Magic Mike XXL: Pleasure in the Crowd [Movie Review]

Two women go to a matinee showing of Magic Mike XXL.

[Spoilers ahead, though it’s hard to spoil a movie that cares so little about its plot. Knowing the narrative trajectory shouldn’t ruin anybody’s experience of this movie.]

What we were expecting:

EL: The first Magic Mike was a movie about capitalism masquerading as a movie about abs, and I was really convinced that the sequel would dump the capitalism and hit heavy on the abs. And, for the most part, it did just that. The burlesque set pieces were spectacular, and the drama over money and entrepreneurial ambition was kept to a minimum. What was unexpected was the amount of time the movie dedicated to sitting with male friendship—just letting us watch while men talked to each other. Not in high intensity, the-bomb’s-about-to-blow situations, but during the conversations that happen when six men go on a nostalgic road trip together. I was also preparing for some great female gaze moments, which did not disappoint, and I was thankful that we weren’t forced to endure much of a romance plot. When you go to see a strip show, you don’t want to think about your stripper’s girlfriend, and the same holds true in a movie about strippers.

KS: I hadn’t seen the first movie so I had no idea what to expect. I think I was hoping for a dance movie/ female gaze romp and on that account I was not disappointed. For me, the movie reflects its knowledge of the assumed audience demographic (straight women, maybe middle-aged), but I was pleasantly surprised in the various ways this was manifested: the way the men talked to and about women, moments of sheer gratuitous fun (bonus points for showing pleasure on everyone’s faces!), and the diversity in the mass of women who made up the audience. Actually, the movie’s efforts to engulf viewers in its fantasy was one of my favorite parts—we could have easily been a part of the audience at the stripper convention which is conveniently held on July 4th weekend…

Things we liked:

EL: It was strange to me how little women signified in this movie. The love plot was pretty understated, and for the most part women only really showed up as audience members in the strip shows. This mostly worked for me. I liked that the way the movie catered to female desire wasn’t through our identification with a single romantic lead but through the anonymous crowds of women at the shows.

Image @magicmikemovie / Twitter
Image @magicmikemovie / Twitter

KS: Yeah, I was not so into the understated love plot, especially at the moment when Mike pulls his romantic interest onto the stage, breaking the fantasy demarcated by the performance space. It’s significant that in all of the other performances, female desire is embodied by a collective of individual, nameless women. Even though individual women and individual narratives of disenchantment with men and sexuality pepper the movie, ultimately women experience pleasure and gratification together. Adding a named, romantic interest spoils that fantasy—the performance becomes about one woman rather than all women.

EL: Right. Or by watching each other being done-to on the stage of the strip show. Like when Mike pulls his love interest on stage, the real pleasure is all of the women in the audience getting to watch and identify with her physical contact with his body. The woman on stage is the proxy body for all of the women’s desires in the room, which is why the romance plot doesn’t work so well. The strip show is not interested in individual pleasure, but in the collective pleasure made possible by the spectacle of simulated sex.

KS: The romantic plot enables the blurring between the real world of Mike Lane and the performance world of Magic Mike which is a line continually transversed throughout the film. One interesting claim Mike made while he was trying to convince the crew to write new dances is that their repertoire did not reflect them as anything other than stereotypical male entertainers (i.e., none of them were actually firefighters in real life). Thus, for Mike, performance should be connected in some way with reality in order to be authentic. While this certainly lays the ground for the romantic subplot and enables some pretty nifty final dances, it seems like a sketchy claim to me. I suppose the insistence on the reality/performance connection could also be read as a way that men’s fulfillment [albeit psychological] works its way back into a film about female pleasure: the men need to be fulfilled by their performance and that it not possible through providing pleasure alone.

EL: Yeah, the way authenticity works in the performance is really weird. Because pleasure is also strangely inauthentic. Like none of the audience women actually get to have sex with the performers, and none of the performers actually desire the women in the audience, and yet that is the only kind of pleasure that seems to be authentic in the movie. The other, more individual and more traditionally authentic pleasures like actual sex are almost always disappointing. One of the strippers bemoans how his sexual encounters are always frustrating because of a problem related to his dick, and a group of middle-aged women confess that their sex lives with their husbands are less than fantastic even as a genuinely erotic encounter for one of them involves getting a lap-dance and simulated oral sex from one of the strippers.

KS: Also, as flamboyantly performative as the dances are, in some ways they purport to affect healing in the real lives of women as individuals (even though the pleasure is experienced via the collective). In the example of the group of middle-aged women, the erotic experience Ken provides is meant to empower the woman to voice her sexual desires to her husband. The performative healing takes effects only in the world outside of the performance space.

EL: Exactly, like supposedly inauthentic collective pleasure can be genuinely healing. There are multiple moments when the male strippers “heal” women by involving them in performances. Each time, the payoff of the performance was that the woman smiles or laughs rather than gets off. (We don’t want to spoil the gas station scene, but it was one of the highlights.)

KS: And another thing, as the men make it to Rome’s club and see Donald Glover’s (Andre) rap/dance combo, they realize that they can offer more of their authentic, non-stage-name selves in their performance. (Andre identifies primarily as a musician who works at Rome’s club preparing for his EP to drop). From this angle, combined with Mike’s ideas about changing the group’s  routines, we can read the men’s insistence on authenticity as a way to insist that they are more than bodies.

EL: Yeah. It’s like the trajectory of the movie for the male performers is to transcend their embodiedness—or to include their “authentic” selves in their performances—while the trajectory of the movie for the women is to become a mass or crowd. This isn’t a bad thing for me. I liked that women become less individuated—and therefore less objectified—while the men have to negotiate how their individuality makes them vulnerable to objectification.

KS: Also, as a sidenote, we have only talked about straight women’s desire because the film almost exclusively portrays heterosexual desire. The closest thing to queerness we get is a scene featuring drag queens, which doesn’t necessarily mean gay.

EL: To finish up, let’s talk about the only thing both of us had a real problem with, which was the way the movie uses race. The men go to a black strip club run by Jada Pinkett Smith where, it seems, the black strippers teach them how to dance—you know, the new, black way. At one point, Ken says that Donald Glover’s rap performance has “revolutionized” male burlesque.

KS: This is a really common trope—throwback to D2: The Mighty Ducks (totally dating myself here) where Team USA isn’t playing well enough, so they go down to the hood to play streetball with the black kids in order to learn how to play “real hockey”. Thankfully though, Magic Mike XXL didn’t fall into the trap of locating black authenticity in “the hood”.

EL: Overall, I really liked this movie. The bromance was great, and the beefcake was well done.

KS:  Served with buns and cheese.


In Search of the Female Gaze: Pleasure and Cinema

There was a sense that this was for us, that we could claim ownership over these moments in ways that were impossible for images oriented toward male desire. That, moreover, the appropriate reaction to a film such as The Boy Next Door is to whistle and jeer. These movies don’t posit themselves as Oscar bait. They are distinctly, self-consciously lowbrow in flavor and ambition. They don’t aim at high art, but sprawl in the cultural muck.

Men are visual creatures. Women need feelings to get off, we are told, but men just need a pair of boobs to look at. This is one of the first truths I learned about gender that didn’t rely on anatomical difference. It’s not just that boys are naturally bigger, stronger and more sexually aggressive (testosterone is a potent brew, apparently), but that the special sensitivity of their sexual response is based on the special sensitivity of their visual equipment.

Women don’t need to look with such vigor — our eroticism, such as it is, consists of a sensuous experience of our own emotions on one hand, and a corporeal sensitivity on the other. We need love and lots of physical stimulation, but we don’t need much by way of scenery. At least, that is the traditional narrative.

This is why most of Judd Apatow’s oeuvre isn’t seen as an absurd joke, and why the funny guy/bombshell trope is plausible and even commonplace for us in a way that the homely girl/sexy gent pairing is not. This is also why there are no “tits or ass” for hetero women — no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man. There are, of course, lots of sexually charged zones on men’s bodies, but it’s nearly impossible to point to a part of the anatomy that both excites desire and stands in as a marker of that desire as efficiently as the breast. Its presence means sex, even if any given instance of its image does not itself incite desire. It is culturally iconic — an icon of sex and of male sexual pleasure.

What women find sexy about men’s bodies is more diffuse. The hands, the naked back and chest, the eyes, and the forearm are all usual suspects. But men’s bodies don’t seem to be accessible for female desire in the same way. Even the penis doesn’t signify properly as a locus for female desire because it is at least as iconic of men’s sexual aggression as it is of the possibility for female pleasure.

The argument goes that women’s bodies are looked at with such fascination because they are so easy to look at. The sensuous curve, the rounded softness is an essentially feminine aesthetic that is simply more beautiful than anything the male body can offer. We won’t mention how the masculine youth’s body figured prominently as an aesthetic ideal in Greek art, or that the sensuous curve is by no means exclusive to the female form. What’s important here is the way the female body gets narrated as an essential object of visual pleasure.


Film theorist Laura Mulvey describes this capacity of the female form to act as a lure for the eyes as a kind of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Classic Hollywood cinema, Mulvey says, relies on technical conventions and a formal aesthetic that center the female figure within the frame, trapping her within a voyeuristic gaze. The “male gaze” — a phrase endemic to Gender Studies courses and earnest dorm-room conversations — is, for Mulvey, a very specific phenomenon. It describes the ways in which classical cinema solicits the viewer’s eyes and trains them on the female form.

Jimmy Stewart's gaze through the camera serves as plot device, main theme, and weapon in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.
Jimmy Stewart’s gaze through the camera serves as plot device, main theme, and weapon in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Classic film conventions such as shot-reverse-shot function to align the viewer with the male hero whose gaze gives us access to the pleasurable image of the beautiful woman.  While we identify with the male hero, we simply look at his love interest. “Her visual presence,” Mulvey explains, “tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” In other words, she exists purely as an object of desire for the hero — and for the audience through their identification with him — whose presence on screen stops the action even as she provides the excuse for it. The hero must do something to win the girl, but first cinematic logic dictates that our desire to look at her justify the trials undergone by the hero to win her. In John Berger’s famous formulation, “men act—women appear.”

This is the male gaze as it is traditionally conceived. The sticky thing about Mulvey’s model is that it implicates everyone equally. It may be defined by assumptions about hetero male desire, but it is not the exclusive possession of men. Because the conventions of narrative cinema condition and solicit a gaze that seeks the female form as an object of voyeuristic pleasure, the only position available to the viewer is one of male hetero desire. In the dark of the theater, in other words, we’re all the same kind of pervert.

But if the male gaze is the only possible vantage from which to view the cinematic image, what room is there to imagine a method that centers female pleasure and desire? How can we account for the pleasure women take in the cinematic experience that does not simply rely on a perverse identification with an oppressive patriarchal gaze? As I sit here listening to the 50 Shades Soundtrack, I’m not convinced that the male gaze is the only attitude of visual pleasure, nor for that matter that the kinds of pleasure afforded women through the male gaze are by necessity bad. With the proliferation of recent popular films that capitalize on what Hollywood imagines women find sexy, there is, I think, a widening space in popular entertainment to talk about what a female pleasure-driven aesthetic might look like.

Where might we locate the female gaze, and what might it look like*?

50  Shades of Grey, The Boy Next Door and the Magic Mike franchise all market themselves to a presumed female audience at least partly on the promise that they offer a pleasant view. This is a fundamentally different gambit than that other — perhaps only other — popular woman’s genre: the romantic comedy. Where rom-coms focus on plot (the trials that lead to the happily-every-after), these movies are interested in bodies. The narrative of romantic strife overcome that structures the rom-com relies on the premise that women are emotional rather than visual creatures — that we would rather watch the hero chase his beloved than see him naked. What these new movies offer, however, are moments in which the narrative conflict is briefly suspended and replaced with spectacular displays of the male physique.

Channing Tatum | Photo @magicmikemovie/Twitter
Channing Tatum | Photo @magicmikemovie/Twitter

This isn’t to suggest that movies that offer goodies for the female gaze don’t also conform to traditional narrative codes. In fact, all three film mentioned above actually follow pretty conventional and generically recognizable plots: 50 Shades is a steamy romantic drama, The Boy Next Door is an erotic thriller, and Magic Mike is a hero’s journey of entrepreneurial success. But each of them are marked by the way they joyfully solicit the gaze, not toward the silent, suspended female form, but toward the bodacious male body. If cinema of the male gaze is conditioned by moments of frozen action surrounding the figure of the beautiful woman, these films open a space for beholding the resplendent male form.

The Magic Mike XXL trailer concentrates on the buff, tan, pulsating male body in the throes of decidedly non-narrative moments of greased-up gyration. Women, when they appear at all, emerge as the titillated crowd of the male strip show or, finally, as the beneficiary of Magic Mike’s advances, but they aren’t the object of the cinematic gaze so much as its presumed subject. The first half of the trailer reads like the opening of a burlesque act — unsafe practices with power tools, y’all! — that centers Channing Tatum in the frame not as the agent of his own plot, but as a body to be looked at in all his writhing, sleeveless glory.

Similarly, The Boy Next Door concentrates as much on Ryan Guzman’s body as it does on J.Lo’s. The camera slides lovingly over his form in a neat reversal of the traditional male gaze formula, offering us views of his body through a gaze identified with J.Lo’s desire. One of the first shots of his body appears in a shot reverse shot sequence in which J.Lo stares out the window at him working on a car, her gaze settling on his forearms while his face remains hidden behind the open hood. This scene is rehearsed again and again in the history of film with women’s bodies on display, but when the camera settled on Guzman’s forearms in The Boy Next Door, the theater I was in exploded in feminine giggles. This kind of unapologetic focus on the male form as a purely erotic — rather than, say, aggressively masculine — object is so rare in popular entertainment that it’s almost shocking when it does appear.

universal pictures boy next door
Looking at the boy next door with Jennifer Lopez (Claire) | Photo from Universal Pictures

Even 50 Shades of Grey, which adheres most closely to the narrative and visual signposts of a male gaze movie — images of women suspended in moments of erotic contemplation, voyeuristic concentration on the female form, a plot that relies on a series of trials for the hero that culminate in winning the girl, etc. — is not made to satisfy hetero male desire. It represents a woman’s fantasy produced for the consumption of other women. The female gaze, here, relies less on Jamie Dornan’s rippling torso than on the way the narrative unfolds as an extended erotic fantasy from a woman’s point of view. Even if the male gaze organizes the visual field, the movie is oriented toward the sexual gratification of Ana and, through her, the audience. If classic cinema foists the male gaze on all viewers regardless of gender or sexuality, 50 Shades of Grey insists that its pleasures must be accessed through an identification with the looked-at and done-to female body rather than with the active, gazing male hero.

I don’t mean to suggest that these films are some sort of radical political production, but just the opposite. They represent spaces within popular entertainment for the expression and experience of specifically female forms of visual pleasure. These movies still abound with classic male-gaze moments, and still contain plots that conform to traditional — even misogynistic — stories, but the pleasures to be wrung from many of their images is focused and refracted through an erotic engagement with the male form and identification with a desiring female protagonist.

I believe that the natural habitat of something like the female gaze is in the low and the popular. Throughout my viewing of The Boy Next Door, the predominantly female audience hooted at the screen like women at Magic Mike’s strip show. There was a sense that this was for us, that we could claim ownership over these moments in ways that were impossible for images oriented toward male desire. That, moreover, the appropriate reaction to a film such as The Boy Next Door is to whistle and jeer. These movies don’t posit themselves as Oscar bait. They are distinctly, self-consciously lowbrow in flavor and ambition. They don’t aim at high art, but sprawl in the cultural muck.

The Boy Next Door's Ryan Guzman (Noah)
The Boy Next Door’s Ryan Guzman (Noah)

While High Culture is often claimed by the male gaze as an exclusive domain, the low, the common, and the popular offer spaces that might be conducive to something like a female way of looking. “Important” art concerns itself with the epic efforts and afflictions of the masculine hero or artist, but popular culture has always been a place for women’s expression (though, of course, it can be and often is a deeply masculinist space). Pop culture has always inhabited a more or less debased position within the cultural canon at least partly because of its association with the consuming habits of women. Yet precisely because of this relationship women bear to the production and consumption of popular media, their pleasures and desires tend to be represented in popular forms.

It is no accident that 50 Shades began as fan fiction, or that Magic Mike is about a skeevy subculture for which women are (imagined to be) the prime audience. I don’t mean to suggest that pop culture represents some sort of feminist utopian space or that high culture is completely devoid of women’s artistic expressions, but rather that the popular is uniquely situated to anchor cultural productions oriented toward female pleasure.

*My discussion here fails to imagine the female gaze as anything other than heterosexual. This is because I am concerned here with recent popular examples that seem to work against the male gaze, and while indie theaters do carry queer cinema, it’s pretty difficult to find a mainstream example of the queer female gaze that doesn’t simply mask the male gaze titillated by lesbian sex.

Written by E.L.
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