Monday, July 2, 2012

On Magic Mike, Objectification, and Expressions of Sexuality

This is part of my series on the gender of the 2012 big budget blockbusters. Check out the others: The Hunger GamesPrometheus, MIB3, The AvengersBraveSnow White and the Huntsman, Ted and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

When I started this summer blockbuster series, I remember thinking, "Will I write about Magic Mike? Is it a blockbuster?" I certainly planned on seeing it, but I thought it looked cheesy and silly and I didn't really think it would be a big deal or have a crowd. Um yeah. I was so, so wrong.

As I wrote over at my Tumblr "Magic Mike is selling out DAYS IN ADVANCE. It sold out for Friday night by Wednesday afternoon. Plus, Tuesday, it was the first free screening that I’ve been turned away from in months!" Clearly something was happening, and as I could see from my own attendance at the film and my friends' Facebook posts, it made for mass "girls night out" this weekend. Dozens of women I know went with their friends in droves to see this thing.  

In that vein, I figured I'd make this a friend affair. I'm going to conduct a discussion with two of my friends, Brittany and Maria, who I saw the film with, about our various reactions to Magic Mike

A: Hi friends, thanks for talking with me. Let's go ahead and jump right in. Tell me your general reactions to the film and your feelings about the gender situation. What stood out to you? 

Brittany: If I had to sum up Magic Mike, I would call it a sad stripper movie. I have to admit, I feel a bit conflicted about the film. I enjoyed how campy it was, and how during the dance scenes, it was evident that the characters didn't take themselves too seriously. That being said, I do understand the criticisms that it's a problematic representation of men, and that it glorifies the Adonis body and serves to objectify males.

Maria: It's interesting, because the film is clearly marketed to and made successful by women, but the actual film is almost entirely male-oriented. While there is a female love interest, the main characters are male, the relationships explored in most depth are male, and it was written and directed by males. Aside from the fact that women are the ones going crazy over the bodies of these men, this is a movie entirely geared toward male desires. Even the stripping seemed to be less about what women wanted and more about what men would like to be.

A: Truthfully, I didn't expect much from the film. But I guess my biggest take away is similar to Maria' just felt like a pretty standard reinforcement of the masculine norm. I mean, it even felt like female nudity was thrown in for tha dudes.

Maria: There was more female nudity than male nudity! For a movie about male strippers, there was a dearth of male genitalia.

A: Yeah, I kept getting caught up on just how phallocentric it was. Over and over it came back to shows of masculinity from having a big penis/thrusting a penis/"rocking a cock," etc.

Brittany: That is a realistic representation of what a male strip club is like though. It is essentially just a lot of dry humping and thrusting to Usher.

A: And as for authentic expressions of sexuality, the strippers might have simulated oral sex on women in the club, but when we see Adam (Alex Pettyfer) actually hooking up with a girl at the beginning of the movie, the first thing she does is go down on him. I think it was allll about feeling so big and powerful and desired as a man.

Maria: I think the love interest as a character (Cody Horn) was telling, because although this is supposed to be about how women can become excited about men stripping, none of the women that actually enjoyed that were the main characters' love interest. And even the woman Mike (Channing Tatum) was interested in who was sexually adventurous is portrayed as an adulteruss and a heart breaker (Olivia Munn). In the end, the only woman worthy of his love is the one who rejects his whole lifestyle in the first place.

A: Truth--and he learned how "empty" his lifestyle was.

Maria: Exactly- it's like a double edged sword. Women, in order to be empowered, you have to enjoy expressing your sexual desires by fondling naked men- but once you do so, they're not going to be interested in dating someone as vapid as you.

A: I think that's pretty similar to the cultural narrative around female strippers--they're supposed to be desirable, but only at the club. They're not a girl you "take home to mom." It's like women are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Always.

Maria: I think in terms of the profession of stripping the movie was trying to have it both ways, and celebrate it for entertainment value, until in the end you learn basically that lifestyle will ruin you.

Brittany: I will say, that while I don't think Magic Mike broke any amazing cinematic ground, and it is definitely problematic in its representation of men and masculinity, as well as women and their expression of sexual desire, I worry that this film and its numerous problems often gets conflated with the inappropriateness or 'weirdness' of women and their expression of sexual desire.

A: Well, I'd like to talk about what Alyssa Rosenberg at Slate said on that topic, Brit. She feels the film depicts men as focused on female sexuality and saw the strip club setting as a safe way for women to be sexually expressive. She said, "The women get a chance to be sexually daring and to make the first move without consequences or judgment, and the strippers get both money and validation." Do you agree with Rosenberg's assessment?

Brittany: I think there are many ways to feel about and interpret this film. I don't want to say that the way it handled sexuality was inaccurate or incorrect for all women, because women express sexual desire in different ways. So I can see where Rosenberg is coming from, because, for the most part, there is a sense of safety (though it's often accompanied by seediness) at male strip clubs. You enter on your own terms, you can leave when you please, you are, for once, not the focal point of objectification, and I think it often feels like a relief and a release. (Though I realize that making someone else a sex object is not the correct answer.) I don't think that the 'pack mentality' of women fawning and grouping male strippers is a fair representation of women's interest in expressing themselves as sexual beings, and I don't think MM offers anything even remotely egalitarian, but I think what the ticket sales and general interest show is that women are looking for an outlet, and social acceptance and even camaraderie, around sexual expression and desire.  

Maria: It doesn't seem to me that strip clubs are actually an authentic expression of female desire. It seems more like women feel like they have to be "like men" by going, but when they actually do attend, the experience is more about bonding with other women, whooing, being silly and getting embarrassed, rather than women actually enjoying the experience of having male privates in their face.

A: It's interesting, because I think that many women did use MM as a door opener to explore a sexual topic, but the result was just fairly objectifying. And I agree, Maria, that it doesn't feel authentic. I wish there was something which could serve as more of a bonding point without those other aspects. Let me ask this, point blank: Do you think the movie objectifies men? 

Maria: Yes.

Brittany: Absolutely. Is it right? No? Did I enjoy Big Dick Ricky's (Joe Manganiello) fireman dance? Yes. Does this make me a bad person, or dare I ask, a bad feminist? I'm not really sure.

Maria: I think that there is this feeling that women will have achieved equality if it can also be acceptable for them to do the things men do-- but replicating that damaging societal dynamic doesn't feel like progress to me.

A: I read something earlier this week about the film and the author (forgive my lack of link!) was making the point that it's not sex negative to be against sexual objectification. She felt that there's a pressure amongst sex positive communities to usher something in just because it's "sexy"--when in reality we can parse apart the sexuality from the objectification. I think MM succeeded in objectifying both men and women, and that's something I have a problem with. Like your enjoyment of the sexuality expressed isn't wrong (Brittany) but we can view it within a wider context that is reducing people to their parts, if that makes sense.

Maria: Men are starting to spend more and more money on makeup, and I think that is certainly part of the fact that men are beginning to feel the same pressure to look a certain way in the way that women do.

Brittany:  I think objectifying anyone is wrong (though it's important to note that is happens to women, and has been ingrained in our culture and used as a tool against women to a much greater extent), but I also don't ever want to shame or judge someone for being sexually expressive or voicing their desire.

Maria: But I think that there is a way women can express their sexuality in films in a way that is empowering and women-driven, and MM is not that film. Women in it, as characters, were certainly not expressing their sexuality and I think the successs of this film is down to the fact that women don't have other, more revolutionary avenues to express themselves

Brittany: I think that's why it's important to create alternative narratives so a film, or book, can exist which doesn't harm or objectify people, but also allows for some (in a less academic term) sexy time.

A: Which would be great if WOMEN could actually exercise their voices via film on this subject. 

Brittany: Amen, sister.

Maria: I think that the scene that really captured the essence of the film for me is when Adam is at a seedy party and another stripper tells him to touch his wife's boobs. So he touches this woman's boobs, but it isn't about her at all, and he looks at the husband and tells him he loves him. And it's safe for him to do that without seeming "gay", because he's got his hands on a pair of breasts. I think this is a film about how men would like to be idolized by women (and form relationships with each other) rather than anything to do with women really at all.

A: Yeah, I totally agree. Her body was something to be shared between them as an act of brotherhood. And the only sexually assertive woman in the film, Joanna (Olivia Munn) also objectifies and degrades other women and is portrayed as a generally bad person.

Brittany: I would have made a stripper movie where there were unions, health care options, and people of all sizes, races, and genders. And I'd call it Dry Humping Diversity.

A: I'll be there for the midnight showing of your flick, Brittany! All right--final comments on MM? 

Brittany: Maria - I think you made a good point, there seemed to be a buzz that this movie was for women, but in the end, while I think many of the women (for better or worse) enjoyed the dancing stripper scenes, this movie was not about, or for women, at all really. It was more a celebration of masculinity, screwing, wealth, and being popular.

Maria: I do think MM was entertaining for a significant portion of the movie, but I also think the environment of the movie theatre we went to see it in suggests how this could be a negative cultural phenomenon. Our male server acted like a sex object, flirted with all the middle aged women, and then got chastized as "only eye candy" by a female manager when he got our order wrong. I don't think that treating men as only sex objects helps women, and I think it might even harm them by giving men the excuse that objectification is something that happens to both sexes (which ignores how much more pervasive and engrained sexism and objectification toward women is, and the power differential that exists between men and women in our society.)

A : So it sounds like we're in agreement that the gender situation of Magic Mike isn't more progressive than the stuff we're typically fed. I, personally, would love a film that would display authentic expressions of female sexuality, and while heterosexual women and gay men might enjoy the male form displayed here, MM ain't nothing to write home about.

Maria: Agreed.

Brittany:  I agree. I just want an alternative. I want an answer to Magic Mike that celebrates sexuality and doesn't make people feel bad about themselves or their bodies, and at the same time doesn't promote a culture of sexual objectification of either sex. I just don't want the answer to be a Puritanical response. I want people to try again. And make it better. And less offensive.With costumes just as snazzy.

A: Snazzy costumes and I wouldn't mind if Channing Tatum stuck around either. Thanks so much for talking with me guys! 


Maria: Thanks!

Brittany is an amazing dancer, singer and actress.  She is also a compulsive liar.  But on the real, she loves chocolate, cheese, feminism and dogs. 

 Maria excels at looking skeptical, if not mildly irritated at all times.  She loves history, feminism, and judging people. She can see Sarah Palin from her house.


  1. I saw this movie last weekend with some friends (all female). Admittedly, I did not go because I thought it would be a cinematic masterpiece. I went because I wanted to see Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey dance shirtless.
    This is a pretty good analysis. I agree that the way sexuality and gender roles are illustrated in the film is problematic. What I'm more interested in though is the buzz this movie has generated among female viewers and the fact that it was the second highest grossing movie this past weekend.
    On the radio yesterday morning, I heard a male DJ say, "Between Magic Mike and 50 Shades of Gray, women are becoming dudes." My first thought was, 'no, women AREN'T becoming dudes because men don't have a monopoly on sexuality. News flash: Women like sex too.' If anything positive comes out of MM, I hope it's that Hollywood realizes that women go to the movies too and we like to see more than just rom-coms starring Katherine Heigl.

    1. good point AMC.. yes i agree, women aren't becoming dudes and men don't have a monopoly on sexuality. well said. also women do 'gaze'.

    2. Hi, Thanks for sharing an interesting discussion.

      "but I think what the ticket sales and general interest show is that women are looking for an outlet, and social acceptance and even camaraderie, around sexual expression and desire." Yes I agree. So do you think we women have found that, and has anything changed since you wrote this last year?

      "I think that there is this feeling that women will have achieved equality if it can also be acceptable for them to do the things men do-- but replicating that damaging societal dynamic doesn't feel like progress to me." Perhaps not but if men are objectified is that necessarily damaging. It probably is not down to us to decide this anyway as the market decides and is deciding men can and will be objectified. Beauty and sexy sells, whether male or female. The male nude, or semi-nude appeals to a wide market including gay men, straight men who admire and want to be like the model, and women who admire and perhaps desire him. I really don't think we need to repress a natural urge to gaze at men, whether in a photograph, film, or reality.

      "I think the successs of this film is down to the fact that women don't have other, more revolutionary avenues to express themselves" Absolutely! Again, has this changed? Is anything revolutionary happening?

      Personally I have been picking up on a gentle form of objectification of men in the online photo sharing sites such as Pinterest and also Tumblr. I've created an album and called it 'equity and gratification', but there are many more collections by women of male images with obvious titles such as 'beards are sexy' or 'beautiful men', and so on. These are men who are willing participants in seeing themselves as a face, a form, a body, an aesthetic ideal of style or beauty and masculinity... not necessarily in a stereotypical hyper-masculine expression we see in this film, but often quite a personal and creative one. Just as women participate in visual culture on a daily basis when they (purchase apparel) dress and style themselves, so do men. Just as female modelling professionals and actresses participate, in a highly visible and public way, in image culture and in self-objectification, male models and actors also participate. They may be regarded as sex symbols or sex objects. It need not be an evil and damaging thing, though it can and often has been. I believe and observe it is possible for women and men to look, and gaze, at each other with admiration and desire without destroying what we see or disrespecting the individual or their sex.

      If women will openly allow themselves this pleasure and demonstrate that it can be done respectfully, then, I believe, we are somewhere on the way to sexual equality and to a far more gratifying heterosexual media culture. I also believe this will flow on into our relationships. But it means women have to stop being so 'ethical', so empathetic, and afraid to do damage, or ashamed of their desires.

      On the left of politics, especially the creative left, while women are dressing in 1950s frocks and donning red lippy men are openly objectifying women and pin ups of the past. Burlesque has sent the message to men on the fringe that gazing at women is now socially acceptable. In this environment then, what choice have women got than to step up and be bold about what we want to see. What we want to look at. What we desire.

    3. Reality check. Men are not going to stop objectifying women. Women are not going to stop objectifying themselves and seeing themselves as something desirable. Why would they? It is after all a biological competition we are in. To think some other solution is going to come along and we'l wait for it to solve inequality is naive.

      If women are going to be equals with men, we need to show them we expect them to be desirable as they possibly can too. Be honest with yourselves. How many of you go out to a mixed group without removing most of your body hair? How many of you go out to an event without washing and styling your hair? etc. Do you see where I am going? How much care do you expect a man you are dating to take with his appearance? How much care would you like him to take? Less than you?

      Are women liberated enough to show fat, hairy, uneven featured, flawed skin, blemishes... (what are all those 'unwanted' words)... in public? On youtube? Because men are. Men are going out there and making comments about objectification of men by showing their irregular, too thin, too white, too hairy, too fat bodies to everyone on film or in public places. What woman do you know who ever did that? Are women liberated enough to parade themselves in all their natural unadulterated glory? Without waxing, or shaping, or surgery, or make up? Whether they were born beautiful or not? Whether they have 'let themselves go' or kept up their fitness and personal grooming to a very high standard? I'd say rarely if ever... Most women are ashamed of 'ugliness'.

      Do we really think this shame is going to be lifted by having a debate about what is fair and ethical. What is right? Nothing changes.

      Why is it men are not afraid to flaunt their flaws? Isn't it because they don't see it as an impediment to their success? Yet women do see flaws as an impediment.

      How will this ever change? You think it will change by women asserting their success in other areas? Well women are Prime Ministers and surgeons now but does the focus go away from their personal appearance and style? No. The standard of beauty for women is not going to fall any time soon. Accept it and deal with it.

      So question is. Do you want an older fatter hairier sweaty man to think he is in the running to pick up you, a lovely young fresh faced beauty? If not, then why does he think he has a right to gaze upon you as though he owned you? Why does he feel unashamed to walk about with his shirt off on the beach front walk in front of cafe's?

      Why do women send mixed signals? How many movies have you seen that feature a beautiful male protagonist forgiving the less than acceptable appearance of his love interest because she is intelligent, caring, and witty, and falling in love with her for that? I've never seen one movie, or read one story. Every video I pick up says of the woman she is beautiful (or similar).

      So lets not dream on about equality coming while we carefully skirt around the reality of the issue.

      Equality in heterosexual culture will not come unless we start looking to male beauty in just the same way female beauty has been worshipped.

    4. cont'd
      Lets clear the air.
      Maybe the outlet women are looking for is one that says:
      The stories are lies!
      Not all women of value are young and beautiful.
      Not all young and beautiful women are as good as they look.
      We know this of course (this is explored) but point is... maybe we want to flaunt our flaws???
      Maybe it would be empowering if we had a right to go out looking ugly as hell. Like the cat just dragged us up from the storm water drain. I've seen guys out looking like that. ON stage even.

      All women want to be treated with value and respect
      Yes we all know that

      but they/we are not.
      we know that too

      So lets also be clear here
      if we want to be empowered we need to say something quite difficult to say

      all women are not young and beautiful
      neither are all men young and beautiful

      the good thing is
      some certainly are!
      Some men are incredibly beautiful
      want to insert your favourite man yum words here
      delicious dads
      lovely lads
      whatever you like
      get it out there girls

      lets celebrate male youth and beauty
      just the way women's youth and beauty has been celebrated and oggled at for centuries!

      Anyone for some equality?


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