(Un)feminist guilty pleasure: I don’t want to critique Magic Mike

Feministing used to run an “(Un)feminist guilty pleasure” series. I liked it – the posts inherently acknowledged the complexities of living as a feminist in an overwhelmingly anti-feminist world. There’s an increasing preasure in the blogosphere to always get it right, to be the perfect feminist, which is impossible and unrealistic – and frankly dangerous for a movement that’s supposed to move in reality. So I’m bringing it back.

Cause I don’t want to overthink Magic Mike.

There’s a ton of critique out there. I’m sure some of it is on point (though not the ones I skimmed). Yes, equal opportunity objectification is actually a problem. Sure, there are no real lady characters except The Kid’s sister, who only registers because of Cody Horn’s epic “I ain’t having it” face. Absolutely, the scene where the guys pick up women out on a 21st birthday by offering them mystery drinks set off all my roofy red flags. I’m a smart, media savvy feminist. I get all this, and plenty more. You probably do too. Do I have to put the feminist over-thinking front and center every time?

Sometimes I just want to watch guys with way too many abs dance pretty.

Sure, the cast perpetuates hard body ideals for men. They’re overwhelmingly white (I’m waiting for the sequel with Tyrese, D’Angelo, and Idris Elba. Michael B. Jordan would play The Kid, and dance to Prince like it should be). But some of them do get to be actual characters. Steven Soderbergh’s casting is kinda brilliant – he stacked (hehe) the film with guys who are already known more for shirtless pics than their acting. They all got a chance to play with their public images – Matthew McConaughey had bongos. Matt Bomer played a Ken doll and a doctor on stage.

Speaking of the Village People-inspired routines, these moved the film out of a strictly hetero lens. Tracy Clark-Flory wrote about male stripping being seen as funny instead of sexy. In fact, I think the guys of Magic Mike work as fun eye candy for a largely straight lady audience precisely because the queerness of their routines makes them seem less threatening (and because watching homosocial interaction among guys can be hot too).

I think this is why the film works so well in front of a crowd. I saw it on opening day, in a small theater full of presumably straight women, but also some visibly queer and gender non-conforming folks and older gay men. I like that a mainstream movie brought this audience together. Maybe there is feminist value in a movie that caters to the gaze of people of who like to look at overly buff dudes for once – not the most politically perfect action, but still pretty great. I haven’t had that much fun with an audience since I saw Snakes on a Plane, and that was a bunch of hipsters chanting “USA! USA!” and shouting whenever there were boobs. I liked this audience’s hollers and running commentary way better (this is that rare movie where it’s totally cool to talk straight through). My favorite moment might have been when somebody got up to go to the lobby and headed up the isle shaking her head, going, “Wow. Wow. Wow.” Exactly.

The film flips the script on some normative gendered narratives, like Mike wanting more from Olivia Munn, who just wants sex. And it’s great to see a movie representing homosocial relationships beyond the typical “bromance” narrative. There’s tons – tons – of gay subtext all over the place, but these are ostensibly straight guys who are comfortable sharing physical and emotional relationships.

Matthe McConaughey wears a yellow tank top and black boy shorts, and teaches topless Alex Pettyfer to look at himself in the mirrorOh, the physical. The scene where Matthew McConaughey teaches the kid to thrust his hips is epic. How often do you see guys represented being this comfortable with their bodies and sexuality? McConaughey brilliant (I seriously mean it) performance opens up space for an alternative representation of masculinity, one that’s comfortable actually inhabiting a body that can be fun and sexy, not standing in the back of the club and nodding his head or doing the creepy fist bump. The showmanship on display is like nothing I’ve ever seen before outside the best drag queens. This movie really does feel like male drag in a lot of places – like a ridiculous, heightened version of dude sex work.

Channing Tatum in a cop hatI’ve been a fan of Channing Tatum’s since Step Up, but he’s been generally misunderstood until this year. Folks are always surprised by him cause he looks like a hunk of meat, but dude can move. I’ve always enjoyed the way he’s unashamed about his stripper past and honest about how it was positive. We so rarely get to hear sex workers tell their own stories, and to have someone at Tatum’s level of celebrity who’s not following the rules of the tragic stripper narrative is pretty rad. Tatum and Soderbergh based the film’s story partly on Tatum’s life, and that real world influence shows between the hackneyed drug plot (which also contains the films most sexist-ly constructed female character. I’m mostly pretending that part of the movie away).

It’s great to see sex workers represented as people, and people who’s jobs aren’t all tragedy. The “trafficking” frame we’ve been fed by radfems (yeah they started it) is dangerous, erasing the complex lived realities of actual sex workers. This film doesn’t shy away from the dark sides of working on the edge of the mainstream, but it also shows that strippers can have fun, make safe choices (The Kid’s decisions look terrible because they’re being contrasted with Mike’s responsible life choices. Responsible life choices can include stripping!). In a media landscape where sex workers get talked about as victims and represented as one dimensional stereotypes, seeing male sex industry employees as people who might even like their jobs is revolutionary (I certainly hope The Kid’s gonna be paying Mike back after he quit stripping, though).

But mostly the movie was fun, I don’t feel like critiquing it, so I’m probably a bad feminist right?

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10 Comments

  1. Posted July 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I thought this movie was fun. The only part that disappointed me was that the fat joke. You know, where the guy picking up the girl threw out his back. I thought that was unnecessary. I was pleased that some of the women they were highlighting from the audience were normal-looking rather than all barbie dolls. I would have enjoyed that scene more if they would have had the big guy, Tarzan, get a chubby girl and show off his muscles by throwing her around (in an acrobatic way, not a violent way).

    • Posted July 9, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, that was totally unnecessary. I actually saw it as a joke about Joe Manganiello’s character getting older at first until I realized that’s probably not what this mainstream movie was going for (but how the joke reads in the made up fantasy version of the movie in my head).

  2. Posted July 9, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    You know, I’m a fairly radical feminist and a former sex worker. Sorry, but the reasons 90% of the women were in that industry wasn’t for “fun”. It was because we were all drug addicts at the time. Maybe another 5% were there because they had no other way to support the kids their former lovers had left them to support alone. Very few were there because it’s where they wanted to be. Maybe it’s not “sex positive”, but it’s the truth. But maybe my story isn’t the one you wanted to hear, because it’s not “fun”.

  3. Posted July 10, 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    This -> “There’s an increasing preasure in the blogosphere to always get it right, to be the perfect feminist, which is impossible and unrealistic – and frankly dangerous for a movement that’s supposed to move in reality.” I’ve been feeling this for the past few months now reading feministing, and it’s greatly saddened me to the point that I had almost become disenchanted with it all. I’m glad to see that it’s being realised now though. Thank you!

  4. Posted July 10, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Jos, this is a great post, but I really, really take issue with this statement (and I agree with what someone posted above about sex workers and “fun.”)

    It’s great to see sex workers represented as people, and people who’s jobs aren’t all tragedy. The “trafficking” frame we’ve been fed by radfems (yeah they started it) is dangerous, erasing the complex lived realities of actual sex workers.

    Talking about trafficking in this way is downright irresponsible and frankly, I’m a little shocked that you made such a blanketed statement. Most of the work surrounding sex trafficking involves children and minors – people who I assure you aren’t looking to get into sex work for “fun,” let alone doing it voluntarily. The selling and enslavement of people around the world and in America is astonishing and horrific.

    I can sort of understand the point you’re trying to make about looking at sex workers through a different lens, but I assure you this trafficking frame you so flippantly refer to is not trying to undermine sex work for those who truly choose it as their profession (at least I’m not). I also wouldn’t consider myself a radical feminist, but no CHILD should EVER, EVER, EVER BE FORCED INTO SEX WORK. I ask you to please look at the language you used here as being destructive to all of the work being done to stop the enslavement, selling and raping of children.

    • Posted July 10, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Just to clarify, when I said I can sort of understand your point, I meant it in relation to the trafficking comment – not just looking (or not looking) at sex workers as people with jobs that are tragic.

      Thanks!

    • Posted July 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Nina, I was referring specifically to the way the “trafficking” frame gets applied to all sex work, painting the entire industry with one brush. I think that is incredibly dangerous, in part because it makes it harder to target the actual trafficking that is going on.

      • Posted July 10, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for responding Jos! I get a little emotional about this topic because it’s so important to me – but thank you again for taking the time to read and reply!

    • Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      I think that flippant, holier-than-thou statement about so-called “radfems” and how they “started it” was what so turned me off to this whole post. Guess what? No one “started it” except the women and girls who have told their stories. The whole thing was so dismissive. Whether the majority of women and girls are trafficked, the point is that their lives aren’t the life’s-just-a-sex-party that this post attempts to turn it into.

      There’s a reason prostitutes are commonly raped, beaten and killed. They’re seen as expendable people. Whether they’ve been trafficked or not, their lives are dangerous. If they are victims of abuse, they have nowhere to turn, because of the “you can’t rape a prostitute” attitude of the police and most of society. If they work in larger cities, they almost require a pimp–a guy who lives off their bodies–to keep them safer from the creeps who would beat and kill them. So, they deal with the “good” exploitation and violence from a pimp to protect them from the more dangerous violence of the johns.

      I live in a medium-sized city. For quite some time, I lived in the heart of the area where the prostitutes and johns frequent. Most of the women in the trade here don’t use pimps. However, they will often have their boyfriends come out and sit by the road with them. The man will sit in view, but not close enough to scare off the johns. It’s to let the john know that he and his car have been seen by someone. Why do you think that’s necessary?

      As for my own story, I remember some guy at a strip club trying to pay me and a friend to have sex with him one night. We told him we weren’t interested. Did he take that as an answer? No, he didn’t. Instead, he sat outside the club and waited for us. Then he followed us home. Yeah, it was sexy as hell. Not frightening at all.

      One night, some guys came in flashing their money, trying to be big shots. Well, they lost their cash and threw a fit. What did the club management do? They lined all the dancers up in front of their lockers–nude except for their t-bars (i.e. what dancers call a thong)–and walked up and down inspecting each woman to make sure she hadn’t stolen the money. They also went through each dancer’s possessions. It was so sexy.

      And this doesn’t just happen to female prostitutes and strippers. One of my closest friends used to be a hustler. He talked about how middle-aged men would pick him up, tell him how much he reminded them of their sons, then want to violently shove their fists up his ass. He has been living with HIV since his late 20s. Very, very sexy.

      You may want to write this all off as some delusion by those evil “radfems”, but it just isn’t. These are the real stories of people who have worked in the sex industry and loved others who have worked in the sex industry. They are the stories of junkies and methheads, desperately trying to pay for their drugs. They are the stories of women and men who feel trapped. They are the stories of women and men who deal with the lifelong consequences of the life.

  5. Posted July 11, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t seen the film yet, I will eventually probably watch it when it’s on netflix or something.

    Anyway, I’m tired of people on facebook and the like saying, “YOU’RE A BUNCH OF HYPOCRITES YOU’D FREAK IF YOUR BFS WENT TO SEE A STRIPPER MOVIE STARRING FEMALES.”
    Um…. no? Most of us wouldn’t?

    I like that it’s loosening women up and maybe making them less ashamed of being attracted to men and wanting sex. I know it’s got flaws, but I don’t think all stories need to send a perfect message.

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