The plot of Magic Mike XXL is so barely-there that you could fit it in one tweet and still have enough characters left to create a witty hashtag:
And yet, what appears at first glance to be a flimsy thong of a movie (a follow-up to 2012’s Magic Mike, which had arty Steven Soderberg at the helm) is so damn good that you should go see it, immediately.
Here’s a six-pack (sorry, but needs must) of reasons why.
1. It knows what it is – and who its audience are
Magic Mike isn’t shy about being what it is: a movie about five strippers on a road trip. But it also knows that it’s a film with a lot riding on it, after the huge success of the first film and the massive popularity of its main star (whose experiences are what Magic Mike is based on), Channing Tatum.
This movie also knows who’s going to see it: mainly straight women (as a side note, I’ll have to generalise here and refer to straight women a lot, as I’m talking from my own experience and who the film is marketed towards – but this isn’t a film that’s just for straight women. If you have a particular viewpoint coming from your own gender/sexuality, I’d love to hear it in the comments).
But – and this the crucial part – it doesn’t talk down to its audience or assume that all the little ladies want second time around is a hunk of oiled-up beefcake.
Yes, within the first 10 minutes of the movie, we do get Channing Tatum dancing alone to Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’, doing unspeakable things with a cordless drill to a table.
But while most people are there to see the impossibly muscular bodies and shield-your-eyes stripping scenes, the team behind Magic Mike XXL know they also want more than that.
They want a plot, they want characters they care about, they want more than just some soft porn. But they also want a bit of craic.
2. The guys are more than their bodies
When Magic Mike reunites with his four pals after three years apart, there’s a palpable sense of camaraderie and love between them. They’re ‘bros’, they love each other, and they’re proud of their friendships.
They’re not above ribbing each other over their quirks and foibles, but they’ve got each other’s backs. Each one of the five has his own distinct personality. They all bring something different to their act, and these personalities come into their own in this second film. (At one stage, they literally throw their old costumes out of a window in an attempt to reinvigorate their stage act.)
Matt Bomer (Ken)’s new age spirituality, for example, infuses his character with a softness that goes beyond his taut muscles and Ken Doll face.
Meanwhile, Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Richie (no need to explain where he got that name from) can’t even brag about his huge penis because it actually makes sex difficult. When he finally meets a woman who ‘fits’, he’s chuffed, and the episode is treated in a gently celebratory – dare I say romantic? – way. You actually feel for his predicament, as improbable as it seems.
Mike, meanwhile, is having trouble in the love department, despite thinking he had things all worked out in the traditional sense: girl, house, dog.
These men are allowed to be big-dick-swinging strippers, but they’re also given a sense of vulnerability that fleshes out their characters beyond mere stereotypes. You actually care about them. They’re objectified, but manage to transcend that objectification in being aware of their status as objects, but also able to connect with the world beyond that.
Essentially: they are human, and they know they are desired. Which brings me to…
3. It treats female desire in a way you haven’t seen in a mainstream movie before
I probably wouldn’t last two seconds at a real-life Magic Mike show (as much as I love these movies, the real-life equivalent wouldn’t be my entertainment of choice) but the extras in XXL are having the time of their lives.
While the stripping/dancing scenes are incredibly intense, the power dynamic feels far more balanced than you would expect. It’s clear the dancers are there to entertain and turn on the women, but in a way the women want, with the consent of the women, and playing up to what the women actually desire.
The situation is a contrived one, and a financial transaction – the women pay the men for dancing – and yet in XXL there’s a feeling that female desire is held as important, and something to be respected.
While going to a show like this wouldn’t be something for me in real life, it was a revelation to see the scenes portrayed as being for women, not being done to women. The women were as much willing participants in the spectacle as viewers to the men’s actions.
In one section, the guys end up at a house party being thrown by several married and divorced wealthy Southern women (witness Andie McDowell being ace). The men show the women that they deserve to be desired, that they should be desired, and they should make sure they are desired – and all without stripping.
That we witness a room of clothed adults talking frankly about sexual desire in such a way in a mainstream film is shockingly refreshing.
I could write a whole other blogpost on what a female equivalent to Magic Mike could be, but in short, the men in this film do benefit from living in a Western culture where men traditionally have held the sexual power (obviously, this is something that has been changing and is being challenged in various ways, but in Hollywood movies it tends to be accepted as the ‘norm’).
This situation is something they can trade off and benefit from, and they aren’t, as men, coming from a position of being denied power to reclaiming power – by dint of being straight males, they have that sexual power anyway.
But in this film, the power isn’t forced onto women or the women made feel subject to it. The power is being shared, and explored within that shared space.
4. There are no homophobic jokes
The guys in XXL love each other. They get naked with each other. They share beds. But they never trade homophobic jokes.
Their more loving scenes are treated like a non-sexual romance, and there are no nudge-nudge-wink-wink moments when, for example, two characters talk about emotions while sharing a hotel bed.
When they end up at Jada Pinkett (as Rome)’s women’s club, they end the evening trading stories with the male strippers who work there, with no sense of testosterone-fuelled competition being felt.
Put that in your pipe, Entourage, and smoke it. (As an aside, I’d rather clean the grouting in a dirty shower with my own toothbrush than watch the latest Entourage movie)
5. The female gaze is everywhere
Not to go all Introduction to Feminism 101 on you, but to understand what the female gaze is, let’s take a brief look at the male gaze.
As per Collins dictionary:
originally in film theory, the tendency of filmmakers and films to assume the point of view of a heterosexual male; now, often, the perspective of the heterosexual male in viewing women generally.
And as per Laura Mulvey, who coined the phrase in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema:
‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active /male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly’
XXL acknowledges a ‘female gaze’ (though it is arguable that this is less narrow than the ‘male gaze’) throughout: that women are watching.
But, most importantly, it acknowledges that it is not always heterosexual men who are watching (not that I think straight men should not watch this). In most mainstream movies, the male gaze is implicit, and the portrayal of female characters responds to that.
Again because of their place in the sexual power pecking order, the men in XXL benefit from this as they are not generally searching for power in their world. So they are able to be looked at and desired by women, but not just as objects (see the points above about their relationships and personalities).
Still, it feels revolutionary as a woman to see a movie that’s not solely from the male gaze viewpoint. More specifically, to not see the female characters objectified and sexualised in a way outside of their control.
Jada Pinkett (as Rome, a former flame of Mike’s) is used as a way to underline all this – a sexually confident woman, when we first meet her she’s wearing a negligee. But it swiftly becomes clear she’s not wearing it for us – the viewer’s – enjoyment. She’s wearing it for her.
At Rome’s women’s club, which is visited by Magic Mike and gang, male strippers dance under the female gaze, while Rome encourages women to embrace and be empowered by their own sexuality. The men, under the female gaze, are afforded the right to be individuals within their roles as strippers.
The women in this film, particularly the female extras, are also afforded the right to be individuals. All of the women at Rome’s club are women of colour, and are of various shapes and sizes. The women in the audience during the final dance scenes are similarly of different sizes and looks.
There’s no joke at anyone’s expense. These women are shown to be entitled to own their sexuality and desire outside of any narrow expectations of what a woman ‘should’ look like on the big screen.
6. You’ll leave feeling exhilarated
Yes, queens. You’ll feel a whole heap of energy after watching this (what you do with it is, frankly, your own business – but that’s what this film is all about).
It won’t just be because of the rather intense final dancing scenes, but also because you’ve witnessed an event that’s treated you like a participant in a wild ride. You – I hope – won’t have felt talked down to, or compromised, or left with a niggling feeling that you’ve been taken advantage of as a viewer.
Yes, this film isn’t for everyone – and that’s fine.
However, if you do go with a group of friends (I went with 11 of my workmates) you’ll have that delicious and unique feeling of bonding and excitement that only going to a feminist movie about five male strippers on a road trip can bring.
What did you think of the film? Tell me in the comments...