In 2020, with another financial crisis looming on the horizon, the US culture industry has appropriately mythologized the 2008 financial crisis—and the soundtrack slaps. Consider how two films that directly represent the financial crisis, The Big Short (2015) and Hustlers (2019), use their soundtracks to place the audience back in the mindset of 2008. In a truly hysterical scene in The Big Short, Michael Burry (played by Christian Bale) bets against the housing market to the tune of Ludacris’s “Money Maker.” Hustlers does such a good job placing us in that era with music that the crash itself hardly needs introduction. Constance Wu’s character, Destiny, narrates the film. All she has to say is, “The last great night that I remember….”, and we cut to Lizzo in a fluffy bucket hat saying “motherf***ing Usher is here.” Circa 2008 Usher comes out; yes, the real Usher. As the strippers dance to “Love In This Club,” the audience knows it is all over. 2008 Usher is like a harbinger of doom. Early 2000s club music so viscerally conjures the feelings of the financial crisis, the careless hedonism of Wall Street, that (Crank That) Soulja Boy is this generation’s version of the Charleston.
These two films have one other motif in common—the figure of Lady Credit. She is a motif that scholars of the eighteenth century will well recognize, once they can place her. The Big Short is an irreverent dramatization and breakdown of the financial crisis. Hustlers is a sensitive portrayal of a true story of women in New York drugging men and running up bills at strip clubs in order to make money during the recession. Despite differences in style and tone, both films rely on the image of the exotic dancer, the beautiful woman, to tell the story of the crash. This figure is essentially a modern-day resurrection of the eighteenth-century character Lady Credit.
Of all the strange and wonderful fictional figures of the eighteenth century, the figure of Lady Credit has a special way of capturing the imagination. The essayist Joseph Addison depicts her in The Spectator as perched on a gold throne, turning everything to money with her touch, and “in the twinkling of an Eye, she would fall away from the most florid Complexion, and the most healthful State of Body, and wither into a Skeleton. Her Recoveries were often as sudden as her Decays.” Like a Tim Burton-esque parrot, Lady Credit occasionally molts into a skeleton as an allegory for the increasingly volatile and complex nature of credit in the British financial system of the 1700s. Authors like Daniel Defoe will reach for Lady Credit—along with other metaphors about women as coins and commodities—in the aftermaths of another disastrous financial crash: The South Sea Bubble. The South Sea Bubble refers to the South Sea Company, a joint-stock company founded in 1711 and granted a monopoly over the “South Sea” slave trade. Rife with insider trading, the company’s stocks ballooned and then crashed in 1720. The crash ruined investors, harmed the national economy, resulted in new laws to prevent a reoccurrence, and led authors like Defoe to question the notion of value itself.
Lady Credit is a misogynistic depiction, particularly in her flagrant sexuality and vaporous hypochondria as well as in the suspicion with which male figures court her. However, she is also a powerful figure, and the tension between her power and her position as a misogynistic fantasy is never resolved. For instance, consider the scene in The Big Short when Michael Baum (Steve Carrell) realizes there is a housing bubble. He follows an overly cheerful realtor explaining there is a “gully” to a mortgage broker (the delightfully smarmy Max Greenfield) who explains that loans never get rejected: “I’m a yield guy—I make 2,000 on a fixed-rate prime, but I can make 10,000 on a subprime adjustable. Trust me, I’m not driving a 7 series without strippers.” Michael Baum then heads to a strip club, where a woman dancing to Kelis’ “Milkshake” explains, “I have five houses and a condo.” Baum approaches Lady Credit with equal parts desire and disgust. He is not there to see her strip, but rather to see her financial history laid bare. Like Addison’s Lady Credit, The Big Short’s Lady Credit can turn everything (at least for Max Greenfield’s character) into money—for a time. Baum’s horror as he realizes the stripper is emblematic of a catastrophic housing bubble is mingled with his uncomfortable desire for her as she dances for him.
Hustlers, unlike The Big Short is not interested in portraying finance bros of any kind as heroes, and the movie offers viewers more in the way of three-dimensional female characters. Yet the main characters, all strippers in New York, still function as Lady Credit figures within the logic of the film. They are like sirens, luring male victims to a doom of drug-fueled shopping. Their fortunes rise and fall with the stock market almost perfectly, making them barometers for the growth and bust of the housing market bubble. Hustlers also features dazzling shopping montages. We may feel no sympathy for these Wall Street men the women seduce (with one possible exception), but through sheer repetition, we begin to associate the health of our financial systems with the excessive and frivolous shopping habits of the main characters.
Just as in the eighteenth century, these films displace our fears about the volatility of the capitalist system onto the individual consumer choices of women. We are seduced by these women at the same time as we feel fear and anxiety at their imprudent choices. The decisions of millions of Americans to live beyond their means is given the shorthand of a single Florida stripper owning five houses and a condo. The greed of handfuls of rich, powerful, white men on Wall Street is turned into a story about strippers luring men to their financial ruin over the pursuit of black escalades and red-soled Louboutin shoes. When we tell the story of 2008, when we conjure the aesthetic we associate with that moment in our history, we reach for strippers and Usher. The trauma of 2008 is allegorized and inscribed upon the bodies of Black R&B artists and working-class women. Just as in the eighteenth century, the metaphors we use to talk about capitalism is enacted by the people most marginalized and victimized by its system. As we careen toward another “gully,” maybe we can reach for less tired metaphors.
Katherine Nolan received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago in 2020. She teaches high school in Tacoma, WA. Her research interests include the novel and female authorship in the long eighteenth century.