Magic Mike is the purest reflection of the “It Gets Better” sentiment—a movie so gleefully homoerotic, it can give a boost to bullied teens everywhere. And for those of us who grew up on the bland, heteronormative softcore offerings of Cinemax and Showtime, it’s a stirring reminder that our culture is headed in the right direction. Deadmau5 may see Paris Hilton’s DJing as a sign of the Mayan apocalypse, but if 2012 truly is the end of the world, at least we’re going out in a blaze of bare-assed glory.
On the surface, Magic Mike isn’t a gay movie—it’s about male strippers and the women who love them. There’s even a romance, in which Channing Tatum’s titular meathead struggles to articulate himself to Brooke (Cody Horn). But Magic Mike is for women the same way Playgirl is for women: it’s sort of an open secret that gay men look, too. And for all its offbeat rom-com content, it’s also a bromantic love story between Mike and his protégée Adam (Alex Pettyfer). Not to mention a stunning look at Matt Bomer’s abs, Matthew McConaughey’s nipples, and Joe Manganiello’s enormous prosthetic cock. (We only catch glimpses of it, but it casts a long shadow.)
There is something—I’ll just say it—magical about a film like Magic Mike, which feels like gay porn without actually containing any explicit gay content. It is a charmed production, in which I believed Matt Bomer as a heterosexual and didn’t hate Olivia Munn. I also recognize that Magic Mike is not for everyone, in the same way that I recognize Tree of Life was an overblown piece of shit, but surely even the dissenters will appreciate some of Magic Mike’s more impressive feats. How often does a movie about male strippers manage subtlety? It all feels like a trick: abracadabra, and your reservations are gone.
Even if it doesn’t dazzle you, Magic Mike is an impressive feat—a mainstream movie with some big names behind it that doesn’t shy away from glorifying the male form. The amount of manskin exposed is something rarely seen outside of gay indies or foreign flicks about ambiguous French dudes and their foreskin. Magic Mike may be exploitation, but it’s harmless exploitation—and it relishes in exposing men, who are long overdue for this kind of overt objectification. You don’t have to be an expert on the “male gaze” to appreciate the differences between how men and women are sexualized on screen.
Nudity is a big part of it, naturally: contrast the number of women who have taken it all off on screen versus the number of men who have shown us more than a well-defined torso. Even the ass, which is basically all Magic Mike gives us, is still taboo: it’s not that we don’t see it, but it’s almost always for comedic purposes. (That holds true for full-frontal—think Jason Segel’s penis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.) Magic Mike doesn’t just showcase ass—it showcases ass in the context of ass that is meant to be gawked at. It’s not a fleeting, post-coital glimpse; the movie is inviting you to take it all in. After all, that’s what you’re paying for.
Don’t get me wrong—there is substance to Magic Mike. I will spend the remainder of 2012 defending this movie’s non-guilty pleasure virtues to anyone foolish enough to give me a venue. But it’s those asses and pecs and arms that will bring audiences in, and Magic Mike wastes no time in getting us to the first strip scene. Nor is it restricted to a single money shot: the film spends its two-hour runtime swinging between its love story, its coming-of-age story, and the stripper known as Tarzan (Kevin Nash) swinging on a vine across the strip club stage. Magic Mike merits rewatching because of a mostly self-aware script by Reid Carolin and Steven Soderbergh’s strong directing skills. But it’s just as worth the repeat viewings for every rhythmic thrust.
Straight women deserve this showcase as much as gay men do, but I think Magic Mike will ultimately prove more relevant to the latter. The movie is coded for its gay audience: it’s not as overtly gay as Brokeback Mountain (still one of the few examples of mainstream sexualized gay entertainment, sadly) or even Albert Nobbs. And in calling Magic Mike a movie “for women,” while neither embracing nor shying away from any homoerotic subtext, the producers have all but guaranteed a cult gay following. It’s a gateway drug for those men who aren’t ready to fully commit to the “LGBT interest” genre.
Look, it’s not like a bunch of closeted guys are going to take their girlfriends to see the male stripper movie – regardless of how it’s marketed, any film with this much dude ass in it is bound to inspire some gay panic. But it’s the kind of movie sexually confused 15-year-olds torrent in secret, or something two bros might leave on HBO (you know, ironically) before they both give into it, and each other. I’m not saying that was the filmmaker’s intention—or that these theoretical scenarios aren’t odd for me to be imagining—but I don’t how else to articulate the subversive thrills of a wide-release Soderbergh film that repeatedly humps you in the face.
And for those of us who have already accepted and professed the love that dare not speak its name, Magic Mike still feels like Christmas. The movie knows there’s a thin line between the homosocial and the homoerotic, and it straddles that divide without ever really committing to one side. You get a movie where men embrace, talk intimately, come close to kissing, and even share each other’s wives—but where none of that is either overly emphasized or shocking. Magic Mike gives us exactly what it has to: we don’t need lingering glances to know two characters love each other (in whatever capacity), and we don’t need a movie to be targeted directly to the gay community to know that we’re a vital portion of its audience.
I could be wrong about Magic Mike. Perhaps I’ve been blinded by the strip-club lights, or at least the sight of McConaughey covered in bronze body paint. But I admire this movie, just as I admire the performers giving it their all. They might stand behind their “you can look but you can’t touch” rule, but they’ve committed to owning their sex appeal and exposing themselves. While Magic Mike does caution about the dangers of a party lifestyle, the stripping itself is portrayed as sweaty, lucrative fun. There is no shame here, which hopefully will convince audiences to be as uninhibited in their response. Sometimes a guilty pleasure is just a pleasure.