Male Strippers and the Female Gaze: Magic Mike XXL and the Pursuit of “Feminist” Film

I saw Magic Mike XXL. For research, I swear. After reading the swirl of articles debating its feminist merits, I wanted to watch the film myself before forming an opinion. But let’s be real—feminist intrigue aside, I knew it would be a good time. I saw (and enjoyed) the first film, and suspected this instalment would bring much of the same satisfaction. And I was not disappointed. The film boasts plenty of gorgeous male bodies, gratuitous dance sequences, and silly plot lines attempting to justify the whole spectacle. If you buy into the “girls just wanna have fun” mentality, Magic Mike XXL delivers.

But.

If you dig a little deeper, the feminist debates encircling the film are complex and worth considering. Sure, we’re not here for the plot—we’re here for the stripping. By accepting, and even revelling in, the obvious, Magic Mike XXL not only allows, but wholeheartedly encourages, women to celebrate the objectification of these men.

But.

Objectification is, objectively, not a positive thing. Just because we have flipped the script and women are, for once, the objectifiers and not the objectified, does not mean women are now empowered. Bolstering women’s subjectivity should not come at the price of diminishing men’s—as usual, two wrongs don’t make a right.

The screening I attended was, like many others, accompanied by an ongoing soundtrack of cheers, sighs, whooping and hollering. Maybe the fact that women are so open in this pleasure is what makes their objectification of men problematic. When men objectify women, it is often more subtly ensconced in our culture. Catcalling is objectively ‘bad,’ but plastering women’s sexualized bodies on every inch of advertising is considered standard. The glorification of idealized male bodies in Magic Mike XXL calls attention to the uncomfortable double standard surrounding what qualifies as objectification.

But.

Do the men in Magic Mike XXL only serve as objects of desire? The characters are more well-developed in the sequel, and the thrill of watching them perform is not only about their bodies, but also about their athletic skill and the lengths they go to in order to please their female audience. The film earns much of its feminist reputation for placing (heterosexual) female sexual desire at the forefront. When the men arrive at a strip club run by Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), it is refreshing to see women of different races and shapes represented as desiring, and even desirable, customers. Instead of being the butt of a joke or criticized, these women are referred to as “queens,” and worshipped by the male entertainers. Later in the film, the men listen to a group of older women vent about their sexual frustrations and desires, and insist that these ladies deserve love and affection. By showing a diverse range of sexually desiring and desired female bodies, these scenes affirm that female sexual desire matters, and that all body types and ages are deserving of pleasure. Sure, these women are predominantly cisgendered and heterosexual, but we can only ask so much from a mainstream Hollywood film about male strippers.

But.

Can a film centered on, written, and directed by men, really be representative of women’s sexuality? How can a film by and about men be for women? The film’s female stars are written up as “powerful,” but can be characterized as assertive at best, serving not as characters in their own right, but rather as props assisting the male characters’ development. For instance, Donald Glover’s character refers to male strippers as “healers.” Really. As if half-naked men and their ability to entertain women somehow makes up for the way women are treated by men in their everyday life.

Magic Mike XXL constantly emphasizes asking women what they want, but is simply posing the question enough? A lot of the strippers’ routines revolve around What (Men Think) Women Want: to be tossed around like rag dolls and have glitter-swathed crotches thrust in their face.

But.

Richie’s (Joe Manganiello) routine involves a marriage proposal and wedding, followed by throwing his bride in a sex swing for a raunchy lap dance. Is this wedding routine a buy-in to heteronormative gender relations? Or, by combing the fantasies of marriage and hot sex, is the scene actually acknowledging the complex duality of female desire? The film’s pro-feminist semantics work hard to emphasize female subjectivity throughout—from Mike (Channing Tatum) referring to God as a “she,” to replacing “You bang her?” with “She bang you?”

But.

I’m not really here to determine whether Magic Mike XXL is feminist or not—as if there is some magical criteria establishing a unilateral feminism. I’m here to ask why we care so much whether it is or not. Perhaps because women have so few examples of positive, inclusive representation that even the most meagre offering is hungrily accepted. Just as Mad Max: Fury Road was hailed as revolutionarily feminist (a debate for another day), Magic Mike XXL exceeds expectations just enough to show us how low our standards for Hollywood really are. Just because a film passes the Bechdel test does not mean the film is progressive—rather, it is decent enough to depict women as subjects with concerns other than men. Whenever a film like Magic Mike XXL stirs up online debate, the conversations are not really about determining whether it passes the FeministTM test, but rather point to an unwillingness to accept what Hollywood tells us women want (or will settle for).

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