I’m going to play film critic, and not for a porn flick. I had the opportunity to see a recent release in a theater with a group of local feminists. We wanted to see why everyone keeps calling Magic Mike XXL feminist. I’m posting a full deconstruction here.
First I’m going to channel Anita Sarkeesian (SWERF tendencies aside), and remind you that critiquing media from a feminist perspective does not mean the media can’t be enjoyed. I also saw why some have called it a “feminist” film. I cannot, however, fathom why people were all over my Facebook and Twitter saying it’s feminist as fuck. It doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test, so what’s the deal?
The “Suspend Belief” Fallacy
If it’s one thing I agree with Sarkeesian on, it’s that “gritty reality” is gratuitous when we don’t get irate about shitty game physics. In other words, if you’re willing to suspend belief to buy into the more Hollywood-esque impossibilities in the plot, you can’t claim pointing out problematic scenes is nitpicking. You don’t just give the film a feminist pass because it’s more feminist than other films out there. If I see any comments relating to “but in THAT world…” I’m going to point you back to this paragraph. By the way, if you haven’t seen the film, male exotic dancing is entirely portrayed as the ability to throw women around like rag dolls who have had no choreography or who may not be physically able of acrobatics. It’s seriously ridiculous from top to bottom.
Here’s the biggest problem I have with this film: white supremacy. Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), the proprietor of Domina, a dance club primarily for (straight) black women’s entertainment, is a powerful, strong, business-savvy woman of color. Her establishment lifts women and their desires up as she refers to her patrons as queens to be worshiped – by men they’re expected to shower dollar bills upon.
Domina is a bastion of blackness that Mike (Channing Tatum), who is white, penetrates with only his name. His very existence gets him in. He and Rome have a sexual and business history, and he’s there to ask a favor. She puts Mike on the spot to dance. When he initially rebuffs the invitation, she has one of her dancers begin to grind against the woman she picked from the crowd. Mike, of course, cannot abide a black man challenging him and vaults into the room, ripping his shirt off. He then proceeds to not just grind up on women, but physically throw them around and position them as props in his act. Does he ask? Is he sure they’re physically capable? Nope. He just acts on black women without asking.
The scene peaks when Mike bends two women over to use as props for his suggestive dance moves. He literally lifts himself up on the backs of black women and simulates fucking them! Then he lays on top of them like furniture. Then he lays one woman on top of one of the bent over women and simulates oral sex on the former and intercourse with the latter. He can take on two black women at once, you see, proving how much more man he is than the black men in the club. He conquers the club in this way, and convinces Rome and two of her dancers to join his quest.
All three play support to the white-led Kings of Tampa. Granted, they have Tito (Adam Rodriguez), which they acknowledge as their “token person of color” (actual film quote), even though he’s light-skinned. Neither of Rome’s dancers will perform again without sharing the stage with a white man.
Perpetuating Masculine Gender Norms
Early in the film, Mike demands Ken (Matt Bomer, gay in real life) to hit him to exorcise his resentment at Mike for leaving the group 3 years earlier. Ken, “the sensitive one” who hates violence, does it anyway. Then he gets pissed off at being provoked to do it. One of the 3 emotions men are allowed to show, even if they’re sensitive, is violent anger.
The brogasm moments are thick with traditional masculinity. The locker room talk felt forced, especially as Joe Manganiello‘s Big Dick Richie admitted to “banging” for the first time in months, somewhat shyly and reluctantly. Even this character is uncomfortable being forced into a masculine box – and he’s the dude with the biggest dick in the room!
The most introspective characters are either shamed for emotion, or their stoicism in place of sadness represents a “heavy moment” that they must recover from. Even in admitting stage fright, Kevin Nash‘s Tarzan does so while mentioning his time in Desert Storm. Because we can’t admit a vulnerable emotion without balancing it with something manly like war, right? Elsewhere in the film, he laments that the ship has sailed on his hopes for a long-term monogamous marriage, silencing both the other characters and the audience with a palpable “well this is awkward” moment.
Let’s not forget that “masculinity” here is ultimately represented by being an able-bodied, athletic, chiseled Adonis.
Most glaringly, to me as a sex educator, was the film’s sex negativity. Locker room chatter was just the beginning.
During the first such boast-fest, Richie perpetuates the belief that only vaginal sex “counts” as sex, and claims he hasn’t had “actual sex” in months. His large penis makes women only want to blow him or give him handies, afraid he’ll hurt them during vaginal intercourse. Can we please stop acting like P-i-V sex is the end all, be all of sex? Can we please admit that lesbians have sex, that gay men who don’t engage in anal also have sex, that disabled individuals in wheelchairs also have sex even when they don’t make use of their own genitals? By Richie’s account, Carrie and I have an entirely sexless marriage. How they talk about him finding a woman who can “take every inch” of him reduces women to their vaginas. Rich is looking for his “glass slipper” – not a person.
The “manic hippie dream girl” Zoe (Amber Heard Depp) is bisexual. She announces this to Mike by saying she’s in a “girl phase” rather than a “guy phase.” I cannot tell you how infuriating the word “phase” is when referring to sexuality. Let’s reassure every parent their non-straight child is “going through a phase.” Let’s let millions of homophobic & biphobic idiots out there continue to believe false facts about sexual orientation through a supposed “feminist” film, shall we?
Women’s sexual fluidity is acknowledged, and that’s a good thing, but how it’s implemented is sexist as fuck. For example, when showing up to the conference the guys didn’t register for, they discover there isn’t a spot for their performance. Rome steps forward and has a cozy moment with the woman at the registration table, since apparently these two thin femme women have had a sexual history. The camera focuses in on the surprise of the surrounding men at the sexual chemistry between these two women. This, of course, is what gets them a prime time slot for their show. Before I was a feminist, I used to refer to this bisexuality for the male gaze as “corporate lesbianism.” Thin-framed femme women performing sex acts for the gaze of men in porn has always bothered me just as much as “barsexual” women that kiss other women only when drinking to excite the men around them. If two fat lesbians had had this moment, the men’s faces would have registered revulsion.
The film did tip its hat to fat people’s sexuality, though. Were fat women cast in any of the 2 or 3 named female roles? No, of course not, and of course they’re all straight. While I was happy to see fat women not treated like jokes and dancers pay extra attention to them (even though statistically they earn less than thin women), it was clearly pandering. Fat people are still second class citizens. This is no more evident than when the original emcee of the group, Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), perpetuates the “stupid” narrative of fat people and closes his eyes while driving. Of course, the frozen yogurt truck they’re traveling in crashes, and Tobias is the only one injured. I’m pretty sure he was the only one wearing a seatbelt. Tobias is replaced by a thin person – Rome, a black woman with heteroflexibility. Only thin women are allowed sexual fluidity.
Men are not. This is painfully evident in the moment Nancy (Andie MacDowell), announces that she knew her ex husband was gay because he liked his ass fingered. That’s not feminist. That’s homophobic and sex negative as fuck. This is an unconscionable breach of sexual ethics on the part of a film that has proudly worn the “feminist” label since it was released. I’ll say it again: only thin women are allowed sexual fluidity, and only when it’s for the male gaze. Fat women and men are not allowed sexual fluidity because the patriarchy doesn’t get off on it.
Other genders don’t really exist in this universe, either. There are drag queens and gay men, tangentially, at one club. Yet, the Kings of Tampa are the winners of the drag queen contest. We can applaud their comfort with gay culture all we want. Did the gay men have names? No. Did the drag queens have names? Only one, and only because she was the emcee of the contest, and the one to hand over $400 to our straight conquerers.
Let’s not forget these men are in sex work. Rather than sex work being something shameful, it’s celebrated because men are doing it. Women are used as props in the act, being thrown, flipped, and somehow knowing exactly when to stay still without practice or injury. That’s literal objectification, folks. Everyone claiming “reverse objectification” at this can sit down right now. Men, as sex workers, when straight and of a specific body type, have power. They have the power to control the crowd. They have the power to literally turn people into props for their act. They are celebrated and worshiped and are able to act out their desires.
This isn’t about what women want at all. It’s about what these male characters want. It’s about Magic Mike’s hero quest with his dudebro buddies. What was Mike’s successful “Pony” character all about? He reveals it’s all about what he wanted to do to the girl in the last film. It wasn’t about what she wanted. There’s no consent involved in being the object of his dance routine. This is echoed in the final scene, as he dances with Zoe and flips her body around almost non-consensually. She’s dragged on stage by Rome in front of 3,000 other women after initially saying no. Tell me that’s not coercion. She is embarrassed the whole time, covering her face and nervously laughing.
I checked the credits out at IMDB to see if maybe I’m off base. Maybe it’s an entire crew of feminist women making a movie about the female sexual gaze.
The crew is predominantly male. The only woman on the production team is an associate producer, which is a ladder-rung lower than a producer. This is more a function of Hollywood, but I don’t believe that that many men, statistically, are going to be that intentional about their feminism when there are still women out there who aren’t feminists and we still have TERFs crawling around reddit.
It’s Another Story About a White Dude
In the end, we must remember that this is yet another film that tells the story about a white man. No, I don’t necessarily expect a film about male strippers to focus on a woman’s story, but I do ask why male strippers get to be heroes in the first place, when female strippers are pitied and demonized in real life. The premise itself is problematic. We can’t even get more women behind the camera, much less in front of it. We need women’s stories. We need non-dude sex workers’ stories – in a positive light!
This is what we consider a feminist film? Look, we can’t keep forgiving problematic scenes in films and give them a feminist pass just because they’re one of the better options out there. We still need to examine our media and see that what we consider feminist is a far cry from the representation feminism deserves in modern film. To consider Magic Mike XXL feminist is to consider Hollywood’s table scraps fine dining.