The glistening surface of the Magic Mike franchise seems to glorify hyper-masculinity: posters replete with straining bulges and protruding abs, dominant stances and douchebag hats. The most heavily-trailed scene sees Mike (Channing Tatum) hard at the traditionally masculine career he abandoned stripping for in the first film, dancing as he welds in his garage.
But these concerns are cast aside as soon as Mike reunites with his old entertaining buddies, the “Kings of Tampa”, for a road trip to Myrtle Beach to perform at a stripping convention: their “one last ride”. Once Mike is persuaded to join them, he is forced to leave behind all thoughts of his furniture-making business, as Richie (Joe Manganiello) chucks his work phone from the bus. Mike later responds by gathering up their old stripping outfits, equally symbolic of stereotypically macho pursuits: hurling firefighting and military uniforms onto the street. The trappings of traditional masculinity are quite literally thrown out of the window in the film’s opening minutes. We even learn, on the gang’s first stop, that “Big Dick” Richie (the guy with, surprise surprise, the biggest dick) is the one getting the least sex because women are so intimidated by his size. Magic Mike XXL frames patriarchal ideals of manhood as redundant when it comes to pleasing women, and therefore in satisfying heterosexual men themselves.
Much has been noted about Magic Mike XXL’s attention to the female gaze, which it does beautifully, especially when Richie performs in a service station for a bored cashier: the camera turning from her eyes, to his body, and back again. But, for better or worse, this is a film that devotes even more time mediating on the ways in which attention to the female gaze can be satisfying, liberating, and even redemptive, for the male “object”.
Richie introduces the road trip to Mike, and the audience, as a spiritual journey: “Tomorrow we start the pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach for the convention!” That the destination of this journey, the site of communion with the divine, is a sweaty Florida convention hall thick with women’s bodies, makes women the unequivocal subject of devotion. The male entertainers in Magic Mike don’t just serve women in their performances – they deify them. As Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), their MC, calls to the crowd: “Are you ready to be worshipped? Are you ready to be exalted?”
This extends beyond the stage: attention to female desire is given narrative prominence. Like on any good pilgrimage, the male entertainers are periodically faced with obstacles which their sheer devotion can help them overcome. The key hurdles on the road to Myrtle Beach require the men to charm, pleasure and persuade women in positions of power. They obtain a car from Nancy (Andie McDowell) after spending an evening with her and her friends, exploring their sexual fantasies. Mike impresses host Rome enough for her to step in as MC, and charms Paris (Elizabeth Banks) into giving them a high profile slot at the convention. The men often break off from their journey to try and “make women smile”, simply for the joy of it. “All we gotta to do is ask them what they want,” says Andre (Donald Glover), “and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing”. It’s a simple principle that they apply without discrimination to every woman they meet on their journey. Black, white, thin, fat, tall, short, confident, shy: all women are treated simultaneously as equals and individuals. “Yes, my God is a she,” Mike says casually.
This is a film that explicitly and repeatedly frames attention to female desire as a near-religious act. But perhaps what makes Magic Mike XXL so radical is that the male entertainers are not demeaned or humiliated by their service to women: they, too, are “exalted” by it. Their pilgrimage finally sees the extent of their devotion reciprocated by a thunderous crowd of screaming women and a shower of dollar bills. Give, and it shall be given unto you.
Sexual devotion is a mutual, fluid exchange, and, in these scenes, it lifts both the male entertainers and their audience to a higher spiritual status than most mere mortals. “You are all queens,” Rome tells the convention hall crowd. As the famous medieval religious poem, Pearl, tells us: in heaven (or, indeed, South Carolina), all women can simultaneously be Queen, thanks to the mysterious power of divine love. “We’re like healers or something,” says Andre.
So, while it might seem excessive to compare Magic Mike with Jesus… Magic Mike is basically Jesus. He is, after all, a carpenter who lays his tools aside to feed the 5,000-strong crowd of greedy women waiting to get their rocks off at Myrtle Beach, loving each of them indiscriminately, unconditionally. As the XXL poster so playfully suggests, this film is his second coming. The reunited Kings of Tampa even rename themselves “Resurrection”, for Christ’s sake.
It’s true that Magic Mike XXL is a film with its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek. But after decades of cinema that treats men like gods for viewing women as objects, it’s heartening to see a film that glorifies men for treating women like gods.
Now listen to Anna discussing Magic Mike on the NS pop culture podcast: