Big Money, Little Vision“Ocean’s 8” Serves Up a Marketplace Feminist Heist

OCEAN'S 8 - Official 1st Trailer

I should’ve loved Ocean’s 8. After all, I’ve published a series of feminist-heist novels about a multicultural group of women living in New York City and conspiring to rob the rich. In my books, female thieves use their stolen money to fund women’s health clinics, help strippers go on strike, and fight gentrification. Heist stories have the potential to be subversive because they’re ultimately about wealth redistribution, and women burglars get to be risk-takers instead of sex objects or victims. When women commit grand larceny, the potential to stick it to the patriarchy is great. But sadly, Ocean’s 8 failed to meet this mark. The star-studded cast delivered some great performances, but ultimately, the all-women team served up their heist with a side of marketplace feminism.

Bitch cofounder Andi Zeisler defines this kind of feminism as “depoliticized, decontextualized, and less about ensuring equal rights for women than about empowering them as consumers.” And Ocean’s 8 fits that bill by being more preoccupied with materialism and celebrity than creating change. When Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is released from prison, she organizes a team of top-tier criminals to steal a $150 million Cartier necklace from the annual Met Gala. She views incarceration as an irritating waste of time, like standing in line at an amusement park or waiting for a web page to load. She tells her team that prison food isn’t that bad, and she got “thrown in solitary for a little peace and quiet” to avoid overcrowding.

In reality, overcrowding can interfere with access to family visitation, and has been linked to an increased risk for communicable diseases, violence between prisoners and guards, as well as higher rates of suicide. Incarcerated women, especially poor women and women of color, are disproportionately harmed by mass incarceration, but Debbie blithely dismisses any impact prison might have on a woman’s life. For her, being imprisoned just represents a temporary loss of status.

But should a woman-led reboot have to contend with social issues? Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13 certainly didn’t. It has been 11 years since Ocean’s 13, the final installment of the previous trilogy, opened in theaters. At the time, America was facing rising unemployment rates, an approaching housing bubble, and a shrinking economy, so watching a slick group of wisecracking guys stealing from the wealthy to enrich themselves seemed like a fun romp. However, this same type of theft seems misguided in 2018, as immigrant families are being forcibly separated, women fleeing domestic abusers are being denied asylum in the United States, and legislation that purports to fight sex trafficking is endangering sex workers. The current political climate changes the kinds of heroism that many of us want to see.

As we watch Trump and the one percent pass harmful policies that line their pockets, I want to know that Debbie wouldn’t vote for him in 2020. But there was nothing in the movie that signaled her allegiance to any agenda beyond self-enrichment. For example, Nine Ball’s (Rihanna) sister is a science genius from the hood, but she doesn’t use any of her share to create opportunities for smart Brown kids with limited resources. Instead, she opens a bar with her name on it.

In my Justice Hustlers series, the protagonists are raised poor or working class, and are running a clinic for women in a gentrified neighborhood where everyone is struggling to survive. When opportunities arise to rob unscrupulous men who prey on women, they take them. Similarly, in the 1996 film Set It Off, the four women are struggling for economic opportunities, and can’t seem to catch a break. As Black women from the hood, they have shared interests beyond just taking a cut of the loot. These women, without power and authority, are grabbing it without remorse. But they also have relationships with each other that increase the stakes of pulling off successful robberies.

The star-studded cast delivered some great performances, but ultimately, the all-women team served up their heist with a side of marketplace feminism.

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Heist movies rely on relationships because people have to trust each other to steal together. The previous Ocean’s films showed a robust history between male robbers: In the original Ocean’s 11 (1960) film, Danny Ocean’s (Frank Sinatra) team served together in World War II. In the 2001 remake, the men bonded after orchestrating multiple cons and robberies. In Ocean’s 8, Debbie and Lou (Cate Blanchett) co-lead the team, but there’s not enough conflict in their relationship to make their collaboration interesting.

Ocean’s 8 has no romance or sex sub-plotlines, so there should’ve been a focus on the bonds between the female characters; instead, all of their relationships are essentially transactional. Debbie inherited the family business from her brother, Danny (George Clooney), by default, and she’s motivated to steal because she wants to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend by making him the fall guy for the heist. When Lou finds out, she confronts Debbie, they have a brief spat, and tension flares, but then it fizzles. There’s no power struggle, no intrigue, no escalation of tension, and certainly no twist.

The two women’s personalities aren’t written distinctly enough to sustain conflict. (The most fun take here is by E. Alex Jung in Vulture, who reads all the women as lesbians, but we like our queer characters written into the text—not just questionably into the subtext.)

Sandra Bullock, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, and Awkwafina in Ocean's Eight (Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures/Photo by Barry Wetcher)

In Ocean’s 11, Danny wants to rekindle his romance with his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts). We’re encouraged to root for them: We want Danny to get the money and get Tess away from the creepy casino owner. In Ocean’s 8, the romantic revenge plot is much shallower. Sure, Debbie wants to get back at the guy who betrayed her, but the story never lets us get invested in the intimacy of the relationship, so I never got invested in the revenge. Move on, girl, he’s not worth it. It’s as if Ocean’s 8 manages to replicate the various individual elements of what made Ocean’s 11 great, but never weaves them together with an intricately plotted collision of motivations, relationships, and hidden agendas.

Even when Debbie delivers the movie’s best line, “So whatever happens tonight, I want you to remember one thing. You’re not doing this for me. You’re not doing this for you. Somewhere out there is an 8-year-old girl lying in bed dreaming of being a criminal. Let’s do this for her,” she’s not standing in front of her team in a position of power. Instead, she’s applying mascara in a bathroom mirror as the team walks by in the background, barely paying her any mind.

Danny Ocean is a leader, bringing the young guys along, and luring the old guys out of retirement. Ocean is in his 40s, old enough to know the game, but still young enough to have the stamina to play it. When Clooney’s Ocean raises his eyebrows in dramatic lighting, we see the wrinkles in his forehead and when he smiles, we see the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. Being seasoned makes him more compelling.

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Hollywood allows female actors no such depth of character. So in Ocean’s 8, we have a crew of women who are all pressured not to look a day over 29. Visually, it disrupts the dynamic because no one can afford to look like the older, more-experienced con woman.

The biggest blow to the film’s female authority is the reveal that Debbie and Lou secretly hired Yen (Quin Shaobo) from Danny’s old team to execute a simultaneous heist of other jewels inside the Met. Yen’s extremely petite and flexible—characteristics that are typically feminine—as well as strong and acrobatic. The movie could’ve cast any number of women athletes or acrobats in the role but chose instead to bequeath power to a man. That particular twist, as well as an unusual scene with Nine Ball, makes me profoundly curious about the age and gender power dynamic between director Gary Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch.

Throughout the movie, Nine Ball wears loose clothes, baggy jumpsuits, and overalls—classic hacker attire. During the heist, however, she changes into a plush red dress to go into the Met. In the opening shot of her in the dress, the camera tightly focused on her crotch. It serves no purpose other than Ross showing off Rihanna and her $1 million legs.

Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean and Cate Blanchett as Lou in Ocean's 8 (Photo by Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

While the sexy-woman-distraction is one of my favorite heist tropes, the movie fails to provide context to Nine Ball’s sudden sexiness. What if Debbie had to distract some men, but she was too pale and skinny for their taste? What if she had to convince Nine Ball to sexy up for the job? What if Nine Ball didn’t want to? Voilà, there’s interpersonal conflict that adds depth to their relationship. But no such luck.

Perhaps audiences shouldn’t come into a summer blockbuster expecting subversiveness, and maybe Ocean’s 8 is really about just watching women steal stuff, but we’re in Trump’s America. What real-world crisis could writers use to get Debbie Ocean and her crew into some kind of economic trouble in the future? Unfortunately, the possibilities are endless. But as Hollywood continues changing, perhaps more women will be asked to write, direct, and develop other movies in the Ocean’s series.

These future movies still have the potential to remake the heist genre, so I’ll raise a martini to the hope that they might pull it off.

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by Aya de Leon
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Aya de Leon teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. Her feminist heist series from Kensington Books, Justice Hustlers, consists of UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018), and SIDE CHICK NATION in 2019 about the hurricane in Puerto Rico. She blogs and tweets at @ayadeleon & ayadeleon.com.