Synopsis copy for Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) generally reads something like this:
A male stripper teaches a younger performer how to party, pick up women, and make easy money.
And that’s basically what happens in the film, but there’s also so much more. Magic Mike is a sexually and emotionally stimulating text filled with all sorts of gendered messages that impact and shape different groups of people in different ways.
In honor of the film’s recent October 23, 2012 release on DVD, here are some sociological considerations…
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Confession time: I loved Magic Mike. Like, seriously loved it. This was for several reasons.
First of all, I’ve seen my fair share of exotic dancer entertainer-related things. And based upon my observations of men dancers “stripping” for audiences (presumably) made up of predominately heterosexual women, Magic Mike‘s performance sequences seemed pretty right on: dudes dancing, though most certainly not getting totally naked, and women screaming and carrying on… carrying on and being swept away, in my opinion, both by hot hard man ass and by hot hard man fantasy.
Regardless of why, the fact remains that we, as a culture, have constructed an array of very two-dimensional, hegemonic “desirable” masculinities. Consequently, I would submit that it’s not just the hottness (which is itself a social construction) of Mr. Cowboy and/or Mr. Firefighter (costumes) that induce those club-sequence squeals and squeees – it’s also the ideologies and fantasies associated with said cowboys and/or firefighters (costumes).
Trust me when I tell you: these things aren’t real. All the ideologies and fantasies we have associated with, for example, men who are cowboys and/or firefighters are nothing more than that – ideologies and fantasies. Good, bad, and everything in between, real cowboys and real firefighters are far more complex.
But I digress.
As I was trying to say, I liked Magic Mike because its performance/audience sequences struck me as authentic.
I also liked Magic Mike because Channing Tatum is charming and sweet-seeming, complete with good comic timing and some okayyy dance skills.
I liked Magic Mike because of Cody Horn, the actor who played Brooke.
Allegedly, Cody is the next Tori Spelling (think Donna Martin and how she supposedly came to be), and many critics panned her performance. But I thought she was good. Her older sister incredulity and concern were palpable – as an older sister myself, I’ve made every single one of Brooke’s “seriously? wtf!!” expressions over the course of the past twenty or so years (among many other things).
Further, Brooke was totally not a part of Magic Mike’s after-dark world. She was a daylight person with a “regular” life, a human being trying to maintain her cool around a person who she, in spite of herself, was attracted to. It stands to reason that she would be awkward around Mike in some instances, which may or may not have resulted in slightly halting dialogue and sudden bursts of cackling laughter.
But Brooke wasn’t awkward when it counted, like when she was calling Mike out on his fantasy-self BS or was out looking for her irresponsible little brother. I thought Cody Horn played her well – the slightly hard-nosed, slightly awkward, and painfully honest demeanor she gave the character was compelling and appropriate.
I liked Magic Mike for its portrayal of service industry occupations. Real live humans work every day in evening/nighttime-prime strip clubs, bars, restaurants, etc. These real live humans go to work somewhere between 5 and 8 pm, bust ass at 110 miles per hour for the next six, and then spend another hour or so trying to get side work, etc done so they can head home. If you’re lucky, you get to bed by four. If you’re extra lucky, you have a bunch of cash to put under your pillow.
Service industry work of this nature and the resulting life that comes with it impacts you – trust me, I did it for years. From being awake when everyone else is long in bed to seeing a messier side of humanity and always having cash on hand, it can be challenging, disenchanting, and a little bit of a trap. Though Magic Mike didn’t engage these themes in depth, the interconnected service work subculture, allusions to divides between people who live in and out of the sun, and all the scenes in the club after the customers had long gone at least acknowledged these dimensions. I appreciated that.
And I also really like Florida, and Magic Mike was set in Florida!! So add up all that “like” and what you get is “love” – I loved Magic Mike.
However… (there’s always a “however”)
In spite of its positive elements, there have also been many discussions of problematic dimensions present in Magic Mike.
For example, many folks out there on the interwebs discussed Magic Mike and the evolving “female gaze” – gazing at men, gazing at men as objects, gazing with desire, the changing gaze, the idea that these changes may or may not be for the greater gender equality good, etc etc. Fine.
I’m going to assume that most people meant “women’s gazes, likely those of the heterosexual persuasion” in Magic Mike-related discussions of the “female gaze.” And in this respect, though the idea that any human has the capacity to look at something lustily is not new, the notion that mainstream Hollywood is creating films with the express purpose of inciting lust in some women is rather novel.
(note: certainly Magic Mike incited much lust in many men; but in a world that presumably assumes a “male gaze,” men are always getting their libidos tickled in some way. in this respect, Magic Mike is nothing new)
There’s also the nature of gender in/equality that occurs when it comes to the portrayal of sex workers employed in exotic dance occupations. In other words, think about how the dudes were portrayed in Magic Mike… Now, think about pretty much every other Hollywood film with narratives related to women dancers. I’m sure you get the point.
These conversations are interesting and complex, but I got a third “deep and meaningful, let’s over-think this and take all the pleasure out of it on a scholar-type level” message out of Magic Mike – sex worker shaming.
According to the story as it’s written, being a stripper is a cheesy, embarrassing, “fake” occupation. No one in the daylight world will take you seriously; and you can’t do anything with the advances you make, be they financial, as a skilled entertainer, and/or as a business entrepreneur.
And most people who work in the field are unable to see it – The Kid/Adam can’t see it, Dallas can’t see it, and neither can the penis pump wielding werewolf. (they can’t see the aforementioned lifestyle trap they’re in either)
In this example, Mike is the only sex worker who sees the socially-induced shaming and trappings associated with being a “forty-year-old stripper.” Throughout the entire film, regardless of the fact that he waffles around and occasionally struggles with his convictions, Mike is trying to be something else. But it’s only when he pays a toll for his mistakes via Adam’s debts and shirks his life-thus-far by not going to Miami does he get the chance – and it’s only just a chance – at redemption.
Beneath all the thongs and abs and disguised by being a movie about dudes, we get the same old message – don’t be a sex worker, don’t be a stripper.
In spite of the immense amount of pleasure I got out of Magic Mike and all the interesting things it accomplishes, the film works to reify a whole slew of age-old double-standards. Some double-standards that exist between women and men, but mostly double-standards that exist between service workers and others and sex workers and others… because even though it’s icky and unfair, Mike wouldn’t have gotten that loan in real life either.
That part of the film was authentic as well.
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