The Gender Politics of Magic Mike XXL

Can a movie about male strippers be a loud affirmation of feminism? Three Atlantic writers discuss.

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Spencer Kornhaber: Magic Mike XXL offers a hint about its politics—yes, it has politics—during the first and perhaps only real moment of conflict in the entire film. It happens when Channing Tatum’s Mike suggests to his roadstripping buddies that they retire their sexy-fireman routine and come up with something new. After some resistance, and under the influence of drugs, Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie relents, and starts babbling out a grand plan for a bold, fresh set piece.

His idea: a striptease … as a wedding ceremony.

Before proceeding, a word about looking for deeper meaning here. Yes, XXL is a skintastic sequel with a plot as slight as Donald Glover in a Hugh Hefner robe, designed to cool down 4th of July audiences just like ice-cream toppings do to Adam Rodriguez’s abs at the film’s climax. But it’s also groundbreaking. Between the Mike franchise and 50 Shades of Grey, we’re watching the formation of a would-be-blockbuster genre, one that celebrates and profits from the sexual appetites of people other than straight men. XXL’s big male-entertainer convention may well turn into a source of storytelling conventions once Hollywood’s imitation machine revs all the way up.

So it’s of note that stripperly innovation in XXL involves the ultimate symbol of traditional gender relations and romantic commitment. When Richie performs the wedding routine toward the end of the film, the actual nuptials segment is sweet and chaste; after the altar, though, he straps his fake bride into a sex swing and starts treating her like a jungle gym. This is in line with the film’s depiction of male entertainers as Cary Grant-level gentlemen when their shirts are on, and Christian Greys trained by Cirque du Soleil when they’re off. I’ve seen at least one critic refer to XXL’s gyration scenes as “rapey,” and there’s certainly merit to the discussing how consensual touching works in the land of lap dances. But almost without fail, the film focuses on giving women what they want, and many of the women on screen are paying to be charmed and then respectfully faux-dominated by a hunk.

What do the guys want? To get married, of course. The first Magic Mike loaded up its male entertainers with career anxieties, drug addictions, and social disapproval, but this time out the only angst comes from a very specific kind of girl problem. Mike—spoiler—returns to stripping after his girlfriend rejects his engagement ring. Matt Bomer’s Ken searches for contentment in singledom because his gal couldn’t pull off monogamy. Kevin Nash’s Tarzan confesses that he’d trade his years of promiscuity for one true soul mate. And in the film’s filthiest reclamation of fairy-tale monogamy, Rich (timidly, respectfully) quests for a woman who appreciates the feature that gave him his nickname, referring to this mythical mate as “the glass slipper.”

One thing that’s not traditional about the guys is their utter lack of gay panic. Early on during their trip, they stop in at a drag show and start vogue-ing on stage, having as much fun as anyone at a Pride parade. It makes sense that guys who regularly bro out while in chaps would be secure in their sexuality, but these pointedly macho guys seem exceptionally, blissfully free from anxiety about being labeled as feminine. When Ken punches Mike to settle a beef, it’s portrayed as stupid and pointless, and for the rest of the movie, the guys talk through their problems. They also talk—in meaningful and hilarious ways, sometimes driven by attraction but sometimes not—with women, whether it’s Mike bantering with Amber Heard’s Zoe or all the guys swapping life stories with Andie MacDowell’s Nancy and friends. It’s much-needed evangelism: Behold, men can still joke around, have sex, and make money once we’ve smashed the patriarchy!

As for the women: Jada Pinkett Smith’s Rome as empress of male entertainers and Zoe as cagey stripper/photographer certainly made for refreshing examples of strong female characters. On the other hand, none of them felt as real or human to me as the guys did. Rome was inspiring but almost seemed fiercer-than-life; Zoe felt a bit like a melancholic pixie dream girl, wielding her camera and standoffishness mainly for Mike’s fascination. Maybe those are my own biases showing, though. What do you two think?

Megan Garber: What I mostly think is that “roadstripping” should be entered into the OED immediately. But I agree: I was fascinated by how much gender politicking—both subtle and egregious—was packed into those tiny little man-thongs. While the first Magic Mike struck me as a commentary on the economy in the guise of a movie about strippers—the plot revolved around the fact that these “male entertainers” were all, in their way, frustrated entrepreneurs—this one struck me as a commentary about feminism … in the guise of a movie about strippers. The whole thing was fixated, to an almost comical degree, on ideas and assumptions about what women want. Which I mostly loved. As you point out, Spencer, it means that we’re moving beyond the tired desiric default of the straight, male dude. Which: Progress! The kind of caveated progress that’s so often on display in the products of Hollywood, but still!

What I didn't love, however, was that a lot of these (relatively) progressive ideas manifested in MMXXL not just as What Women Want, but as What Women Want According to Dudes. Marriage! Being called “queens” and “goddesses”! Being danced for! Being grinded (ground?) upon! Being poetried about! Being sung to! Being the objects of sentences with passive constructions, in which men are the implied subjects! It’s telling, I think, that the screenplay of MMXXL was written by Tatum and Reid Carolin (the screenwriter for the first Magic Mike); the whole thing, despite its many (many, many) feministic delights, also has a whiff of mansplaining to it. It reminded me just a tad of that wonderfully terrible Mel Gibson movie, What Women Want—only with an inverted moral: Instead of making fun of men who assume that “what do women want?” is, monolithically, a reasonable question to ask, MMXXL congratulates them for doing the asking at all. And then it concludes that the answer must involve being crooned at by Donald Glover.
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Along those lines, I totally agree, Spencer, that the female characters felt much less fully realized than the male here. Rome (and I loved Pinkett Smith in the role) took on the Dallas-ian mantle of the larger-than-life performer, all fierceness and fire and force; that meant, though, that we got almost nothing about who she was as a person. And that weird kiss she had with Elizabeth Banks (our eagle-eyed Chris Orr noticed that Banks’ character’s name is, natch, Paris) seemed to have been included in the proceedings paaaartly for purposes of character development, but mostly for the service of the straight guys in the audience who might be dragged to this movie by their wives/girlfriends. Gorgeous women making out, for no reason but male pleasure! How innovative.
And while I agree that Zoe definitely had a pixie dreamgirliness about her, one thing I did appreciate about her was the fact that, even though we were told repeatedly that she, too, was a stripper … we never saw her take her clothes off. Given the way she ended up participating in the (delightfully uncreatively named) 2015 Annual Stripper Convention, you could see her as being, like so many other women in this movie, simply a kind of object; you could also see her “performance” in that show, though, as the film’s acquiescence to her wishes. What This Particular Woman Wants is to be seen as something other than a stripper, and the movie fulfills that desire by making her, onstage, the passive party. Which: Progress! Sort of!
One final thought about the 2015 Annual Stripper Convention: I loved the way it played—cleverly, teasingly—with cliches and novelties. Here is yet another Film That Leads Up to a Climactic Final Performance, in the proud tradition of Pitch Perfect and Bring It On and pretty much every sports movie ever made. And MMXXL winks at its own place in that pantheon through the expected rehearsal montages, scenes of costume-making and prop-building, hints at the acts that will come, etc. (Even the setting for the performance—I cannot fully express how much I love “2015 Annual Stripper Convention,” especially as it was displayed on that sad hotel billboard in Myrtle Beach—pokes fun, with its winking blandness, at the stereotypic baggage the film is dragging with it as it speeds along the I-75 corridor.)
That said, though: MMXXL, leading up to those climactic final scenes, also leaves space for mystery and surprise. It keeps you guessing. The best stripping acts (at least according to Showgirls and that Demi Moore movie from the mid-’90s) involve taking audience expectations and either thwarting or delaying their gratification—the strip “tease,” and all that. They involve building suspense, so that audiences both know, and also have no idea, what’s in store for them. In that sense, and in the best sense, MMXXL is itself just one big, ridiculous, and really fun strip show.

Sophie Gilbert: Aside from the question of whether a movie about male strippers that’s written and directed by men and stars men in all the primary roles can be a positive thing (it’s certainly no rarity in Hollywood), here’s the thing about MMXXL: I enjoyed every second of it. It’s a movie that celebrates the fact that it doesn’t want to make you think—there’s nothing to pick apart in the car ride on the way home apart from Tito’s curious pairing of kiwi and ginger in his artisanal fro-yo, or what the hell Nancy’s husband did to obligate that he leave her his Bentley and collection of Chateau Margaux, or whether it’s actually a good idea for Mike to carry around a rejected engagement ring in his wallet.
In a cultural landscape where we’re continually obliged to dissect things by going over them ad infinitum, it’s pretty refreshing to have a movie that’s so seemingly free of nuance. There are bros. The bros take their clothes off. This time, however, they seem truly happy to be doing so, and in fact, generally affirmed by both the female attention and the opportunity to make women feel like, yes, queens. The entire posse seems to have had some kind of spiritual Road to Damascus somewhere between the first film and MMXXL—Ken, free of all negative energy and a stage-three reiki healer, is representative of how the angst and darkness from Magic Mike has been thoroughly cleansed. Maybe it’s the smudge sticks, maybe it’s the molly, maybe it’s the fact that Alex Pettyfer has left the building. But the troupe appeared to be genuinely happy with themselves and their testosterone-charged road trip, which perhaps means they’re better able to bestow that happiness upon their target audiences.
When it comes to giving women what they want, which you both mentioned, the kiss between Rome and Paris was perhaps the only off note in the whole movie. Otherwise, it’s a narrative structured entirely around the objectification of men and the veneration of women, whatever their age or body type. In the sense that almost all the female characters have money to dole out to men (the aforementioned Bentley, the many, many, many, many dollar bills cascading all over the scenery), it’s a reversal of the typical Cinderella story: Here are good-looking dolts being rewarded for their charms. But what makes Mike and Richie and Ken so appealing isn’t just their looks, it’s the fact that they focus so intensely on how to make women happy. (“My God is a woman,” as Mike puts it, in simple terms.) In Ken’s case, that means telling a married woman that she’s enormously desirable and deserves to be made love to with the lights on. In Mike’s and Richie’s, it’s simply making people smile. If the film were just about greased-up Adonises showing off their abs, it wouldn’t be half as affirming, but the sense throughout that female contentment and pleasure is the ultimate goal makes it infinitely more engaging.
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In this sense, like you mentioned Megan, MMXXL seems to theorize that stripping is a fun and fulfilling career for men and a miserable one for women (presumably why Zoe wants to quit) because women are simply better at doing the objectifying—they can appreciate men as bodies and souls together rather than pieces of meat. Perhaps this is why Mike helps his friends get more creatively involved with their routines, so that they can express their personalities through their art and feel less like generic firemen/policemen/rent-a-hunks. One of my favorite scenes in the movie was when Richie walked through the convention center looking askance at all the boringly costumed strippers hanging around. Why be a fireman when you can be a painter? Or a groom? Or an incredibly filthy ice-cream vendor? Or a singer? Let’s at least appreciate how much the routines subvert traditional male career stereotypes and go straight for the humanities instead.
All this is to say that, yes, I think a movie about male strippers can be empowering for women, but not just because they’re getting the chance to leer at oily men in thongs and rain their hard-earned cash upon them. Instead, MMXXL feels like a movie that cares about the hopes and dreams of all its characters, and wants only to help them realize them, via simulated humping, strobe lights, and a woman boss in a pantsuit (possibly an endorsement of Hillary 2016?). It’s a quirky path to choose, sure, but it’s a ton of fun, so I’ll take it.