I recently went to a weeknight showing in Stamford of Magic Mike, the new R-rated Channing Tatum film about male strippers. My friend Emma and I were running late and had to sit on the side aisle of the packed theater, and shortly after we sat down, a group of women in their mid-forties took over the row behind us.
We were excited for the film to begin, both of us curious feminists interested in seeing how a film marketed as a stripper rom com would treat gender roles and female sexuality (and for the gratuitous male nudity). But the women behind us had no such academic pretenses: they were there to see abs, plain and simple. And the ensuing one hour and 50 minutes sure seemed to satisfy them.
While Magic Mike is hardly a revolutionary depiction of sex work and sexuality, it is the first film I can remember ever having seen that takes such pleasure in objectifying its male stars.
Channing Tatum, whose experiences as a male stripper before breaking into Hollywood provided the foundation for the film, gleefully and expertly gyrates against the stage floor, and Matthew McConaughey revels in his role as the seedy, bongo-playing MC and owner of the fictitious all-male revue.
The almost entirely female audience lapped up every second, myself included. Catcalls, hooting laughter and orders to ‘Take it off!’ were refreshingly shameless and surprisingly frequent. It did not matter that we were experiencing Joe Manganiello’s buttocks through the filter of a movie screen; the theater had the electrified vibe of a nightclub, and the audience wanted to participate.
“I give the plot a D+,” announced the woman sitting behind me as everyone rose to leave the theater. Her friends were not so subtly stuffing empty wine bottles into their tote bags. “But the abs get an A+!”
Most films produced by Hollywood follow the concept of “male gaze,” a feminist term coined by Laura Mulvey in the 1970s that posits women are usually filmed as the objects of a white heterosexual male audience.
The term can be extended to describe countless beer advertisements depicting scantily clad women serving drinks to rowdy men at the bar, as well as in comic books and video games. This sexual objectification of women (reducing women to objects for use rather than treating them like multi-faceted individuals) is rampant and unyielding in American culture.
Male objectification is far less common. True, David Beckham’s “package” caused a scandal when used to shill Armani underpants, but for the most part male nudity is accompanied by humor, not the intent to arouse. The only other film about male strippers in recent memory is the hilarious and uncomfortable comedy The Full Monty, which is more likely to be described as “heartwarming” than sexy.
Magic Mike may not signal a revolution in film with regard to objectification, and the movie attempts to treat its main characters as individuals who grow through their experiences with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. But if nothing else, the runaway success of Magic Mike and its sold-out showings all over the country prove that women are hungry for an opportunity to ogle the shiny pecks of Hollywood’s finest.
Hopefully, this will be the first in a long line of films allowing women to have their turn objectifying their male counterparts. If the sweeping success of Fifty Shades of Grey has taught us nothing else, it is that female sexuality is not to be underestimated.
Editor's note: Here's more on the Web:
- Washington Post's "She The People" blog by Mary C. Curtis: "The 'Magic Mike' Cunundrum: If it's OK for women to ogle, do men get a pass?"
- Washington Post's "She The People" blog by Suzi Parker: "The Truth About 'Magic Mike'"
- Vulture.com: "Why Magic Mike Isn't Quite a Feminist Home Run"
- Arcadia Patch: