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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA