I have a Polaroid picture that’s nearly 20 years old of two friends and me posing with Chippendales dancers. I’m nuzzled up to the well-tanned pecs of a male stripper with a ponytail and a salacious grin, while a dancer who looks like the adopted Aryan son of Siegfried and Roy is hugging one of my friends from behind. My third friend is a genteel distance away from her companion, a fellow with some sort of ’90s hair metal situation and a gold chain dangling in his clipped chest hair. I’m pretty sure that if I were smiling like a normal person in the photo, you’d see my braces. We’d had a grand time with our moms, aunts, and a bevy of Vegas broads watching the Male Revue strip down to their skivvies, and this was our keepsake.
I don’t have photos from the second time I went to a male strip club, and that’s really for the best. It was a place in midtown Manhattan that was rented out in the early evenings for bachelorette parties before the B&T crowd was ready to booze it up. We’d assured our friend’s fiancé it would be no big deal, but we were all so grossed out by the greasy dudes hauling women out of the audiences to hump them that we spent most of our time shooing them away from the bride-to-be until we left for greener pastures.
The third male strip club I’ve been to was Magic Mike. And it was the nicest one of them all.
In some circles, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike has drummed up the sort of anticipation that’s unlike the usual buzz surrounding the Oscar-winner’s work. The brouhaha over Magic Mike is a heady mixture of bachelorette party giggles and cinephilic curiosity, similar to the tittering that accompanied Michael Fassbender’s revealing performance in Shame. But there’s no shame in the Magic Mike game; we’re meant to look, and look hard at the parade of perfectly pumped and primped male dancers starring in Soderbergh’s newest movie. Judging from the reception of trailers, photos, and media appearances that Warner Bros. has been releasing like Salome’s veils (as well as the post-screening ladies room chatter I overheard), the female audience is ready for our turn at some public male gazing, much as I was at the age of, uh, whatever I was when that Polaroid was first shaken.
When the trailer popped up online in mid-April, some friends and I began an impressively long email chain about the merits of Magic Mike. Hyperbole and The Dark Knight Rises be damned, this would indubitably be the best film of the summer, if not the year. Emails flew through the ether, and our Twitter timelines grew bloated with links to stories, animated GIFs, and snickers. We picked out our favorites; Channing Tatum won some of us over with his turn in 21 Jump Street ("Fuck science!"), while others preferred True Blood‘s Joe Manganiello. Matthew McConaughey holds a certain appeal with his kinky cowboy outfits and "Awright, awright, awright" Texan drawl. We were a bit sour on Alex Pettyfer for his off-screen attitude, and Adam Rodriguez, Matt Bomer, and Kevin Nash got lost in the shuffle (sorry, guys).
The guilty emailing parties were not just friends but work colleagues, almost all of them journalists who write about film, usually from a feminist point of view, or are otherwise involved in media. We deal with these people, well, not every day, but often enough that we’re supposed to be immune, dammit. We are professionals. We don’t wear tiaras with tiny penises on them on the weekends. So our titters are mixed with a touch of professional embarrassment, the same sort of reaction most had over Fassbender taking a leisurely leak in Steve McQueen’s dark drama from last year.
Once I began polling my other friends about the movie via email, almost all of them admitted their curiosity was piqued. These women are not generally the type to drool over Channing Tatum and his sweet Step Up moves or ogle dudes at the gym. Judy McGuire, Seattle Weeklycolumnist and the author of The Official Book of Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Lists, describes her type as "tall, sunken-chested, sullen, and scrawny." Another writer friend who shall remain anonymous prefers her men to be "skinny and Jewish, mostly, so Magic Mike is more like Magic Beefcake to me." She added, "This kind of presentation of male sexuality isn’t my bag or my thing at all. I get more fluttery watching a cute beta choirboy-type sing indie rock songs about birds." I don’t have a physical type that I can tell; if you lined up all the fellows I’ve been infatuated with over the years, it would be a rogues’ gallery of weirdoes, and the only one who could pass for one of Mike’s pals is my high school boyfriend, a football playing vegetarian metal head. Lux Alptraum, the editor and publisher of Fleshbot (link NSFW), put it bluntly: "I think Channing Tatum is pretty unattractive, honestly." Conversely, porn star, model, and badass-of-all-trades Bella Vendetta (link also NSFW, obviously) made no bones about it. "I’m sure women are excited because it’s Channing Tatum, and he’s mostly naked, what’s not to like?" The convergence of Channing Tatum’s rising stardom and the release of Magic Mike can’t be underestimated here, either. Our interests in the movie itself also are a mixed bag; while some are actually psyched to see the rate at which Tatum can pistol his pelvis per second, McGuire responded, "Because it looks hilarious! I went to see Glitter in the theater for the exact same reason."
Most of us are not actually looking at any of the dancers as "that dreamboat guy that never came along," as McConaughey puts it in the trailer. "Their appeal is not about a desired relationship, it’s about sex and fantasy,” wrote Kristy Puchko, a twenty-something movie blogger. “It’s Erica Jong’s zipless fuck.” And that zipless fuck isn’t easy to come by, either. "There aren’t that many pieces of pop culture that explicitly sexualize the male body in a way that isn’t codified as for gay men," Alptraum wrote. "I think women who are attracted to men appreciate the creation of a film that is overtly about male bodies sexualized or commodified for female consumption."
While plenty of love scenes have modest male butt shots, they’re rarely lingered upon as long as they are in Magic Mike. On the flip side, the naked male body is also a figure of fun, as in Jason Segel’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall or whenever Will Ferrell drops his pants. As my friend Kathleen, 37, wrote, "It’s easier for straight men to accept it if the character is either funny (‘Haha, he’s naked! Hilarious!’) or pathetic (‘Look at that naked dumbass!’) than if the character is otherwise a regular, likeable character." Although Magic Mike is definitely funny, the humor doesn’t have the same timbre; we’re not laughing at how pathetic Jason Segel’s character is, we’re laughing at the surreal dance numbers—"It’s Raining Men," anyone?—or Mike’s flirtatious banter. It will probably be hard to get heterosexual men into the theater for this one, unless they’re serious about their Soderbergh. As my friend and colleague Jordan Hoffman wrote, "I am ‘assigned’ this movie as a working critic, but even if I was in a different line of work I would see it because I greatly admire Steven Soderbergh and never miss anything he does. K Street forever!" The guys who skip Magic Mike because they fear it will only be an endless vision of glossy glutes will be missing out on much more than McConaughey playing the bongos.
Watching Magic Mike in the context of a media screening made me feel self-conscious; I was always trying to gauge the reactions of those around me. Was I laughing too much? Too loud? At the wrong time? Oh god, did I just chuckle and snort?! Come on, let’s be professionals here. They’re just guys gyrating in thongs, y’all. This is why publicists like us to watch horror movies with people who are psyched to get into a preview screening, even if that screening is at midnight and you’ve got to turn in a review by 10 AM; ostensibly, the excitement of the crowd catches like a cough. (This can also backfire terribly if the crowd hates the movie as much or more than the journalists attending.) But it’s so cheesy!" the adult in me moans, while the pre-sulk teenager in me squeals and claps her hands. It’s easy and maybe safer to put on a smirk and sit back with your arms crossed in case your editor is nearby, but where’s the fun in that?