and warmth in a way no other actress could. The role of Ramona and Lopez’s portrayal of her embodies an energy for 2019. Two years after the #MeToo Movement came into mainstream consciousness, three years after the country elected a man accused of sexual misconduct by 25 women, women’s voices continue to be ignored at best or worse silenced. In the financial crisis of 2008, white men abused their power while destroying the lives of everyday people. In Hustlers, Ramona takes charge and became the avatar for 2019, because in a system never designed for women, watching her manipulate toxic and powerful men is the ultimate therapeutic remedy we need.
More importantly, this movie proved a film that centers a group of female characters, especially one led by a Latina no less is not only viable but successful. Hustlers produced $33.2 million at the box office, making it not only a critical favorite but a commercial success. Hustlers has received over 40 nominations, including two prestigious nominations for Lopez: a Golden Globes Best Supporting Actress nomination and a SAG Award Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role. Since the film’s release the Oscar buzz around Lopez for her role as Ramona continues.
Very few actresses maintain a presence in our culture for thirty plus years, but that’s what Lopez has done. Jennifer Lopez invented a space for herself in a culture that never took her seriously, that gave her roles that lacked depth. Too much of her talent was spent on films that believed women’s worth is in either giving or receiving romantic love. Still as a Latina, Lopez took that narrative head on, beating white female actors at their own game and showing that brown girls are worthy of love too. Because if there is one thing Jennifer Lopez is not, it’s a quitter. I like to think that while Lopez might not have seen this future for herself, she manifested it. Not just for herself but for many Latinas and future generations to come.
Just this month, Lopez hosted SNL and in a skit entitled “Hoops,” she and Melissa Villaseñor took one of the whitest stages on television and made something just for us. This summer Lopez took to the runway in a dress she had made famous in 2000 nearly 20 years ago. And in 2020, she is scheduled to play the Superbowl alongside another icon Shakira. Lopez has played a maid, a sidekick named Ricki, the Queen of Tejano music, a wedding planner, even served as a judge on American Idol. Lopez never settled she pushed herself reinventing her identity, her story, and creating a space in Hollywood all her own all while challenging a system and a culture that never wanted her in the first place. Jennifer Lopez is an American icon and she owned 2019.