With Magic Mike, Hollywood has become an equal opportunities objectifier

This film leaves you craving character development as much as cock shots.

Last Thursday evening, we went to see Magic Mike. Being the easily influenced young things that we are, we saw the posters, and the five star reviews from the likes of the Telegraph, and thought "hey, a film about male strippers. Finally."

We’re lying. Our editor made us go to see it. We’re glad she did, though, because otherwise we’d have continued to imagine a film entirely different from the reality. From the looks of the advertising campaign, we were expecting the kind of gross-out sexual American comedy that has been doing the rounds since American Pie, except one that was targeted at women this time (a bit like Bridesmaids, except with full frontal male nudity perhaps?) But we were wrong - there’s not a cock in sight.

The film follows Mike (played by Channing Tatum), a thirty-year-old male stripper with thwarted dreams of becoming an artisan furniture maker, as he initiates his young protégé Adam (Alex Pettyfer) into the world of exotic dancing. As the film progresses, Mike struggles with his identity while trying to win the heart of Adam’s sister, Brooke, played by Cody Horn in a manner which brings to mind the old Dorothy Parker zinger that "she ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." Brooke isn’t down with the whole stripper lark, and as a result is played as your classic, uptight frigid woman. But in the end (spoiler alert), Mike’s pecs get the better of her, and after he has a good cry in his car, he renounces stripping and wins over the woman he loves.

Magic Mike is not a romantic comedy. The film is essentially, like many that have come before it, a "bromance". And that’s fine. It examines male friendship and ideas of masculinity, albeit through the medium of interpretive dance. Because what these men are doing on stage, essentially, is dancing. The nudity is simply a by-product of that. As Elizabeth Greenwood pointed out in deeply analytical article in the New Inquiry, "the stripping is a cross between burlesque and a community theatre production of Anything Goes," which is a fair statement, although the sophistication of the props, costume and scenery belies the kind of budget of which community theatre projects can only dream.

The stripping scenes, in fact, are the only entertaining aspects of this film. Not because we particularly enjoyed eyeing up the toned, muscular bodies of the actors (and boy, were they ripped), but because they are well co-ordinated, inventive, and played wholly for laughs. The same article in the New Inquiry points out how filmic attempts to portray the experiences of female strippers will often be steeped in tragedy and allusions to childhood abuse, drug use, and poverty, while male stripping is viewed as merely hilarious. Again, it’s a fair point, but the same article also posits the idea that Magic Mike is an allegory critiquing capitalism. If it is, it must have got lost amongst all the backless thongs.

The men in Magic Mike do not for one moment relinquish their control. Instead, they act as the strong, powerful, masculine vessels for the fantasies of the screaming women in the audience. The men pick the women up and hump their crotches with their faces, and then they lie them down and hump their faces with their crotches. It really is little more than that.

We could, of course, jump on our feminist soapboxes and yell about how there is a disparity in the way male and female sex workers are portrayed. There is. But there is also a disparity in the way both those industries operate. This is also not a feminist reversal of Pretty Woman - Mike is not waiting to be rescued. Nor is he exploited - he’s just a man who is down on his luck who takes his clothes off for some extra cash. The only feminist beef to be had with this film is some slightly unsavoury scriptwriting. In one scene, when Mike is trying to get Brooke to come on a trip with him, he pats his lap and whistles. "Are you calling me like a dog?" she says, then giggles. It’s not great.

It is pointless trying to ascribe a deeper meaning to this film. It is, essentially, a succession of semi-naked dance routines interspersed with a loose, somewhat tedious narrative. The lack of full-frontal nudity has led it to be called "surprisingly innocent" by some critics, and we’d have to agree. Yet we craved character development as much as we craved cock shots, and sadly Mike, the hunky male stripper with a heart of gold, gets neither. Channing Tatum plays the buff, chiselled hunk that presumably an audience of women and gay men have paid to see, and his personality really does not extent beyond that. It is on that point that we have to fully part ways with the New Inquiry’s analysis. Elizabeth Greenwood longs to see a film in which a female stripper is "more than the sum of her silicone", yet in light of the fact that Mike’s defining characteristic seems to be his six pack, it seems that Hollywood may well be on its way to becoming an equal opportunities objectifier.

 

Channing Tatum in action as Mike, the male stripper with a heart of gold. Image: Warner Bros.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser