Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
When can you officially declare a group of films representative of a genre? Regardless, I’m staking a claim that there is a genre of films devoted to the lives of strippers. Mind you, many of these films are on the Razzie Awards but director Steven Soderbergh hopes to change all that with his beefcake-laden dance movie Magic Mike. The problem with Soderbergh’s film in comparison to films featuring female strippers is that it showcases male stripping as a world of male camaraderie and fun as opposed to female-centered stripfilms that rely on consequences and maternal responsibilities. In analyzing Magic Mike with other films that feature females a disturbing thesis is shown meant to re-establish the gender trope that male sexuality isn’t exploitable but used to climb the social ladder to a better life.
***THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS ON MAGIC MIKE***
As evidenced by Magic Mike’s impressive box office, the movie is striking a chord with audiences; specifically women. Magic Mike is a film that welcomes the female gaze, allowing women to gaze on men as sexual objects. Films today generally look through the eyes of the male character looking at female characters and it’s rare to find a movie that turns the trope around. The last film and a seminal film in the argument of the female gaze, to emphasize this is the 1991 film Thelma & Louise. Ridley Scott’s film of women gone rouge opened up the world of the female gaze with the handsome drifter character J.D. (Brad Pitt). That film allowed women to look at a man sexually, through the eyes of a female character, specifically Geena Davis’ Thelma. The ads for Magic Mike have emphasized the nude flesh of its male cast and in watching this film with an audience comprised of 97% female you’d think you were in a strip club. Because movies today relegate women to “girlfriend” or other sex object it’s easy for women to get complacent about watching films and yet Magic Mike got a visceral reaction of hollers and cat-calls when I went. If anything Magic Mike opens the doors to other directors and screenwriters putting women in the lead roles to objectify men.
Yet that’s not to say that Magic Mike is a ground-breaking film for female audiences; it’s not. If anything Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin push an agenda of asserting traditional gender roles for men, regardless of a profession that is predominantly female. In Magic Mike the men of Xquisite are friends. They party together, get into foursomes with each other (there are women there as well) and generally have fun seen in other male-centric movies. There’s a sense of camaraderie and in a profession where the most talented/attractive/ripped male gets the most cash….there’s zero competition between them. Each man has his own set of skills or fantasy he can perpetuate (firefighter, Tarzan) which makes each talented in his own way. This is a far cry from female-based stripper films where competition between women is the norm. Take the 1995 Paul Verhoven film Showgirls. In that film a female dancer breaks another dancer’s leg on stage in order to gain a leg up on the competition. The lead character Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), the woman you’re meant to find heroic, pushes her competition down the stairs nearly killing her! Where the moral of Magic Mike is knowing when to walk away and having fun with the boys, Showgirls’ is summed up best by character Cristal Conners (Gina Gershon) as “There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.”
As if female based strip films don’t already seek to estrange women from each other, the idea of stripping in these films is seen as ugly or exploitative. Channing Tatum’s Mike in the Soderbergh film sees stripping as a way to make money to finance his own business ventures. He considers himself an “entrepreneur” and it’s not until he meets his love interest that he sees stripping as dirty; this in stark contrast to female stripper films like the aforementioned Showgirls and the 1996 film Striptease. In Showgirls, Nomi wants to become “famous” and if she has to get naked to do it, that’s another step up the ladder. Nomi literally screws her way to the top, and almost kills a girl as mentioned above, but dammit she’ll be famous. At the conclusion of Showgirls, Nomi does give up in Vegas (after her best friend is violently raped, something that you find in Magic Mike where Mike doesn‘t devolve into drugs, but his protégée Adam does) but it’s only to move up the ladder again by going to Hollywood! In this sense females who decide to grind on a pole are using stripping as a way to climb the ladder to making even more money off their body. Keep in mind many successful porn stars have stripping in their resumes. Nomi will continue to use her body as a way to get “famous” whereas Mike is all about being legitimate.
Or take another trope seen in female-centric dance films: the single mother and/or the idiot. The 1996 film Striptease places Demi Moore’s character as a single mother stripping to feed her child. In this case her profession bites her in the ass when her husband uses it as a way to gain sole custody. Striptease tells us that while women strip during times of desperation it’s still a gross profession that’s not respectable. Even films in other genres assert this notion, as evidenced in the 1996 Roland Emmerich film Independence Day where the reason Steven Hiller (Will Smith) won’t marry his long-time girlfriend Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox) is because she’s a stripper and could ruin his chances at progressing up the ladder of his job. Jasmine also has a young son, forcing the audience to believe she’s stripping to feed him.
In Magic Mike no one has a child, and there’s only one character that has a wife. None of the men have long-term girlfriends and Mike mainly has a fuck-buddy named Joanna (Olivia Munn). When Mike is asked by his protégée’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) why her brother would want to strip the explanation is “he’s 19.” Magic Mike asserts that men strip when they’re young because it makes a lot of money. Apparently no man strips because they need a job, or has a family. These men are all unattached and simply looking for a world with no consequences. I won’t even go into detail on the myriad of films that see female strippers as stupid, their only talent being they have a hot body and can work a pole.
Female strip films center on the idea of women needing to be punished for their interest in sex and/or showing off their bodies. When a woman strips it’s ugly and gross. Returning back to Independence Day there’s a moment between Jasmine and the President’s wife. The wife asks Jasmine what she does for a living. Jasmine says she dances and the President’s wife assumes ballet. When Jasmine says exotic the other woman clams up and says “I’m sorry.” While Jasmine says its good money and she’s not sorry, the stigma is already in place. Females who strip are in a smutty profession and must have some problem in their mind and/or personal life that has sent them down this road. In a way, stripping becomes one brick in the road to becoming a full-fledged prostitute (Showgirls follows this logic in a scene where Nomi is expected to screw a client during a show).
So if stripping leads to hooking, does this happen to the men of Magic Mike? Hell no! The men have a lot of sex when they want and with whom with zero consequences. While the rules of the club say no touching, the men are fine with women groping on them and making out with them because there’s no threat to them. If a woman gets aggressive the logic is that the man can placate her; unlike female-centered films (and in reality) where rape of sex workers is a serious and real thing. In looking at the female characters in Magic Mike they’re all rather dull and bland with the idea being that the men of Xquisite provide a fantasy to help women live their dull and bland lives. Mike’s friend Joanna is incredibly smart and planning to be a psychologist. At a certain point in the film Mike discovers Joanna is going to be married to a boring colleague. Even Mike’s love interest Brooke is dating some kind of uptight financial analyst. With this Soderbergh’s film follows the road that women lead such boring lives they have to look at the physically perfect male specimens on display to give their life meaning.
That’s easy to see with how all the men look in this film: perfect bodies, lantern jaws, tall with great heads of hair. The men are also smooth-talkers as seen in one moment where Mike tries to convince some girls to visit the club. It’s a change from the men one sees in female strip films. In Showgirls all the men, literally all the men, are savages content to rape or exploit the girls. The bosses even sexually harass and expect the dancers to have sex with them because apparently sexual harassment is limited to this industry if you’re a woman. In fact many of the women in Magic Mike are smarter than the men and therefore unable to understand the point of being a stripper. Mike’s entire relationship with Brooke is built on the tired trope that she doesn’t fall for his smooth-talk making him work hard to win her and telling her his job doesn’t define him (this is a slap in the face to female sex workers as mentioned by all the examples above where their professions define them).
Something to keep in mind when watching Magic Mike I couldn’t ignore: the majority of male strippers (not all!) in reality are gay! And yet every man who works at Xquisite is 110% heterosexual! It’s of particular interest considering star Matt Bomer is an openly gay actor who character is the only one given a wife in the film! Is this to make the audience forget the actor’s gay, but giving him a wife? In a movie where the profession is not meant to define the characters, giving the lone homosexual actor a woman to assert his manliness reinforces the stereotype that audiences won’t believe a gay man is straight unless he has a woman by his side.
This article wouldn’t be complete without discussing ratings and nudity! If any comparison can be made between these two films it’s that both showcase how out of touch the MPAA continues to be in regards to nudity. It’s obvious that female strippers are used in films to entice a male audience. Showgirls claim to fame was being a “classy” film boasting the NC-17 rating that is now known for having copious shots of Elizabeth Berkley’s vagina and a sex scene that’s laughably bad. Striptease was rated R for “nudity, erotic dancing and language.” Audiences flocked to it simply because it was the first time actress Demi Moore showed her breasts (proof that female strip films are sold based purely on women getting naked). Yet Magic Mike is rated R “pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity, language, and some drug use.”
Let’s look at that “brief graphic nudity” tagline for a second. The scene in question involves a character known as Big Dick Ritchie (Joe Manganiello) pumping up his penis before a show. As characters are talking to the side of the screen a penis (obviously Ritchie’s) creeps onto the screen as it’s being pumped up. Being so close to the camera it’s a tad blurry and out-of-focus but there is absolutely no doubt that a penis is in front you! Compare this to a movie like last year’s Shame where Michael Fassbender walks to the bathroom nude. While he is completely naked, the scene is filmed in long shot with the only close-up of Fassbender’s penis being for less than a second. The scene in Magic Mike is far more prominent and lasts longer than anything in Shame and the point is that it’s literally in the audience’s face (maybe 3-D was too expensive). If you look at female stripper films the ladies are all shown in long-shot to get their entire bodies on the screen as a means of appeasing horny audience members. I should be commending the MPAA for breaking their penis fears but in comparison to female strip films this appears to be another example of showing that male stripping is okay (at least women get to look at a massive penis) whereas female stripping and/or films with consensual sex continue to be seen as derogatory and exploitative. Something also to ponder, that scene in Magic Mike is the only scene of full frontal nudity. The men wear g-strings and thongs whereas all female strip films are expected to have breasts at a minimum. I understand that the majority of strip clubs in the world are like this but it’s another brick in the path to inequality.
I’ve explored nearly every facet of Magic Mike as a means of showing it’s not nearly as revolutionary, ground-breaking, or feminist thinking as it wants to be. The fact that women are flocking in droves to see it does show that there is a void in films for the female gaze but considering how stereotypical Magic Mike is in every other area, it’s sad that a film about male power compels females to go wild whilst seeing it. If female-based strip films could be groundbreaking and/or feminist (instead of cited as some of the worst movies of all time) Magic Mike could be a step in the right direction. Instead it’s giving women beefcake, but continuing to tell them that men are better and women who strip are obviously insane or slutty.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.