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10 February 2023

Magic Mike’s hollow feminism

This “empowering” franchise about male strippers peddles an offensive, patronising narrative about women and sexuality.

By Ann Manov

I’ll admit: I’ve never been one for the Magic Mike movies. But many people, apparently, have. The first two instalments of this comedy drama series concerning a group of male strippers in Tampa, Florida – Magic Mike (2012) and Magic Mike XXL (2015) – have grossed around $300m. Magic Mike’s Last Dance, which stars Salma Hayek alongside Channing Tatum in his third appearance as Mike, is a strong contender to top the box office over the Super Bowl weekend. The film franchise has also spawned a titillating dance show in London, Magic Mike Live – there are ten shows a week in 2023, and tickets sell for upwards of £50. And not only is Magic Mike a hit: it is critically adored, too. Yes, the teeming masses are watching it while drunk on Franzia with the girls, but not to worry – it’s actually good.

Admittedly, Magic Mike might really be on the intellectual side of the current cinema landscape: a recent multiplex visit reminds me that this spring’s big releases include Dungeons and Dragons with Hugh Grant and Super Mario with Anya Taylor-Joy. But still, I find the protestations of director Steven Soderbergh’s genius to be a little absurd. Yes, Soderbergh directed Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), the definitive suburban narrative of weirdos on the fringe. But in the three decades since then, Soderbergh’s films have included copious Hollywood heists (the Ocean’s trilogy) and even more numerous failed or forgotten works. (Did you know he directed three movies released during Covid?)

Hailing myself from the sleazy Sunshine State, I first met strippers as a teenager, at a party a porn company hosted at the Manalapan Ritz Carlton in Palm Beach. The girls were complaining that Spearmint Rhino had offered 2-for-1 lap dances that week – they’d danced so much they’d acquired abscesses in their thighs, so big they could stick their finger in them. (They got in the hotel pool anyway.) They needed dental work. It didn’t strike me as an enjoyable life. The sexy, lucrative world of Hustlers might exist for some – but not many.

This fantasy world is the promise of Magic Mike. The paper-thin plots of these films are – of course – an excuse for athletic striptease sequences. None of these strippers looks anything less than gorgeous, healthy, all-American specimens ready for the brightest stage lights at strip clubs that seem a lot less depressing and a lot more sanitary than any I know. For all their ostentatious thrusting, the dance sequences are oddly sexless. Any gestures towards gritty authenticity ring hollow. (The young stripper gets addicted to ecstasy? South Florida, years into the opioid epidemic, and he’s addicted to ecstasy? Come on.) Yes, realistic strippers who look and act unwell might be a lot to ask of a fun blockbuster film – but then we might withhold the panegyrics about Soderbergh’s supreme realism.

This effect – the low-stakes, safe, almost innocent feel of Magic Mike – stems from a more fundamental problem. Male strippers simply aren’t particularly interesting. The most unique trait possessed by Tatum’s Mike is that he’s into mid-century furniture. It tells us something crucial about modern America that it is densely littered with sticky, low-rent, warehouse-like buildings where men – often meth-addicted truck drivers – pay to watch extremely poor near-naked women dance, or more, in eight-inch heels for pocket money. It says something significantly less interesting that a certain type of silly woman, on her 21st birthday or hen party, might pay to watch men with six packs and neckties perform synchronised dance routines.

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[See also: Best books of the year]

Magic Mike’s Last Dance begins, like the others before it, with a limp and generic nod to the fallout of the American dream. Mike has lost the furniture business and girlfriend he spent the first two films in pursuit of, and is now a private bartender in Miami. As one might expect, we’re swept up by the glamour of the city: a fundraiser at a palatial mansion on glittering Biscayne Bay. We hear women whisper that Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek), separating from her wealthy husband, is “pathetic”. Maxandra sits at the bar and asks Mike why everyone’s staring. “I guess people like to look at what they can’t have,” he tells her, and she stares at him meaningfully before saying: “I guess.”

Soon, she’s paying him $6,000 to strip for her in the hopes that it will “take her mind off the divorce”. After an acrobatic and extremely long strip sequence, Max offers Mike $60,000 to fly back to London with her and work a mystery job for a month. The job involves getting revenge on and recovering money from her cheating ex by hijacking the historic theatre his family owns in the city. It stages an always-packed Regency drama called “Isabel Ascendent”, about a woman choosing between marrying for love or money. Maxandra wants to stage a strip show instead. “Why should she have to choose?’ she says. “I want every woman walking into this theatre to feel like she doesn’t have to choose.” Soderbergh has said that his plot was inspired by attending Magic Mike Live in London – Last Dance feels like little more than a cynical feature-length advertisement for the real-world stage show.

In a bizarrely administrative plot twist, Max’s ex-husband exploits London’s listed building laws to stop the essential renovations needed to platform the show – and so strippers and divorcees must come together to secure planning permission from a council chair. The chair in question, Edna (portrayed by Victoria Pepperdine as a dowdy old woman in a wool coat, cloche hat and oversized glasses), is single and living alone, with no hobbies. She is, therefore, “basically a ghost”. Mike suggests the boys remind her of who she was before she became a miserable bureaucrat; strippers load on to her commuting bus and perform a private striptease for her. Of course, she ditches her glasses, combs out her hair and grants the proper approvals. Empowered and more alive than ever, Edna attends opening night. In this climactic, elaborate sequence, she rapturously applauds before she is flipped on her back by an enthusiastic dancer. Oh, and Mike and Maxandra end up together.

If this all sounds a bit ridiculous – it is. At best, it’s idiotic to pretend that a male dance routine can bestow upon women even fleeting freedoms. (For all the script’s pronouncements that a strip show can teach women that they “don’t have to choose”, Maxandra ultimately does have to pick between love and money – hence why she’s living in utter fear of losing her wealth in divorce.) At worst, it encourages a deeply offensive dismissal of the real strictures placed upon women’s lives by age, status and sexuality.

Again and again, the film shows a version of female psychology so enfeebled and unfamiliar that I’m left dumbstruck trying to imagine who identifies with it. Take the line, “I guess people like to look at what they can’t have”. At risk of stating the obvious, heterosexual female desire is not about paying to gaze at chiselled, hairless, gyrating men – it’s about being desired by them. It’s not about looking at the man you can’t have; it’s about being looked at by the man you can.

Quite apart from its leaden mottos such as “the sexiest act of submission is to ask for permission”, it is this that makes the film’s “female empowerment” narrative fall so utterly flat. It’s simply not empowering to pity single, older women – let alone to play them for cheap laughs. It’s a risible male fantasy that these women (poor Edna!) would see these strip shows as anything other than a humiliation; a reminder of their lost power of seduction. The film implies women over a certain age can only hope to find excitement in their lives by bagging a younger man – or paying to watch one undress. Despite Hayek’s media-friendly quotes about how “empowering” her casting was, one can’t help but notice that she looks remarkably young and beautiful for her 56 years (or indeed any age). I’m not sure that her casting, or that of Jennifer Lopez in Shotgun Wedding or Julia Roberts in Ticket to Paradise, is really making aging women feel any better: if anything, it’s making them feel hopelessly inadequate.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance has at least some humour, and it’s fun to watch such ambitious dance scenes. But the central message of the film – that older women are pathetic, especially if ugly – is not sexy, not dangerous, and not intriguing. It’s merely predictable and gross.

“Magic Mike’s Last Dance” is in cinemas now

[See also: Frank Turner interview: “Stop asking musicians about politics”]

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere