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.