Updated: Oct 6, 2019
Welcome to Sinner (Pt 2)! If you didn’t catch last week’s post you can do so here. We have a lot to cover so let’s get into the discussion of the film! Full spoilers ahead and all that jazz.
Like I shared last week, I view movies as an art form similar to music in the sense that they can elicit strong emotions, and that very much happened for me in this film.
One instance that got me emotional (in a good way) was a scene in which Destiny (Constance Wu) was being interviewed by a reporter (Julia Styles) and the topic of prostitution came up. Now, up until this point, the girls had all only stripped for money, but after the financial crises took their clients away, the movie shows that times got harder. The men were fewer and farther between and had much higher demands in terms of what the girls would need to do in order to get paid.
Destiny indicates that in order to get paid from a client in one situation she agreed to perform a sexual act and be compensated $300. The reality was however that she received $60 for giving a client a blow job.
This is when the movie went from ‘fun stripper movie’ to fully delivering on its potential based on how it handled the scene. You can almost feel the judgement coming from the reporter - which, I believe, is very intentional.
“What is your number?” Destiny asked.
“Excuse me,” said the reporter. Destiny was asking what amount of money would be the point where the reporter would perform a sexual service.
“I don’t…” the reporter started, but Destiny cuts her off by asking what her parents did. The reporter tells of her background being upper middle class with parents who have good jobs and definitely have some financial wealth, and Destiny basically ends the interview.
The scene is done so well because the sound completely cuts as we see the action unfold helping to illustrate how much trauma is associated with this situation for Destiny. This scene was so powerful for me because I empathized with Destiny in that moment for a few reasons. The first of which is trauma associated with sex, but in order to unpack that trauma we’ll need to talk about sex generally and how our society views it.
I tried to workshop some ways to start this section with a lighthearted joke because I know it will be heavy for some, but they were mainly all dad joke puns. So buckle up, Buttercup ‘cause we’re about to talk about some tough realities of life regarding sexuality.
I feel like there is a lot of evidence that sex in our society is one of the most taboo thing on the spectrum of bad things. I mean, we are 100% cool with terrible bloody, realistic violence in our movies, but God forbid you show thrusting during a sex scene. That is porn and that has no place in ‘acceptable’ movies. This makes sense that we would rank sex as worse than violence because violence, again for the back of the room, deadly and harmful to others, and the sex is pleasurable, healthy and a pretty normal part of most peoples lives. Yes, I mean, that definitely makes sense.
Take a look at our schools where fear of our own sexuality is contributing to little to no sexual education for children that includes ways to protect themselves from diseases that can stay with them for the rest of their lives, or help ensure they don’t a life they aren’t ready to take care of.
Nope - we let the belief systems of a group of people influence our public education system radically which has been proven to impact our birth rates, unplanned pregnancies, and the transfer of sexual diseases.
In short, we are hurting ourselves because our fear and shame associated with this particular sin. We’d rather pretend it isn’t there than face it for what it is, again for the back row, a very healthy and normal part of many peoples lives.
That’s not a mistake - this situation calls for Viola and her disapproval twice.
This scene with Destiny and the reporter hits me so hard because I’ve had a lot of sex in my life. That actually isn’t uncommon for gay men at all. The very standard explanation for this fact is that men are just more sexual than women, but having lived through the experience myself, I think there are many other factors at play. Now that I am in a loving relationship where I’m accepted and celebrated for who I am by my my partner, myself and others I feel like my previous sexual experiences were definitely tied to a severe lack of validation. No matter the reasoning for any of us who are on this side of the “too much” sex line, it marks us in a society that does not celebrate sexuality.
Back to the scene, the tension and judgment that is coming from the reporter is so palpable because I believe this movie understands all those aspects of our how society views sexuality. That crimes are bad yes, but sexual crimes? Those are bad and sinful.
Now, my traditional upbringing and traditional status quo outlook as a Christian would be to look at this person - someone who sells their body for money - as a sinner. The unfortunate thing, as I’ve been outlining so far, is that I see myself in Destiny so much.
In previous posts, I’ve referenced how much I have hated and despised myself for being gay. How I’d fall asleep at night crying and praying that I would be ‘normal’ when I woke up. How my inner voice told me constantly that I was ‘marked,’ or ‘other,’ and that at any moment, someone might find out and ruin me. It’s because of that experience and mindset, that I feel like I can empathize with Destiny in this moment that she is in. I can feel her experience the perceived judgement and shame from the reporter in this scene. It honestly doesn’t matter whether it is coming from a place of judgement or not on the reporter’s side - as was addressed later - because in that moment it is all that Destiny can feel whether it is just perceived or actual judgement. I have walked through so much of my life feeling those feelings myself and I couldn’t help but feel for Destiny here.
The other big piece of this scene is the concept of wealth. Destiny calls out that due to the reporter’s background, her ‘number’ that she’d be willing to exchange a sexual service for money is much much higher - if definable at all. While Destiny’s, due to what seems like a modest upbringing and responsibility of taking care of her grandmother, is much lower.
Again, my heart breaks for Destiny in this scene because ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, as they say.
When I was in the final steps of leaving my first job, I sat down one night in a pretty desperate state to write down my thoughts and create a plan. I had finally gotten up the nerve to ask for a raise to go from low $40Ks to the $50Ks (or more if at all possible), but was told ‘no’ and the ultimate outcome of the conversation was that I would need to look for another job.
I was in a state of what I would consider absolute financial panic. I had well over $80,000 in student loan debt and had ran up an additional $12K in credit card debt while working for the nonprofit at a starting salary of $35K, no benefits. Yeah - I was an idiot that made terrible decisions for my financial health. I unfortunately learned that lesson at about the same time that I discovered that choosing my passion had left me vulnerable, and that the concept of ‘it will all work out as long as you work hard’ wasn’t really panning out.
It wasn’t panning out because even though I was working very hard, it was clear that everything would not work out at the rate things were going. I was easily putting in 50+ hours a week at the nonprofit and almost always loving most of that time. The problem though is that over time and through an impossible pursuit to receive self validation through career and philanthropic success due to a broken self-image from growing up gay in a conservative/religious environment, I developed an extremely unhealthy work life balance. Again, I always did this happily with the positive assumption that things would work out. But when they weren’t working out and I asked for the help in the form of a raise, I felt everything go out from under me. I realized I never had a safety net at all, and that I was very much on my own.
With all that in the background, I sat down to journal out my thoughts, take an updated tally of my debts and identify what I needed to do to get everything under control. I titled the section of the journal “Project Save Lance” and it still has all those totals, all the interest associated with each loan, and all the credit card charge amounts. It also has my action plan for not only switching day jobs, but picking up side hustles. I was bracing for the fact that my salary at the time would hurt my chances of making too much more even in a corporate role due to how that process works.
That’s actually something that the movie calls out by showing Destiny not being able to get a job in retail due to not having retail specific experience. “How am I supposed get experience in retail if I can’t get a job in retail?” Yeah - we have all felt that feeling, or been there in some way.
Now, as someone that was already used to working 50-70 hours a week regularly, I felt I could probably take on a few extra side jobs given that the corporate gig I was looking for would probably be 40 hours a week. How bad could that be right?
Many of the ideas I had listed out like spin instructor, Favor driver, volunteer coordinator all became side hustles of mine, but some, including one that we’ll just call “entertainer” for the purposes of this blog, did not. That’s why I empathize with Destiny in this scene. I’ve felt that helpless and out of control feeling that folks without wealth face in this country on a very regular basis.
Now that we’ve talked through the film’s understanding of sexuality and sex as a service, let’s examine what it is saying about those two topics.
In my opinion, we see exactly what the film thinks about these topics from their portrayal of Romona. She’s the club’s top earner and is extremely good at using her sexuality to provide for herself and her child. The ‘crazy’ thing is, she likes it.
She never exhibits shame in the fact that she strips for money, pays for her designer clothes in all cash, or even takes matters into her own hands by drugging some guys that probably deserved it in most cases, to make a living.
The film also unapologetically portrays Romona as a very human and empathetic character. From the moment she is introduced she is shown to go out of her way to take Destiny under her wing, has strong relationships with everyone at the strip club they work at, and is providing an excellent living for her daughter. In many ways, Ramona is more likable than Destiny who is supposed to be the audience’s entry character and protagonist of the film.
In one of Ramona’s only ‘current’ day scenes she is being interviewed by the reporter writing the article and the film even goes as far as portraying Romana having very little but keeping a childhood picture of Destiny - aka the bitch who got her in trouble with the law - with her at all times. Ramona shows no signs of hostility towards Destiny at all, surprisingly, and states that she actively wishes she had met Destiny even after all that happened. Her only wish however is that they had met earlier in life. Maybe this is bordering on martyrdom for the character, but I think it works. Talk about getting female friendships right when there aren't many good examples of that in media, amiright ladies?
Ramona also delivers what I believe to be the movie’s major takeaway on wealth inequality in this scene as well (that’s 3 for 3 ladies, J Lo don’t play!) when she states that this whole nation is a hustle with some of us dancing and some of us throwing money. To me this reads as the movie shining a light on wealth inequality and how people like Destiny or Ramona who start with no wealth are at a severe disadvantage.
Folks like their clients - the predominantly straight, white men who were born into wealth - have a very real advantage in the world. The film though has already commented that the means of how they make their money “stealing fireman pension funds,” as Ramona says, is questionable at best. The difference is that sexuality and gender - two identities that can be tied to a lack of privilege - aren’t involved in those “hustles.” We might not been fine with the actions these ladies took against the men, but many of us have felt that feeling of not being able to get ahead financially due to living in a system that is stacked against us.
I can sympathize with people not picking up on these messages and commentary in the film because they are subtle. If you look at the description of the film, and even sit through it without feeling too much, you can walk away saying this is a sexy, silly, stripper movie. Which it totally is, and I LOVE it so much for that, but I also think it is saying some things that are pretty profound.
I actually think the subtly is a net positive for the movie because it doesn’t get preachy. They are able to get these messages in however by perfectly placed windows into emotion that are just the right height for their audience to look through and identify with these main characters. They do this throughout by presenting them as fully developed characters with hopes, dreams, and feelings who are up against some tough times.
A great example of that is in that same scene, where Ramona is being interviewed by the reporter. The film already showed that Ramona wasn’t perfect and makes mistakes with a big one being that she always sees the best in people. “Motherhood is a mental illness,” she says for a laugh. This mistake and weaknesses is nothing but relatable for many folks in the audience including myself. Basically, this movie wants you to think positively of Ramona, see her as human, and maybe even feel for her.
I mentioned in Sinner pt 1 that some folks are giving this movie negative reviews or criticisms because they believe that it glorifies the main character’s actions. Stepping aside from the misogyny in that comment that I discussed last time, lets just unpack what that statement is trying to say: that crimes are being glorified.
The thing is, I don’t believe the crimes were glorified in the way these folks believe they were. Yes, there were glamorous aspects of the hustle that these ladies were perpetuating, but that is the case with any successful crime portrayed in movies. The characters also all got punished with jail or probation time, meaning they were held accountable by the law. So then how were the crimes glorified, again?
Like I’ve already stated, I don’t think they are glorified at all. I do think that the people though, they were held up and presented as completely human. The film never presented them as criminals or mustache twirling villains. In fact, they purposely made the character that should have fit that bill, Lopez's Ramona, the most likable character in the film. They glorified the people, not the crime. You are feeling empathy for the characters as human, which we don’t do much at all in our society.
As I stated earlier - my upbringing and original worldview would have told me to label these ladies as sinners, and do all in my power to not be one. With my childlike outlook of the world, I truly believed that if I did everything right I would successfully not become a sinner. When that changed though, and I started to believe that I was in fact very much one of these so called ‘sinners', I did everything that I could to hopefully not let anyone find out how wrong I was.
I actively refer to this time in my life, and this type of feeling overall as my bargain store moment based on Dolly’s song Bargain Store (linked in case you want to listen while you read).
I very much connected with this song, because I also started to have these feelings that my mind, my time, my emotions were all second hand or damaged to some regard because of this feeling of ‘sinner’ inside me. I felt like my work and accomplishments could never measure up because at the end of the day, I was a just sinner after all. The most unfortunate part of this phase, and the part where I wouldn’t want other people to get to, is when I felt like parts of myself could be purchased.
I believe that Dolly understood this because she received a lot of judgement based on how she chose to present herself. While a majority of her messages were pretty pure, folks couldn’t get over the fact that she didn’t turn away from presenting her sexuality. If you have never watched her interview with Barbara Walters, it’s worth a look. Dolly presents a masterclass on composure and grace under fire while Barbara hurls societal judgements at her left and right starting around minute 9:
So much class, Dolly. In Barbara's defense, I think she was just asking the questions folks wanted to hear. If you keep watching until around 12:30 you'll hear some genuine human connection between these two ladies.
I think that is one of our big problems as a culture. When we feel wrong or ‘other’ we keep those feelings to ourself rather than let others see that we are hurting. We keep that truly authentic self hidden rather than put it forth so that we can receive validation without shame. It is in that process that we help perpetuate the trauma and even introduce more for others sometimes. We get to the point where we feel like that internal light that we all have gets turned off for whatever reason. As the movie says, ‘hurt people hurt people’, and we are all hurting in one way or another.
The problem is that even with self acceptance, personal work and self-care, we still face these pressures from the outside world to keep these sections closed off. Just because we are ok with and accept ourselves does not mean that everyone else will, and we live in a world that doesn’t have a lot of love to give for folks that are viewed as sinners unfortunately.
My mom recently tagged me on an Instagram post from Freedhearts. In the clip, Susan Cottrell talked about how parent’s reactions to coming out isn’t about their children, it is about themselves. This means that any hatred, negativity or lack of acceptance that the parent displays is in fact an internal issue that they need to work through on their own and has nothing to do with the child. Here's the link if you'd like to check out the full video
Luckily, I didn’t have to learn this lesson when I came out to my parents as they were very supportive relative to the situation, but this lesson is an important one in the life of any LGBTQ+ person. The lesson that the hate and toxicity of others towards you for something that you cannot change is due to an issue or imbalance in their own worldview, not because you deserve it.
I believe there is a lot of truth in that message for all of us whether we are gay or not. Some people have not really understood what I have meant in the past when I have said that many folks can find parallels with aspects of the gay experience if they look at their lives closely enough.
What I mean is that many, if not all, of us have aspects about who we are - whether it be our sexuality, the color of our skin, our religion, or our past, - that we cannot change, and for whatever reason the world wants us to repress that aspect of ourselves.
I’d challenge you to use your voice to make that aspect of who you are known and know that any negative or hateful reactions don’t have to do with your worth at all. Nope, not in the slightest.
Folks that have read a few of my posts will already know that I am all about idols or role models, and many of them have come in the form of successful female stars. I mean, I am gay after all. 😊
In all seriousness, this is a big part of gay culture in terms of idolizing or looking up to a Diva of some sort and wanting to emulate them - their independence, ability to speak for themselves authentically, appearance, or sexuality - in some way. A common thought is that we do this because we didn’t have many role models like us growing up and that female divas were the closet things we could find. That explanation definitely resonates for me as I’ve already displayed that Dolly is up there in terms of one of my life role models. The makeup and flashy clothes were similar to the layers and masks I would put on daily in order to get through life unnoticed.
I feel like this type of fandom can be helpful for all of us to push ourselves outside our comfort zones. It is definitely more likely that we can reframe and craft our way of thinking through immersing ourselves in a change, and it hard to change behavior when we don’t have anything to model after.
One more recent celebrity icon that I have gravitated to over the years, specifically on the topic of owning some of those feelings of being a ‘sinner’, is a drag queen named Willam:
By her own description on Twitter, William is a “Model/Actress/Mattress seeking gigs & validation,” and I think that paints a pretty good picture of who she is as an entertainer. She’s funny, irreverent, and does not shy away from her past in shame - specifically her experience as a sex worker - in any capacity. She was my entry point into drag and the empire that Ru Paul is building as she was my favorite character and reason for watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race for the first time starting with Willam’s season. Her brash humor and smart business sense really resonated with me as someone who felt like I had to maneuver and hustle for the success I had found at that point in my life.
The difference between us is that I really looked up to her complete confidence and complete lack of fucks to give for folks that were not featuring her. Granted, this is a common characteristic of many drag queens compared to the normal population. I mean, just think about how much extra stuff they have to put on to even give any form of this type of illusion! It’s really crazy to think how much they put up with and how long they stay in drag (full days, y’all) to make this happen. I also had a lot of respect for her creating a life and making a living doing something she loved.
At this point, Willam is making several very good livings being her unapologetic authentic self, and I love it. She is a branding genius (in my opinion), Youtube personality, successful performing drag queen with multiple tours, author, actress (A Star is Born!), and now has her own line of makeup. She is getting it hunties!!!!
But seriously, I am watching, learning and trying my best to be more confident in who I am past, present, and future, by following her lead. Those drag queen haters be damned with kisses and kindness.
You can support all of Willam's multiple hustles on her website.
I realize it isn’t easy to live authentically at all and that societal pressures, no matter what they are, really do make it tough to make sure that we are taking care of our true self. I have, however, found that it works better in numbers so here I am doing my best to practice what I preach. The hope is that if more of us ‘come out’ as sinners, maybe folks won’t turn to hurting themselves or others so much.
This next section might get a little too ‘woowoo’ spiritual for some of y’all, so, if you are feeling uncomfortable, just imagine that it is a campy performance from one of your favorite Diva’s.
That’s right folks, I’m calling out Dolly (Sia is in there too) to the stage to help with this one for anyone that wants to listen along to her song “Here I Am” while we finish out this blog:
If you for whatever reason feel as though you are dirty and wrong for something that is in your life, if you identify with being called ‘sinner’ whether you are religious or not, I really want you to know that I see you and that I am with you. I want you to know that your worth is not defined by the acceptance of others - whether that be for the way you make money, your gender, or where you are from - and that you have nothing to be ashamed of.
I also want you to know that you are more than welcome in the BraveNewLove community. The only catch is that you honor the mission of extending that same grace to others in an effort to create space for each of us to live authentically. The goal of this community is to help connect folks with others who will stand with them exactly where they are at and let them know that they are fully loved and accepted as is. Folks to fill that empty space in our hearts with kindness, warmth, and empathy. Us sinners in this world all have gone without understanding or love at some point, and we can offer each other strength by locking arms and building this BraveNewLove of our authentic selves together.
It takes so much bravery to love yourself just as your are in this world for so many reasons, but I believe it is our calling to do so. I want to stand with you in that journey and it has been my life experience that others do as well. So come, be authentically you and if you aren’t feeling that self love yet, my hope is that you will feel it from others until that light is back on.