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The first Magic Mike film was definitely a surprise. When you hear there’s a movie coming out starring Channing Tatum as a male stripper, even with an auteur like Steven Soderbergh behind the lens, you probably picture something less wracked with pathos and elegy than the darkly dramatic film we ended up getting. Troubled friendships and drug deals gone wrong and poor Mike in his little glasses getting turned down for a small business loan — this shit was dark. The audience I watched it with included a poorly planned bachelorette party sitting in the front row who I had to watch slowly remove their penis tiaras as the movie got increasingly serious.
It was good, but it wasn’t the movie people were expecting. Which is probably why the notably more upbeat sequel, Magic Mike XXL, seemed easy to write off as an apology film. A cheap, visual Candygram left on our stoop by the studio with a note reading, “Here, this is what you really wanted, right? Just some hot guys getting almost-naked for your enjoyment. Love, Warner Bros.” But what’s crazy is that while Magic Mike XXL definitely follows a more comparatively carefree storyline, everything about it (including the HGH-grown eye candy) comes at us from a very feminist perspective.
Not that there was anything super unfeminist about the first Magic Mike. The prominent female characters are fully dimensional, even if they’re only there as love interests, and the film doesn’t espouse particularly misogynistic views. But it also doesn’t really engage in the thing all those bachelorettes in the theater were there for: the female gaze. (Well, it’s the straight female gaze, and also the gay male gaze, but forgive a little textual shorthand—I have a word limit here.)
Of course, it could be said that this is Magic Mike’s central misdirection — being a movie about male strippers that’s really about hardship and drama. Maybe that’s why the camera never quite showcases the bodies of Mike and his crew of dancers in the steady, prolonged way so many movies do when female bodies are on display. Soderbergh cheats the camera to avoid provocative angles and cuts away from the action too often during dance sequences for us to get a lingering look at any of the thrusting pelvises or bare buns — though Soderbergh reveals a major blind spot as a filmmaker when he later has no problem focusing for many seconds on a horny topless girl straight out of a Playboy Video Centerfold, who, coincidentally, I’m 99 percent sure I went to high school with. No shame, girl. You signed up for a movie where nudity was implied to be cross-gender fair play.
But Magic Mike XXL, directed by longtime Soderbergh 1AD Gregory Jacobs, plays directly to the female gaze and more. The camera watches male dancers so intently as they strip and gyrate that for stretches it’s almost stationary. We sometimes cut to the delighted women enjoying the show, but only to provide context for our own enjoyment and never at the sacrifice of us seeing the same display of flesh that they are. The camera doesn’t cheat away from the provocative angles; it cheats into them, reveling unapologetically in the male body for prolonged periods again and again. These scenes directly serve the female gaze so fiercely that it’s almost historic, especially considering how many Showgirls, Stripteases, and hundreds of random movies (some classic, some not) have been exclusively devoted to the female form.
But that’s not all. During the many scenes that they spend as a group talking, the “male entertainer” crew, the Kings of Tampa, quote Oprah, chide each other for not “being present,” sing with tender emotionality, and tweeze their eyebrows. Their myriad adventures find them gleefully vogueing on stage at their favorite drag club and sharing their innermost fears with a room full of grown women they met just minutes before. Richie (Joe Manganiello) even makes a sexy fool of himself, impulsively performing an enthused strip routine involving a bag of Cheetos and a bottle of Aquafina for an unamused gas station clerk.
He (and the rest of the guys) all happen to be high on Molly for that sequence, but it’s still noteworthy when you remember that every iteration of this scene in movie history — where exhibition-style sexy-dancing is played for comedy — involves either a schlubby comedic lead playing up his or her unsexiness or a legit-hot female character stunning everybody with her legit sexiness. But a male character earning laughs by glorying in his own objective hotness? That’s a lot rarer. Technically, it has happened, but we almost never get the sense that the character performing the dance sincerely wishes to please his audience — or that the filmmaker wants to please us.
It’s really no surprise, though, that this phenomenon is so uncommon. It presupposes the presence of the female gaze and requires that the man in the scene make himself vulnerable. But that’s just what the guys in Magic Mike XXL are constantly doing when they talk about their hopes and dreams, admit to being jealous of one another, and writhe for the amusement of convenience store cashiers who could easily mock or reject them. This is basically a movie about friends — not buddies, not bros on a debauched adventure, but Sex and the City–style same-sex friends portrayed in a way that (ahem) we usually only see in movies about women.
This is another key feminist element to the film, because remember, feminism isn’t just for women; the way that our patriarchal society frowns on members of either gender if they don’t conform to their dictated stereotypes is a shit deal for guys, too. No man with a penchant toward sensitivity or flamboyance would choose to mask these attributes if he weren’t forced to from birth under the constant duress of cultural conditioning. But when the charming male leads in a movie engage in characteristically feminine language and behaviors, they encourage real-life men to exercise the same freedom — which also helps loosen the social bonds placed on women. Not to mention that when society tells women not to be tough and assertive (*cough*BOSSY*cough*), it’s a means of control. But when society tells men not to be emotional or sensitive, it’s a way of maligning femininity. What could be more demeaning than acting like a woman? But once again, when a movie depicts its charismatic male heroes as being only more attractive when they exhibit these behaviors, everybody benefits — including women.
And, of course, we can’t discount the presence of strong female characters. With her tomboy reticence, Mike’s love interest, Zoe (Amber Heard), is far from a typical movie girlfriend. If anything, her reserved nature prompts Mike to take on a hint of Manic Pixie Dream Boy, which is obviously refreshing. The guys spend an extended scene conversing with a group of women over 40 (a tragically aberrant practice in Hollywood), Elizabeth Banks is beautifully typecast as a no-nonsense boss-bitch, and Jada Pinkett-Smith practically steals the entire movie as the confident proprietor of a members-only strip club where women pay a monthly fee to rejoice in male beauty with a side of feminine empowerment. Who knows, maybe Magic Mike XXL was mostly produced to make up for what we didn’t get out of the first film. But lucky for all of us, Jacobs knew that included a lot more than eye candy.
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